bookmark_borderHow to Crush Your First Poster Presentation

This past November I had the opportunity to present at the poster session at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) Conference in Toronto. When I received the email saying that I was accepted to present, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase our research to planning researchers and professionals from all over the world. With this being my very first poster presentation, I was nervous and unsure of where to start. I spent a lot of time scouring the internet for resources and hoping to find a tell all on how to make the best research poster possible. While there were a lot of great resources out there, I found they did not always apply to my type of research and the setting in which I was presenting. In this blog post, I will be sharing some tips that I found useful and that will help you crush your first poster presentation.

Preparing the Poster

  1. Know the requirements for your poster. The first step in designing a poster is understanding the poster requirements (size, orientation, content, etc.). In my case, this information was available on the conference website. Otherwise, you could email a representative from the organization to confirm the requirements prior to starting your poster.  
  2. Decide what story you want to tell and how you are going to tell it. Now that you understand the poster requirements, you must determine what information you want to include on your poster. Tip: keep the writing concise. A picture is worth a thousand words.
  3. Consider the software and applications you have available to you. You will need to make a decision regarding which software or application you intend on using to design your poster (e.g., PowerPoint, Canva, Adobe InDesign, etc.). When making this decision, you should take into account how much time you have to allocate to poster design. Should you use a program you are familiar with, or do you have time to learn something new? If you choose to learn something new, be sure to watch different tutorials and explore the software to determine what works best for you.
  4. Search for inspiration! Take some time to look at other academic posters that appeal to you to get inspired. You can create similar designs or search for templates to jumpstart the process. If your research is part of a specific project, consider using designs and colour schemes from past presentations to establish a more uniform and recognizable look.
  5. Get creative and do not be scared to change things up. Spend time playing around with different designs and layouts until you find something you are happy with. Some useful design tips to consider: (1) Ensure the font is clear and large enough that it can be read from six to ten feet away; (2) Select unobtrusive/neutral backgrounds that do not distract from the text and images in the poster; (3) Use images, colours, and other design elements to separate different sections of the poster
  6. Seek feedback. Ask your friends, family, and professor to look over your poster and provide you with some feedback. Having additional sets of eyes is incredibly helpful and they may notice things you did not. It is better to find mistakes now than to have someone point them out when you are presenting!
  7. Consider your options for printing. When researching different printing options, make sure to consider costs, turn around time, and poster finish. After seeing all the posters at ACSP, I came to the conclusion that a glossy finish looks much nicer than a matte finish. Do with that information what you will.

Presenting the Poster

  • Have a catchy pitch. Anyone can come up and read your poster, so you do not need to recite everything you have written. Think about how you can draw someone in to talk about your research in a more conversational manner. Tip: practice this beforehand! For me, I practiced with friends and family and even with other poster presenters in between presenting. This will help you build confidence and really master that pitch.
  • Take initiative. Do your best to start the conversation. Make eye contact, smile, and if they come closer, introduce yourself (be sure to exchange names and affiliations and shake hands if they are comfortable doing so). You can ask them if they would like you to walk them through your poster and if yes, it is your time to shine! If you need an idea of how to start your pitch, you could always ask “are you familiar with this field of research?” and carry on the conversation from there.
  • Present your research chronologically. You should discuss topics in the order in which they appear on the poster. Start with an introduction to your research and proceed chronologically through the remaining sections. This will provide the listener with a better understanding of your research topic/process.
  • Be prepared for questions. If you have followed these tips so far, chances are you have an awesome poster and people are going to want to talk about it. Allow time in between sections and at the end of the presentation for questions and feedback. Tip: bring a notebook to record any questions and feedback provided to improve your research moving forward.
  • Network. Poster sessions are about networking. You should take this time to make connections with people working in your field. Ensure you carrying business cards with you and if you make a connection, follow up with it after the event by sending an email, a message on LinkedIn, etc. Tip: attach some business cards to the poster for people to grab before/after the poster session when you may not be around to discuss your research in person.
  • Have fun! Most importantly, have fun. You have successfully made it through your first poster presentation, and you should be proud of yourself. So go have a good time at the event, you deserve it. Congratulations on crushing it. 

bookmark_borderEverywhere and Nowhere at the Same Time: A Summary of My Time in Toronto.

