SMBE Fitch Symposium goes online – and the future of digital academic meetings

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in many different ways this year. For academics, one of those ways has been the cancellation of all in-person international conferences for 2020. In the face of lingering global uncertainty, some 2021 conferences have already been cancelled too.

Although cancelling was completely necessary, it was a little sad to realise that my next 12 months would no longer include Québec City, Cleveland, Ohio, and Anchorage, Alaska. Travelling to unexpected, exciting locations for international conferences every ‘summer’ (Australian winter!) has been one of the greatest pleasures of my last five years.

On the flip side, these cancellations have forced parts of our annual events to go digital for the first time. This is very positive. I am keenly aware of both the environmental consequences, and the underlying inequity, of holding annual professional events that require expensive, long-distance travel. Despite initiatives to fund travel for those who need it (especially by my favourite society, SMBE), sometimes getting to the US, or Europe, or wherever we are meeting that year, is simply out of reach for practical or financial reasons.

For all these reasons, it was exciting that the SMBE Walter Fitch Symposium went ahead online this year. Perhaps I’m slightly biased as a finalist, because it meant I was still able to deliver my talk. But I do think that this set a fantastic precedent for the practicality of holding parts of academic conferences online, both in the short-term COVID-19 world, and in the longer term. As we think more about the importance of environmental impact and global inclusion in science, a move towards at least partially digital conferences seems essential.

As always, the Fitch Symposium showcased postgraduate research from current or recent PhD graduates. This year, via YouTube. You can catch up on the talks here; Fitch Symposium YouTube playlist, or (excuse the self-promotion), you can watch my talk below!


The talented Alex Cagan also sketched this fabulous visual summary of my talk, which captures the main points in an instant!

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