Back to in-person conferences 101

If you told the home-quarantined vitamin-D-deprived Julia of 6 months ago that in less than a year she would not only have finally been able to move abroad for her PhD, but also to attend in-person conferences again, she would have rolled her eyes obnoxiously. Nonetheless, here we are: in a plane heading back to the Netherlands after spending a week in the Elysian island of Capri for the 2020 European Conference on Laboratory Astrophysics.  And it doesn’t end here! Just over two weeks ago there was the first annual InterCat retreat at the blissfully bucolic Sandbjerg Gods in Sønderborg, Denmark. But as we begin to finally grasp some resemblance of what the academic life used to be before the pandemic, so starts the ever-lasting human struggle to adapt to any new circumstances. After an intense period of extended scientific and social stimuli, there are a couple of thoughts I’d like to share about how to deal with the “new normal” of academic rendezvous—or rather, how to actually be able to enjoy them as they come.

Group photo of the 1st annual retreat of InterCat, where you can see how high cake is in my list of priorities as I'm the only one who decided to hold it for the picture.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Clicking on a button that says “raise hand” while sitting in your room wearing the quintessential virtual-conference attire of a nice top combined with the designated pair of joggers of the week is definitely not the same thing as actually putting a hand up after a talk in a room filled with more experienced and established colleagues. And while that has always been a struggle even before Covid, the transition from the former scenario to the latter can sometimes be fairly turbulent. So remember that you have as much right to be present in the conference as anyone else, and that your thoughts matter. Believe me, after you break the spell and ask a question for the first time,  the next ones will get easier and easier.


  • Enjoy your venue!

Although this tip is definitely more of a no-brainer, it may serve as an important reminder to some busy bees out there. Cherish this opportunity uniquely offered by in-person meetings and get to know new places. After the conference at Capri, I took the weekend to visit the archeological ruins of Pompeii, one of the most enriching and memorable places I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t have the weekend off, just exploring the surroundings of your hotel for an hour or two can already help assuage some of the pronounced wanderlust I’m sure most of you have been feeling for the past year and a half.  

A breathtaking sight of one of the petrified bodies found in the ruins of Pompeii

  • Talking about science is a great way to network, but doing otherwise can also be

One of the main challenges of on-line meetings is to provide the interchange of ideas and networking that play an important part in any conference. In person, we have the opportunity again to chat during coffee breaks and meals, and properly get to know each other. Even so, those conversations can sometimes become a daunting task, especially for my fellow introverts out there. If discussing a particular scientific topic is too outside your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to approach people by talking about something else.


  • The pandemic will be over – if you want it

The incredibly fast development of the vaccines for Covid-19 has completely changed the course of the disease worldwide. Now, many highly-vaccinated countries have been able to ease social-distancing guidelines and allow in-person meetings again. However, the pandemic is still ongoing, and we cannot afford to act as if otherwise. Simple measures such as properly wearing a face-mask when in crowded spaces and getting tested after the trip can save a life. Read that again.

On a lighter note, here's Alfie making a new friend

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