November is always a difficult month for me. At this point in the fall season the trees have lost most of their colourful leaves, the days are much shorter, and there is usually a pile of work to do as the end of the semester approaches. For all these reasons I was feel unmotivated and uninspired as I left Kingston for Toronto on the morning of November 3rd. I was set to present at ACSP’s (Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning) annual conference, and I would be staying in the city for a few days while I attended the conference. As my taxi pulled into the Kingston train station in the wee hours of the morning, the city was swept with fog. And I’m not talking about a little bit of morning fog, I’m talking about extremely thick cannot see ten steps in front of you fog. However, being an early riser, I had arrived at the train station 30 minutes before it even opened. I had no choice but to find a cold bench and sit in the dark fog and wait for my train—the environment felt eerie. The trip was off to an unusual start.

The fog followed me to Toronto. That first night, the city was blanketed in it. However, it did not stop me from exploring. Walking down Bay Street I was unable to see the tops of the skyscrapers, with a canopy of clouds above me it felt as though I was moving just beneath the surface.

I met up with my brother, a student at the University of Toronto studying biology. Over Chinese food we discussed schoolwork, tv shows, the impending future, and liminal spaces. During the summer he had worked in Europe and developed a fascination with abandoned buildings which transitioned into him developing an intense fascination with liminal spaces. He explained to me that liminal spaces are often “environments in transition”, they are places that are familiar and unfamiliar, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He went on to give the example of an abandoned mall, an empty airport, or the highway at 4 am, as spaces where you would normally expect to see people, however, there is no one in sight.

My interest was piqued. The entire reason I was at ACSP was to present the conceptual framework I had been working on, demonstrating how play as an intervention can transform limiting environments into enabling ones. I had spent weeks thinking about what constituted a “positive” enabling environment or a “negative” limiting environment. I was always focusing on environments that were too much, or too little, I had never even given consideration to environments that were nothing at all.

I explained my morning waiting for the train, and sure enough my brother informed me that I indeed had experienced a liminal environment. He offered to take me on a tour of his favourite place in the world: U of T’s Robarts Library. A place, he explained, chock full of liminal spaces. Walking around what could only be described as a brutalist mega-library I was comforted and disturbed by the wealth of books and the lack of people (granted it was reading week). My brother was right, Robarts was a full of liminal spaces. I thanked my brother for the tour and set off back to the hotel, still surrounded by a thick cloak of fog.

Friday:  I was up early and excited to attend the sessions of the day and hear about the interesting projects from planning academics from across the world. I was especially excited for a session examining macroeconomic urban dynamics. One of the presentations in this session that stood out to me involved a study that was exploring U.S. hinterlands and how they had been disconnected from major metropolitan cities. Once again, I was confronted with images of liminal spaces. The presenter described U.S. cities caught between “what was” (in many cases industrial manufacturing hubs), “what is” (empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure), and “what’s next” (depends on who you ask).

There was a clear theme developing from this trip. After being in crowded meeting rooms all day, I decided I needed some air and went for a walk. I was surprised, for being Canada’s largest city—Toronto felt empty. Sure, I saw people on the street and in stores, but it was always concentrated in specific locations. One street would be bustling with activity, and on the next street over there would be no one at all. While I was astounded by the city’s beauty and architecture, I couldn’t help but to feel a bit lonely.

Saturday: The final day of the conference and the day that I was presenting. I woke up excited to share the conceptual framework that I had worked so hard on these past few months. Going through piece by piece I explained how an individual’s core components: their social and physical environment, and individual competencies, interact with one another to create a limiting or enabling environment. I then went on to explain how play as an intervention can promote positive interaction of the core components towards a n enabling environment. All-in-all the presentation went well, and while I had explained that environments existed on a spectrum, and that no environment was perfectly enabling or perfectly limiting, I was usure as to where one would begin to place a liminal environment on this spectrum. However, my mind was tired, and instead of entertaining this thought any further I decided to reward myself at the end of the conference by going to watch a movie. I looked up a theatre within walking distance and set out. Little did I know, I was about to discover the most liminal space in the city. Once again, me being always early, I arrive to the theatre before anyone else. Walking through the doors I discover that this is indeed an underground theatre, and upon descending two very sinister staircases I arrive in the foyer of the theatre. Looking around I can observe that the décor has not been updated since the late 80s or early 90s, that I am in fact alone, and the only sound is that of the fluorescent lights above the popcorn machine. Something inside me tells me to run back up the stairs and on to the street, but before I can move, I am greeted by a friendly staff member who takes my ticket and directs me to my seat. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I was intrigued that just below the surface of the city laid this movie theatre that was a relic of the past. It was familiar and unfamiliar, everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

Sunday: I had a big day planned for my final day in Toronto, I was going to go to Casa Loma, an early 20th century castle estate built in the midtown neighbourhood of the city. Originally built as a residence for financier Sir Henry Pellat, he lived in the residence for less than ten years before leaving it in 1923 due to financial difficulties. While the castle has served many uses since then it now operates as a museum. The multi-room estate is preserved in all its Victorian ornamentation, with some modern updates. However, underneath the estate runs an 800 m tunnel connecting the castle to it’s stables (that are the size of a small mansion) across the road. Despite all the whimsy of the castle what struck me most about my visit to Casa Loma was the empty horse stables still adorned with the names of beloved horses over a century old and long gone.

