Being There When You Can’t Make It: How to Make Conferences More Inclusive for Long-Distance Participants

Do you remember that feeling when you were a kid and all your friends were going to that party or that fun trip and you couldn’t go? That feeling when you’re missing all the fun, when you’re alone and miserable? When the world has forsaken you and everything is coming to an end and you’ll never have any friends anymore? Ok, I might have gone a bit too far, but you know what I mean, right? (If you don’t, you were one lucky child.)

Well, some time ago, I became the little Rey. Standing under the shower, looking through the abyss of misery and shattered dreams!

I can’t go to Japan

I came to the US around 3 years ago and submitted my application for a green card shortly thereafter. My application is still pending, which means that I can’t leave the country unless I apply for advanced parole. With the Muslim ban, my lawyer strongly advised me not to leave even with advanced parole, since there would be no guarantee that I could return home. Yes, home, where my husband, family, friends, and that one barely alive basil plant is.

However, a few months ago, when I still was full of hope and thought I would have my green card soon or I that I could leave with an advance parole, I applied to my dream-conference: Communicating Astronomy with the Public in Japan. Astronomy and Japan…my two favorite things in the world! As an amateur astronomer and a fan of Japanese culture, this really was the ideal trip for me. My husband and I even postponed our honeymoon for 3 years, so that we would be able to go to Japan for it!

 

CAP Poster.jpg
I mean, doesn’t even the poster look like pure joy?!

 

So I submitted my paper about the use of pop culture references in science communication as used at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, where I have been doing my research for around 2 years. And I got in! I was ecstatic and motivated to fiercely follow my immigration delay…just to find out that leaving would probably not be an option for me.

Fast forward, skipping all the drama and heartbreak and turning into a 5-year-old jealous kid that can’t make it to the birthday party, I eventually accepted my situation and reached out to the CAP organizers, who gave me the nicest reply I could have hoped for.

Sze-Leung Cheung, the co-chair of the conference, told me they can totally understand my situation and they will help me present online so that I could still be a part of the conference. I thought, well at least I would present what I had, even though it would be a far and distant connection!

I prepared a video of my presentation, but I still didn’t realize that I could be a part of something from such a long distance until the conference started! I was surrounded by online updates of the conference, I managed to network with people and actually felt that a part of me WAS actually there. It was so much more than just a presentation. I had been obsessively following the live tweets, the interesting quotes, the slides, the cosmic pastry in the restaurant, and the name tags with little moon-bunnies on them.

 

Stages of Me
Ramening myself to prepare for a presentation in Japan (left), Caffeinating myself to be awake for my talk at 1:15 am (middle), being there when it happens with pasta background (right).

 

So, this all made me think about what can be done for people like me to be able to make the best out of their long-distance conference experiences:

For organizations:

Long before this all happened I saw a statement from the International Planetarium Society (IPS), which made me feel “seen”:

“The IPS’s members come from all over the world including areas of political unrest, wars, as well as certain restrictions on visas and immigration. The IPS strongly believes in the importance of international collaboration and cooperation. The ability for members to travel to the meetings and workshops that our organization holds is key towards achieving our goal of inspiring people with the beauty and grandeur of our universe. The IPS would also like to stress the importance of the free flow of ideas and the important role that planetariums play in helping scientists communicate their findings to the public. Even at seemingly divisive and unsettled times, the planetarium experience can help remind us of what connects us — we all look up in wonder at the same starry sky.”

While sometimes these kinds of stands might be obvious, it is always heartwarming to see someone letting you know that they care about you. It’s like that partner who never says I love you, “I just show it in my actions” and you’re like “dude just say it!” So do say it. Saying it not only makes it explicit, it gives you the responsibility to act on it and encourages others to follow your lead.

Here’s another example from the International Astronomical Union.

 

Position Statement
“The goal of science communication is the free flow of ideas, and that requires the free flow of people.”

 

For conferences:

-The most important thing is to be accommodating. I had the privilege of working with organizers who immediately offered me the opportunity to present online (thanks Oana and Sze-Leung).

-Live streaming sessions, or at least keynotes, can be amazing. I remember when I couldn’t attend the Sackler Colloquia: The Science of Communication III conference in person, I and many other people could watch the whole conference online. Even live streaming the keynotes or plenary sessions can be very valuable. We at the ComSciCon Chicago conference try to do that every year and it’s basically just setting up a live YouTube stream.

-Going a bit further to indulge my excited inner 5-year-old…maybe go as far as having the welcome/swag package sent to the participants, the name badges, the map, the pen. Let them have an experience as close to reality as possible.

-Something that I have encountered at the CSCW and CHI conference was the telepresence robots. Basically, you can do things that a participant does. You can go around in different rooms, talk to people, watch presentations, and probably ask questions that are secretly designed to show your vast amount of knowledge, but there are also limitations to the use of these robots, which you can learn more about here.

 

robot
Telepresenters in the conference room at CSCW conference. (image from this paper)

 

For participants:

-A big part of conferences, especially for people like me who are still students is to network and make connections. Fortunately, I had two lovely colleagues from the Adler Planetarium at the conference, Lucianne and Mark. When you’re in a conference, you’re probably more likely to get social media attention, so I got some retweets from my colleagues and also got a shout-out from Lucianne, which helped my visibility.  At one point, Mark came to my online presentation and tweeted about the session. This whole interaction helped me to be able to connect with some people at the conference and enabled some people to reach out to me. So, if you’re in a conference make sure to advocate for people that can’t be there, retweet, introduce, and interact with them. Help them connect!

 

Lucianne
Introduce the presenters.

 

-The main way I got to learn about most of the presentations was live tweeting. People, live tweet as much as you can! If you see an interesting or informative slide, take a picture of it. If you’re a presenter, share your slides. I can’t express how grateful I am for all the tweets.

 

tweets
Tweet your heart out!

 

For the long-distance presenter:

-What helped me the most was to post tweets with the conference hashtag. Even though I couldn’t have an original tweet about the presentation, if I saw a tweet that reminded me of a piece of interesting information, I’d tweet about it. Reply to tweets, or other social media posts, follow people and make sure to be visible.

-Online presentations can be VERY boring, I mean when you’re there, you have the ability to use your body language and facial expressions. The same thing doesn’t really work well online. So make sure you compensate with your voice and good visuals on your presentation.

-And finally, share your experience with others to let more people know what the deal with the long-distance presentation is and how the process can be facilitated.

 

 

 

 

 

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