What makes a scientific conference successful? A large number of participants, the speakers or the networking? Probably the answer is a combination of those and many more variables. These were thoughts that were passing through my mind while my colleagues and I were composing our proposal for our first conference back in September.
I first learnt about the student-led conference sponsored by the South East Physics departments (SEPnet) a few months after I started my PhD at the University of Surrey. I immediately thought that the idea of a conference organised entirely from PhD students was a great opportunity. I kept the idea in the back of my mind, judging that the first year of the PhD, a year full of adjustments and new experiences, is not the best time for applying for this.
Fast forward to the end of the second year, the word around the department about the SEPnet grant start resurfacing again. The deadline for the application was approaching. I shared the thought of applying with some people in my office. We are all part of the Soft Matter group, working on different projects, all related to soft matter physics. We thought that the diverse approach to the physics of soft matter could be our best asset. Writing the proposal was a surprisingly pleasant process. I was very lucky to work on it with creative and engaging people. Each one brought great ideas on the table and I learnt a lot from the process. We submitted our proposal at the end of June. A few weeks later it was announced that our proposal was one of the two which got accepted.
The next stage of the process is to start organising the details of the conference. It had already been decided that the main focus of the conference would be the field of Soft Matter Physics, with an emphasis on the multidisciplinary nature of the field, as well as the close connection to the industry. One of the biggest challenges was to decide on the speakers to invite and build a strong program, that will be both interesting and actively engaging. Then, we try to advertise as much as possible, which included contacting Physics departments in SEPnet directly, since we could cover expenses only for students in the network. After convincing SEPnet to allow us to advertise beyond their network, we managed to get some applicants from different institutions. We did not expect this, as travel for these applicants was not funded by SEPnet, and this had not been accomplished before. We considered this a small success for the conference.
By late February, everything was ready for the conference: the schedule, the website, speakers and students accommodation, the catering. It was to be held in University of Southampton, on the 25th to the 27th of March. At the same time, more and more news started to emerge about what had started as a concentrated epidemic in a region in China, now spreading rapidly to the rest of the word. One after the other, big conferences and scientific meetings began announcing their cancellation. By early-March, we were still maintaining some hope, that since we were going to be a small conference we will be able to go ahead. Unfortunately, as we were getting closer to the dates, we realised that we should face the situation sensibly and cancel the conference until further notice.
There were some initial thoughts of having a virtual conference, as many other meetings and conferences are doing. After a lot of thought and discussion, our team decided that it would be best to postpone the conference and try to reschedule if possible for later this summer. Our decision was based on our belief that the main purpose of the conference was for the students to share their work and create future collaborations. We thought that having a virtual conference instead will dismiss that purpose. Technology is an essential tool in these weird times but still it cannot replace entirely the personal interactions among the scientific communities. Insisting on maintaining a positive attitude towards these difficult challenges the world is facing, we hope our small, student-led conference will still happen at some point this summer!