ASSAB 2020 Virtual Conference: How On Earth Did This Work So Well?

Geoffrey Hughes (ASSAB 2020 Conference Chair; University of New England)

rom September 28th to October 2nd of this year, the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) ran its 48th annual (and 1st virtual) conference. By all accounts, it was a smashing success. We had 105 (!) speakers, 152 registered delegates, with attendance fluctuating between 50 and 100 people on the Zoom call at any given time. Somehow, amazingly, the stars aligned just right and we only ever had one serious bout of technical issues. I don’t think I’ve been to an in-person conference with so few technical issues! 

There wasn’t even supposed to be an ASSAB 2020, but then You-Know-What happened. When things really started to go into lockdown in March, and so many conferences were being cancelled or postponed, I had a lightbulb moment. As the ASSAB Student Representative at the time, I approached the board with a proposal to have an online, virtual ASSAB conference instead. I argued that these annual conferences were hugely important to early career researchers like myself, and as the student rep I felt like I needed to do what I could to help our student members. Apparently I argued a little too well, as the board loved the idea, and suggested I take the lead on it. So that was how I, a “lowly” post-grad student, became the chair and lead organizer of ASSAB 2020. 

The following months gave me a massive appreciation for all of the hard work that conference organisers put in; our team at least didn’t need to worry about venues and food! Truthfully, the biggest challenge that we faced was juggling time zones when organising the schedule. With a 7-hour time difference between Western Australia and New Zealand, we had to find a 4-hour block of time that would work for everyone. That meant that folks in Perth had to get up early for an 8am start, while those in Auckland and Christchurch were often on Zoom past 5pm, but we somehow made it work. 

Although I sincerely hope that we never have to do a fully-online conference again, it is likely that, post-covid, more and more conferences will include an online component. This has its benefits, of course. ASSAB is largely focused on Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific, but we were able to host presenters from all over the world without making them fly to our little corner of the planet. Presenters from India, Japan, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, Denmark, USA, and Italy, were all able to present their work. Some presenters braved the odd hours and gave live presentations (including one plenary), but we also made provisions for people to pre-record their talks. 

This was a great learning experience, not only for me personally but for ASSAB as a society. We learnt a lot about running a virtual conference, and about conferencing in general. One particular triumph was an invited discussion group, led by Dr Priscilla Wehi, Dr Billy van Uitregt, and Professor Krushil Watene. What began as a “simple” question about non-Western views on science turned into a sincere, open, and dare I say therapeutic, discussion session about the hardships that many of our members have faced as scientists. Further, our plenary speakers kindly gave very personal accounts of their own challenges and journeys as well as their amazing scientific discoveries. Rest assured, ASSAB will be doing more of that at conferences down the track! 

The rest of the organizing committee all like to downplay their contributions, but this conference could not have happened without their help. Special thanks go to our outreach team, Alex McQueen and Juliane Gaviraghi Mussoi, who deserve mention for their efforts at spreading the word about this conference. Juliane also did an incredible amount of work in preparing the Zoom sessions to make sure that everything ran smoothly. Special thanks also go to Fanny-Linn Kraft for designing the conference logos. I’d like to thank our invited speakers and plenaries for volunteering their time to give us some wonderful discussions. Finally, I would like to thank Kate Umbers and Ximena Nelson for their unwavering support and keeping me from losing my mind during this whole thing. 

For further information, contact Geoffrey Hughes: 

ghughe20@myune.edu.au ¤ 

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