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Graduate Matters

Five lessons learned planning a virtual life sciences career conference

Making sure your program content is curated to your specific audience is key.

BY ALAA ALSAAFIN, KEVIN KUANG, MARIA MERCADO, NANA LEE & REINHART REITHMEIER | NOV 11 2021

In an effort to support trainees in their transition from academia to a career, a group of graduate students and faculty members in partnership with the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences organized the Life Sciences Career Expo (LSCE), a multi-day career conference for life science trainees that was supposed to be held at the University of Toronto in May 2020. The organizing committee had confirmed event logistics and sold about 200 tickets, but the in-person event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

We decided to pivot the event to online a year later, where the fully virtual and affordable ($20 registration fee for trainees) LSCE2021 welcomed more than 450 trainees from multiple countries, doubling the number of attendees anticipated. The LSCE offered professional development opportunities for trainees in different career development stages and covered all three pillars of the life sciences landscape: academia, the public sector and the private sector. As it looks like hybrid conferences will be the future, we are offering five lessons-learned for organizing this event.

1) Tailor the conference to the attendees’ needs

To ensure that the event caters to your participants’ needs, circulate a survey in advance asking them about:

  • their current stage of career exploration (e.g., exploring and learning)
  • sessions that are of interest (e.g., career panels, workshops), and
  • types of careers they are pursuing.

While an in-person conference has its benefits, a virtual conference is advantageous due to greater accessibility and cost effectiveness. Host an information pre-session to describe the content of each session and provide attendees with some best practices for professional development.

To confirm guest attendance, use a Google form or Paperform to collect information, including occupation, affiliations, a short biography and a photo. Prior to the event, provide one-pagers to all guests, which include the logistics of their session, example panel themes and questions, and emergency contact information. Lastly, provide accessible support options before and during the event, such as an IT help desk and community boards.

2) Make the most of your network

Navigating the recruitment process of inviting charismatic speakers, moderators and facilitators can be a difficult aspect of event planning. Prospective organizers should try to find individuals with previous speaking experience and unique stories to provide diverse perspectives. Company recruitment for a career expo should begin with a comprehensive list of companies and organizations that are a good fit for your attendee demographic. Contact potential speakers via email or LinkedIn and reach out to departmental alumni –leverage their network to expand your search. Also, make sure to keep track of who has already been contacted to avoid “guest fatigue.” Once you have your speakers selected, schedule brief meetings to discuss their session and make sure it fits with the conference mission.

3) Plan ahead

Organizers should give themselves sufficient time to plan well in advance; an online event does not require less work. The LSCE’s organizing committee allotted more than a full year to curate the program, research and select an appropriate conference platform, and organize and mobilize guest speakers, company representatives and volunteers. Setting milestones and internal deadlines was crucial in keeping everyone involved on track and accountable prior to the expo. This also provides a scheduling buffer for any unexpected challenges that arise.

A clearly defined financial plan is also needed early on. Potential funding sources include university career centres, departmental career development teams, and student-run career development groups. Governments and funding agencies are also excellent resources; the LSCE was mostly supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Dissemination Grant, written by one of our faculty advisors. When creating a budget, identify major spending areas such as the conference platform, website and marketing services and use market research to estimate costs via major providers. Always build some wiggle room into the budget, as you may have unexpected expenses. If your event will generate revenue, include a breakdown of revenue sources, such as tickets, and an estimate of income from each source.

4) Communicate regularly within the organizing team

Regular communication within your team is crucial. Create internal deadlines for each task to help track progress, manage priorities, and optimize marketing. Regular meetings are highly encouraged to facilitate problem-solving and boost team morale. Use a platform like Slack for team communication and organization. Be transparent about goals and challenges, as well as empathetic and excited to learn and collaborate. Our organizing team ensured an open line of communication by using centralized spreadsheets. We also drafted email templates for consistent messaging to trainees and speakers, which is crucial in managing expectations for the event.

5) Be prepared to adapt

Organizers must be analytically driven, proactive, and flexible with their plans. Social media engagement and metrics (e.g., email open rates and click-through rates) through various channels provide an excellent tool to facilitate these practices. Make sure to tailor communication methods to your target audience, such as emails for academics, LinkedIn for industry professionals, and departmental mailing lists for graduate students.

Even with advanced preparation, having a contingency plan ensures the team can quickly switch to an alternate solution and minimize disruption. For example, a list of Zoom links for all sessions is helpful if there is difficulty accessing the conference platform. A dedicated IT officer is recommended to quickly diagnose the technical problem and determine if the alternative is appropriate.

The LSCE was an exciting event, not only because it was accessible and affordable to attendees from Canada and beyond, but because it enabled them to attend regardless of where they were in their career journey. In a post-conference survey, over 90 per cent of respondents reported that the LSCE expanded their knowledge about diverse career opportunities and over 95 per cent said they would recommend the conference to a colleague. The organizing team also tremendously benefited from the LSCE, learning first-hand how to organize a national virtual conference. We hope the lessons learned by organizing the LSCE2021 are informative for planning your next blockbusting event!

The Life Sciences Career Expo (LSCE) was organized by Jenna van Leeuwen, Alaa Alsaafin, Maria Mercado, Kevin Kuang, Nana Lee, Reinhart Reithmeier, Walid A. Houry, and Roula Andreopoulos. It was funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Sciences (CIHR), the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and the faculty of arts & sciences at the University of Toronto.

ABOUT ALAA ALSAAFIN, KEVIN KUANG, MARIA MERCADO, NANA LEE & REINHART REITHMEIER
Alaa Alsaafin is a PhD candidate in the department of pharmacology andtoxicology at the University of Toronto. Kevin Kuang and Maria Mercado are PhD candidates in the department of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. Nana Lee is the director of graduate professional development and an assistant professor in the departments of biochemistry and immunology at the University of Toronto. Reinhart Reithmeier is a senior advisor to the vice-dean research and graduate education and professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto.
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