I love conferences. From the tote bags filled with sponsor “swag”, the excited chatter that often fills a hotel meeting space, the winding line-ups for the buffet, and the opportunity to speak and learn from other professionals in your field.
Over the past seven years, I have been privileged to be a part of many such conferences, often as an organizer, volunteer, or attendee—but until February I had never participated in one as a presenter. Therefore, when Aging Playfully project lead Dr. Hartt suggested that I present a poster at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting I was reluctant. For years I had been content playing my role behind the scenes organizing presentations and lectures, the idea that someone would be interested in what I had to say was honestly a bit intimidating. However, I was proud of the paper we had created, and when he informed me that the meeting would be in-person in nowhere other than New York City all that hesitancy flew out the window. After almost two years of virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was eager not only for the opportunity to travel but also to once again experience the buzzing atmosphere of a conference that I had missed so much.
I promptly applied to receive a conference travel award, while pursuing accommodations in NYC. Having last traveled to New York City in 2017 with my undergraduate student association, I have been keen to return ever since. New York City has never failed to exceed my expectations. After I heard back in early December that I had secured funding to attend the meeting, I felt as though nothing could derail my plans to travel to New York in February. This, of course, was an extremely naive position. If the saga of COVID-19 has collectively taught us anything it is to always expect the unexpected. The same day that I received the award, I learned that some friends (that I had luckily not been in contact with) had been infected with COVID-19. While this of course was worrisome, I had not yet heard of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, and I had little notion that this represented the very beginning of the mass spread of the virus. The following weeks in December were a blur marked by final papers, rapid tests, and worried phone calls. Although I was able to escape to my home in Ottawa un-infected for the holidays, I knew that my poster presentation in New York looked increasingly unlikely.
By the time the new year rolled around New York City was out of the question. AAG had taken a poll and opted to move the event online in response to Omicron. While I was undoubtedly disappointed at a lost opportunity to travel, I was still looking forward to the chance to share my poster virtually. I got to work designing the poster, obsessing over text size and alignment, and making sure everything was in the right place. One of the benefits of virtual presenting is that there was no need to print the poster, rather I could continue to tweak it as I pleased without looming printing timelines. After review and edits, the poster was submitted and the only thing I had left to do was wait somewhat nervously for the event. Having attended some virtual conferences, I knew how they typically went: keen faces were replaced with blank screens, questions from presenters were met with radio silence, and worst of all wi-fi connections were interrupted. I worried that instead of having the opportunity to share our work I would be speaking into the void of cyberspace.
After some scheduling difficulty, it was confirmed that I would be a part of a virtual session on February 25th. When the day finally came, in stark opposition to enjoying the complimentary coffee provided at in-person conferences, I prepared for my presentation by frantically resetting my wifi modem out of fear that it would drop the connection while I was speaking. I read and re-read our paper picking out the points I wanted to emphasize to my virtual audience. As a result of the scheduling conflict, I had been placed in a presentation session as opposed to a poster session. This meant that while the other presenters had power points at the ready, my poster stuck out like a bit of a sore thumb. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of attendees to the session, as it turned out I would not be presenting to an empty virtual room after all. After sharing the findings of our research, I was even able to answer some questions, which was more engagement than I had originally anticipated. More so, I also got the opportunity to hear about the fascinating work of the other presenters in my session. As I closed my laptop screen at the end of the meeting, I was reminded of how far we had collectively come in the past two years—despite the chaos of COVID-19 I was happy to see people pursuing their research in spite of unprecedented challenges.
In the basement of my parent’s home, I have a shoebox filled with a collection of conference lanyards, to me, they serve as mementos of the experiences and conversations I hold near and dear. Although this is not what I had expected my first speaking engagement to look like, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in AAG’s Annual Meeting from my home office. Further, I also want to commend and thank the organizers of the meeting, who were always quick to help and respond to any questions I had, while taking on what I’m sure was the challenging task of transitioning an in-person event online.
On the last day of the meeting, I was reminded of the true benefit of virtual meetings: curling up on the couch, in my PJs, with a cup of tea, and watching the pre-recorded sessions on demand.
[You can see my conference poster here.]