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Conference from the couch

Speed read
  • The PEARC20 conference was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Conference’s Student Program still brings young minds together
  • Extra Life gaming platform helped students stay connected while also raising money for charity

If a computing conference is online and no one is around to network in person, did it really happen? According to attendees of the Practice and Experience in Research Computing (PEARC20) conference, it not only happened—it was a success!

<strong>PEARC20 Student Program</strong> organizers, mentors, and mentees didn't let a global pandemic stop them from networking when this year’s conference moved online. Courtesy PEARC.PEARC20 (July 27-31) was originally planned to take place in Portland, Oregon, but COVID-19 made that impossible. Canceling the conference would have not only been a disappointment to the over one thousand people who attend annually, but it would also have been a crushing blow to the participants of the Student Program.

The program, founded in 2009, connects students with their peers as well as with mentors who can help guide them toward rewarding careers in computing. As such, a big part of the Student Program is networking.

While you could assume a stay-at-home conference might not allow for these important connections, our talks with mentors and student organizers show this couldn’t be further from the truth. The conference may have been a little different this year, but there were still ample opportunities to learn how to navigate a career in computing.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature… sometimes…

Brad Olson, an associate professor at Kansas State University, chose to participate as a mentor during this year’s program. Funnily enough, one of his reasons for making this choice has to do with the sudden need for a virtual conference.

<strong>Bright side.</strong> A virtual conference this year meant that some people who had hoped to attend in the past finally got their chance. Here, the 2019 crew shows off in Chicago. Courtesy PEARC.“I've been meaning to go for a couple of years and this is my first time going to PEARC itself,” says Olson. “It was offered to me to go this year and it was virtual. So the stars lined up for me. And when I go to any sort of meeting like this, I usually participate in the mentor program because I think that a lot of students struggle with things like networking or how to get their careers going. I always like to give back.”

Olson also remarks that one of his reasons for joining the mentorship side of the program this year had to do with the fact that online conferences can make networking and communicating harder. Alexa Salsbury, a student organizer this year who we spoke to about the program last year, reflected on this same issue. However, she was also able to see a unique opportunity here.

“I think with the culture of this conference, everyone has some computational skills,” says Salsbury. “[But] I think a lot of times computational people are introverts and a virtual conference kind of plays to a lot of people's strengths. A lot of people felt more comfortable sending chats in the group than maybe approaching someone in person.” 

<strong>Playing to strengths.</strong> Student organizer Alexa Salsbury says that some people might even find the virtual format easier to participate in, if they are introverted or experience social anxiety in face-to-face situations. Courtesy Alexa Salsbury. Clearly, the conference going virtual wasn’t all bad. Still, student organizers like Salsbury had a lot of challenges to deal with.

“It was hard to know how interested people were going to be in the conference,” says Salsbury. “We were kind of worried about student participation and enrollment. But we got over a thousand attendees, which I think is really cool.”

Although mentors like Olson did their best to keep students involved, the program’s organizers had a secret weapon to make PEARC20 as engaging and as fun as possible: video games.

Gaming for good

This year’s PEARC Student Program attendees were asked to participate in Extra Life, a volunteer-driven non-profit created to facilitate gamers raising money for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals

Participants could set up an Extra Life account and, either individually or as a team, donate or solicit donations to hospitals of their choosing. It’s a worthy cause in itself, but the initiative also helps generate some of the comradery from previous conferences that students may have felt they were missing out on this year.

<strong>Group gaming platform.</strong> Extra Life gave conference attendees a place to interact casually while also raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. “One of the most important aspects of a conference is the social interaction and people networking,” says William Garrick, the Portland-area local Student Program co-chair. “An all-online event removes much of that, especially incidental chances to chat with other attendees and presenters. Extra Life provided an opportunity to get people into ‘one place’ where there is a much greater chance of being able to interact with other attendees.”

In-person conferences may remain the preferred method for maximizing networking opportunities. But like many parts of life, the pandemic is forcing us to make choices that we otherwise wouldn’t have.

That said, the PEARC20 Student Program organizers made it their goal to ensure this year’s conference was still a fun chance to connect. They are committed to helping the next generation find the career path that’s right for them, and it shows. 

Salsbury, who expects to complete her PhD in biochemistry this year, reflects on how the program has affected her focus on what’s important in an employer.

“I think that the type of organization that I'm looking for is one that values outreach and giving back and learning with the community,” says Salsbury. “So I'd really like to be in a position where not only I can come back [to PEARC], but also where that's something that my future employer would want me to.”

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