Dr. Allison Coffin and Dr. Kiki Sanford from the Association of Science Communicators (ASC), formerly Science Talk, sat down with Jessica McNellis from s2s Public Relations and Communications to breakdown their favorite moments from the 2022 Science Talk Conference, the unexpected challenges organizing a hybrid event, and what they have planned for next year.
Hosting your first in-person event in three years, what stood out about this year’s Science Talk Conference compared to the completely virtual events you’ve held since the pandemic began?
Allison Coffin: The in-person component in and of itself made such a difference in the level of engagement and excitement from both the presenters and the attendees. We had reserved a small room in a restaurant for our opening night happy hour, unsure what the turnout would be, and by the night’s end we had taken over the entire restaurant. We saw a similar theme when trying to drag people away from the coffee breaks and networking sessions to begin the next panel or workshop. People were so eager to engage in that way again. We witnessed many rekindled relationships and new connections made over the course of those few days.
Kiki Sanford: I completely agree with that. It was overwhelmingly apparent how much people missed connecting in person over the past two years. While virtual events allow us access to connect to people and opportunities all over the globe, there is something about in-person events that can’t be completely replicated in the virtual world. The other key takeaways from hosting a hybrid event for the first time were recognizing how much has actually changed and how hard it is to plan and execute an event with a hybrid model, especially on a limited budget.
For others organizing or considering organizing hybrid events, what are the key takeaways for success? What worked, what didn’t, and what would you change next year?
AC: The app we’ve used the last couple of years has been a tremendous success. The chat feature gets a ton of use by both virtual and in-person attendees and is a good connector between the two. I’m always surprised by the breadth of topics people talk about in the app, from career advice and calls for grant writing collaborators, to nerdy science tattoos.
A big takeaway that was apparent once the conference was underway was it will take a lot more in terms of volunteers and planning to execute a successful hybrid event on a shoestring budget and with a shoestring event staff. There are a lot of new elements in play, particularly the technical needs of a virtual conference, to seamlessly coordinate a virtual and in-person event simultaneously. We also realized we undercharged for the event, given the high tech support needs and associated costs.
KS: The way we planned the conference, we blended the virtual and in-person sessions together to ideally give all attendees the same experience. While there was a lot of energy and engagement in the in-person workshops and breakout rooms, we saw a more significant dropoff in participation for those sessions on the virtual side, which isn’t uncommon for virtual events. Similarly, trying to engage in-person attendees in pre-recorded or virtual presentations playing on a screen was more of a challenge. Next year, we will likely try to tailor certain aspects of the event to be strictly virtual or strictly in-person to make sure it’s consistently engaging for both audiences.
One thing that we specifically planned I thought was a tremendous success was the open mic 60 second stage introductions. Attendees were able to get onstage to share a little bit about themselves or make an ask to the audience to streamline immediate mutually beneficial connections. Right after that, we hosted a networking lunch so people could have that hour of conversation to further develop those introductions that could lead to future collaborations. It was a great way to kick off the conference.
At the 2020 Science Talk Conference, the overwhelming theme centered around the pandemic and science communications. In 2021, there was a common theme around empathy and science communications. What would you identify as the core theme of the 2022 Science Talk Conference?
AC: I would say a common theme channeled throughout presentations and panels was the challenge around misinformation and disinformation in science communications. Whether it be workshops, panels, short talks, or even our closing keynote, our community had voted on sessions touching on that theme and it resonated throughout the conference. A lot of scientists see disinformation as a real threat to not only science, but our democracy. We need to better understand this phenomenon and what we can do about it.
KS: The other theme that was prevalent was diversity, equity and inclusion in science communications, and our community voted heavily on highlighting diverse science communicators, which was really wonderful to see. We had a panel on reaching a LatinX Spanish audience with science communications and a queer science communicators panel, which were both incredibly engaging discussions. The more voices there are, the more we can learn from each other.
A question that came up a few times from the audience touched on aspects of how to elevate the importance of science communications to other members of your team who have not historically considered scicomm to be a focus. How are you seeing this conversation evolve in the community?
AC: I see that conversation a lot as an academic and as a tenured faculty member. There is a lot of frustration from students and junior colleagues looking to stay in academia, but they want scicomm as part of their career package and aspirations. Often the traditional academic structure does not place a strong emphasis on scicomm activities, and some may view that the time these students or junior colleagues are spending on scicomm experiences is taking valuable time away from work they could be doing in the lab. There’s still very much this disconnect between those in the community who want to prioritize scicomm and those who don’t see the value. There’s still a degree of tension, but the gap is slowly closing. One of the things that excites me about the changes underway is the number of job ads and job options that cross my desk from organizations prioritizing full-time science communication roles.
KS: I agree, it is still a source of frustration in academia, and we’ll likely continue to see this issue in the short term. But, with the increasing emphasis on how scientific research impacts on society, there is a growing influence on developing greater scicomm skills from an early career stage. We’re starting to see institutional shifts being made that might create more of an even balance in the future. We’re definitely seeing reasons to be optimistic about the future of scicomm.
While it’s hard to choose just one, what was one of your favorite moments from this year’s Science Talk Conference?
KS: While working a lot behind the scenes at the conference, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this moment to call out the incredible team of people who put on the event. They all brought their A game, they were all in it, everyone was invested in the conference and the presentations, and we were all there to put on a spectacular event. The volunteers were beyond dedicated. And, as an organizer, it really feels good to have an attendee tell you how much they enjoyed their experience at Science Talk, and how excited they are to apply what they learned to their scicomm efforts.
AC: I can’t pick one. In terms of content. I was impressed by the amount of practical advice shared that our community was looking for. In his opening remarks, Lew Fredrick, the Oregon State Senator, talked about his involvement with science journalism and his practical advice to move the needle in science communications by adopting a political official. It doesn’t have to be a national political official. In fact, you will likely see more success with a local official, and then they have a trusted voice in science to call on when they need it. That was a great takeaway for the community. As a people person, the other big thing for me was just being surrounded by so many excited science communicators. Peeking into the coffee breaks and seeing everyone making connections live was so fulfilling.
How to get involved in the 2023 Science Talk Conference.
For those who attended this year’s conference, we welcome you to share post-conference feedback. We take that input very seriously and we’re actively working year-round to plan next year’s conference and bring the community other opportunities they are looking for.
We are a volunteer organization and one of the things we love about our scicomm community is that you all are incredibly supportive. We are always welcoming new volunteers to get involved. If you’re interested in more information on how to become a volunteer for Science Talk 2023, contact Alli Coffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Association of Science Communicators (ASC), formerly Science Talk, is a non-profit organization bringing together individuals passionate about science to share ideas about how science should be best communicated. Each year, ASC hosts the Science Talk Conference where scientists, journalists, celebrities, politicians, students, and anyone who works in science communication can convene and share their expertise through workshops and presentations on how to better communicate science to…”everyone.”