Going virtual for the 2021 CCRA Conference

by Kyla Trkulja

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all conferences were moved online for the past two years. I had never attended a conference before and, as a first-year Master’s student, I thought that the virtual environment was a great way for me to become familiar with what presenting at a conference entails. I was so excited that my abstract for the Canadian Cancer Research Alliance (CCRA) 2021 Conference was accepted and on the morning of Day 1, I made my way downstairs to my office with my coffee and got ready for my first-ever conference experience. 

Dozens of topics were covered throughout the conference, including the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in cancer research, research in Indigenous communities, health services and policy, impacts of COVID-19, and novel discoveries and therapies for different types of cancer. Speakers included students and scientists from institutions and organizations across Canada: from the University of British Columbia to Dalhousie and Canadian Breast Cancer Network to the National Research Council. It was incredible to hear about the speakers’ perspectives on all aspects of cancer research, from patient involvement to the advancement of clinical trials to better methods to screen for and diagnose early cancer. 

The posters reflected these topics as well, and I spent hours throughout the four days reading the incredible findings that were discovered over the course of the past two years. In each presenter’s virtual booth, I was able to view their poster, information about the presenter, their organization, their contact information, and social media handles if they provided any. I also had the option to message them privately if I wanted to chat. The same applied for my booth, as I was able to view personal and contact information for everyone that visited and connect with them. I was hoping that there would be the option to video chat, but unfortunately, connections were limited to direct messages. 

My virtual booth for the CCRA conference contained my abstract, downloadable poster file, and social media handles for both myself and the organization I was representing. I was able to view other booths and posters using the navigation toolbar to the left of my booth.

The virtual conference experience was definitely different than what I would expect from an in-person conference. It was an excellent way for me to learn about what a conference was like, and made me feel more prepared for attending and presenting at future events. However, as someone at the beginning of their research career, I would have appreciated more ways to connect with people and network. While I was able to make almost 100 connections on LinkedIn, I did not actually get the chance to talk to anyone. It felt weird for me to message someone saying, “Hi, I like your booth!” and I am guessing my lack of messages received—despite receiving 200 booth visits meant others felt the same way. Having the option to video chat with the exhibitor while I was in the booth would have allowed conversation to flow more naturally, and may have allowed me to meet more people in a meaningful way. But overall, my experience at the conference was very enjoyable and educational, and made me so much more excited for attending in-person conferences in the future!