This analysis is the first multi-centre, large cohort, prospective study to evaluate student-led conferences and their impact on student to professional development. Our data reveals novel findings demonstrating an increase and retainment of career interest, preparedness to undertake research and presentations, as well as participation in extracurricular activities following their initial attendance at a neuroscience conference. Furthermore, our results confirm a significant increase in EMCs post-conference and thus being an effective information delivery platform to build delegate knowledge with positive feedback and an urge to continue a virtual approach.
Most respondents in our study were medical students who had not attended neuroscience conferences before, nor had they participated in research projects or further career building activity such as electives, student selected components, or becoming a member of a local neuroscience society. Single centre research by Hanrahan et al., also found that the majority of attendees are medical students who haven’t previously attended neuroscience conferences or taken part in related extracurricular activities . This suggests that student-led virtual neuroscience conferences could act as an initial opportunity and gateway, allowing medical students to become engrossed in the field and facilitate decision making as to whether a clinical neuroscience career is suitable for them. This theory is reinforced by many of our small prospective cohort attaining neuroscience academic portfolio building opportunities post-conference. Given that respondents reportedly chose career building activity as a common reason for attending the online conference, our prospective data suggests delegates are able to meet this desired objective through attendance. Although, our loss to follow up of 88.8% should be considered when reviewing these results, an alternative explanation is delegates who attained further opportunities were also more likely to fill out our 6-month survey.
Our results indicated students were attracted to conferences by keynote speakers, workshops on offer and the opportunity to develop their CV. Follow up of students post-conference corroborates this, with attendees finding keynote speakers and workshops most valuable. In contrast, Al Omran et al. found that the most common reason for students to attend their surgical conference was to share their research through oral or poster presentations. This was in addition to learning about different surgical specialities . We found that keynote speakers were of particular importance as an attraction and valuable element of the conference, emphasising the significance of integrating representation and diversity into the planning of neuroscience conferences. This ensures that the delegates are not only engaged by the scientific topic discussed, but also feel represented.
Our key findings demonstrate positive delegate outcomes by increasing neuroscience career interest, academic skillsets, and career knowledge, supporting the existing single-centre evidence base [7,8,9,10]. The illustrated increase in knowledge has been exhibited in further studies showing virtual platforms as a viable educational alternative to traditional in-person teaching, despite some data showing learning objectives are better met via in-person events [14,15,16,17]. Interestingly, students did not rank this as a leading factor for their interest in student-led conferences. However, qualitative analysis from our prospective surveys of the cohort demonstrates further development of neuroscience knowledge, suggesting that the neuroscientific themes of the conference remain resonate and perhaps drove an initiative for self-education and research.
The widening global access to technology has allowed for the progressive introduction of virtual components into conferences, with the COVID-19 pandemic further incentivising the movement to online conferences and allowing for their efficacy to be more vigorously scrutinised . In the post-conference group, 65% would prefer neuroscience conferences to be held virtually in the future. In the 6-month follow-up group, the majority (75%) of delegates urged for the continuation of a combination virtual and in-person approach to student-led neuroscience conferencing. Amongst the strengths highlighted by our results and the existing literature, the reduction in cost to both the organisers and the delegates conferred the greatest benefit of an online format. Virtual conferences are cheaper to organise and run, and this combined with the elimination of travel and accommodation fees results in a markedly reduced price of attendance for the delegate . The lowering of costs widens access to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for the greater global dissemination of information and opportunities . This is especially relevant considering the majority of our cohort comprises of full-time students who are mostly funded by small means tested loans; however, they may be supplementing this with part time employment or financial support from family members. Nonetheless, it can be argued that moving to virtual conferences merely shifts the barrier of attendance from monetary to technological .
Travelling to a scientific conference has been found to constitute 7% of the total yearly CO2 emissions for the average attendee . Switching to a virtual platform for scientific conferences provides the optimum combination of minimal carbon emissions and increased accessibility to disabled individuals or those from a lower socio-economic background [22, 23]. Utilising an online platform is also more convenient, as corroborated by our cohort, because they could attend from the comfort of their home or a place of choice. This point is echoed in the literature where delegates found that they were able to continue daily activities such as their work, home or social life . Furthermore, the option to pre-record lectures allows for presenters from different time zones to still contribute despite the distance .
It is important to note that the global transition to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the development of the “Zoom Fatigue” phenomenon. This describes a combination of exhaustion and decreased attentiveness experienced when engaged in long periods of virtual learning and nonverbal overload, such as online conferences . Nevertheless, approximately 6 months post-conference, participants still note the positive influence for online conferences in inspiring an increase in ‘neuroscience career interest’, ‘networking’ and ‘encouragement to participate in research’.
A combined approach constituting in-person and online delivery modes, presents an ideal and viable option for future student neuroscience conferences. Such an approach could be achieved through the filming of an in-person event, offering delegates the option for face-to-face interaction and engagement whilst allowing for a diverse delegate audience with reduced virtual ticket price. This could lead to the inclusion of more attendees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and international locations, as well as a reduction in CO2 emissions. Practical workshops are often a key component of conferences, as they provide delegates with the opportunity to develop practical skills and use professional equipment. The lack of face-to-face workshops was considered a major drawback by our studied population. Recent advances in simulation technology may more easily allow for the integration of extended reality components into mixed virtual/in-person conferences that attempt to provide a compromise for this drawback . Another benefit of the hybrid approach to be noted is the potential for additional leadership opportunities within the local neuroscience society, providing committee members with additional portfolio enhancement options.
The positive delegates outcomes that were produced consistently across the 6 centres, despite the variety in conference structure and delivery, suggests that conferences focussing on a different medical specialty would produce similar results for delegates. However, further multi-specialty research is required to confirm the generalisability and external validation of our interpretation. More generally given the scarcity of data available on delegate outcomes in medical conferencing, studies are encouraged at student led and postgraduate led level, with aim to provide more effective training to their intended audience.
Our chief limitation is the proportion of participants lost to follow up at 6 months (88.8%), exposing our prospective analysis to a degree of selection bias. The most likely reason our loss to follow up was so high was there was less incentive to fill out the survey at 6 months, given that an automatic attendance certificate link was attached to our post conference survey. It is possible that the narrow cohort of individuals who filled out the 6-month post-conference survey may have been more inclined to do so if they are still interested in a neuroscience career and associated portfolio building activity, and as such may have opened the email from an undergraduate neurological society. Furthermore, improvements following the initial questionnaire should be considered alongside factors such as novelty, excitement, and the Hawthorne effect. Therefore, this prevents us from being able to firmly attain whether longer term results can be attributed to the conference attendance. Furthermore, we do not have a comparison cohort of participants attending in-person neuroscience conferences to determine any potential difference in results as a consequence of mode of delivery. Additionally, some of our multiple-choice options do not offer delegates the opportunity to list their independent answer to the question. However, given the scale, initial piloting of the survey and follow-up re-design, it is likely options would categorise most delegates thoughts. Lastly, from our analysis it is difficult to determine whether the differing conference content and delivery between centres conferred dissimilar benefits without performing a comparison analysis. Nevertheless, our large cohort multi-centre analysis across various virtual conference structures provides evidence to support the continuation of this delivery platform given the bespoke additional offerings this approach holds for delegates and the wider neuroscience community that in-person events cannot sustainably nor exclusively offer.