I collected my things and headed to Union Station. The fog had lifted, and the sun was shining. After experiencing a range of emotions and environments throughout my time in Toronto, I felt a renewed sense of curiosity, inspiration, and eagerness to explore. As I waited to board the train, I recounted my trip and was reminded of a poem by Sarah Kay on how cities like snakes shed their skin and I thought that perhaps in the midst of this continuous transition some places get lost, even in the biggest cities, forever liminal.  

bookmark_borderElliot Lake: The City that “Shocked” Me

Northern Ontario is geographically huge. But for those of us who hail from there, much of it is very familiar. Elliot Lake is a small community 4 hours from my hometown of Powassan, but I’ve been hearing about it since I was a child. From the mall collapse in 2012, to stories from family about visiting the town, Elliot Lake has always been “on the map” for me. It wasn’t until my undergraduate studies that I learned about the community’s incredible progression from a mining town to a retirement community. This fascination followed me to my graduate studies, where I discovered two theoretical concepts that can be applied to Elliot Lake: shrinking and aging.

Shrinking, because Elliot Lake lost a significant amount of population when the uranium mines closed in the 1990s. The residents were discouraged by the lack of opportunities in the area. And, with the city being located so far from other urban centres, Elliot Lake couldn’t even turn in to a commuter town, like other Northern Ontario communities have done in the past. Many people felt they had no choice but to move away from the once thriving community to seek employment or education opportunities. In the last 30 years, Elliot Lake has lost over 40% of its population, making it one of cities that has experienced the most population decline in Canada.

Aging, because the majority of those who decided to leave Elliot Lake were younger adults and their children. This left older adults who had retired or were ready to do so, and who preferred to age in place than to relocate. As the proportion of older adults climbed, the City of Elliot Lake used this to their advantage and began rebranding as a retirement community. The median age in Elliot Lake is now 60.4, making it the city with the second oldest population in Canada.

Before I started my studies at Queen’s University, I knew I wanted to do research on a subject that affects Northern Ontario. Shrinking and aging are two types of demographic change that are becoming increasingly prevalent in the North, making Elliot Lake a great case study community to explore these concepts. After a few brainstorming sessions with my colleagues and supervisor, I narrowed my focus on health care access for older adults in Elliot Lake – specifically the ability to commute to health care facilities via public transportation. In October 2022 I made my way up to Elliot Lake to complete the fieldwork for my thesis (and enjoy the fall colours). My goal was to complete a walking and public transportation audit centered around health care access. I would ride a lot of buses over the next few days.

I was surprised to find out Elliot Lake even has a bus service for its population of about 11,000. Northern Ontario communities of that size are lucky to even have taxis – West Nipissing has a similar population size and recently lost its only taxi service. Yet, Elliot Lake is able to provide public transportation on four routes every hour.

One of three buses in Elliot Lake’s transit fleet.

As I waited at a bus stop to start my first route audit, I was speaking with an older woman who only had a limited amount of experience taking the buses in the community. In fact, she had been attempting to avoid riding them altogether; she recalled the time there was no room left on the bus, so she was forced to sit on the ground. This wouldn’t have been terrible, she said, had the shock absorption on the buses been adequate. Once I got on the bus, I quickly understood what she meant. At every bump in the road – which are quite common on Northern Ontario roads – you could feel every vibration through your seat. The wheelchair-accessible seat at the rear of the bus also made a significant amount of noise each time the bus encountered a bump. On top of this, a few steep steps were required to access the bus, and the aisle was quite small compared to a regular-size city bus.

As someone who has only taken buses in mid-sized and large cities, I spent the first 5 minutes of my first bus ride in Elliot Lake trying to understand how people could be putting up with these conditions. However, while I’m sure everyone would appreciate a tad more shock absorption, I quickly understood that the older adults taking the bus weren’t just taking it to get to a destination – they were taking it to socialize. Quite often, when someone was getting on or off the bus, the bus driver and at least one passenger would greet them using their first name. I’m sure many (if not most) people in Elliot Lake know each other, considering it’s such a small town. However, it was during bus rides that I really felt a sense of community. By the end of the week, the bus drivers would wave at me as they drove past – it was as if, within a week, I became part of the community too.

The transportation audit took shorter than expected, and I look forward to sharing the results with the world through my thesis and other publications. The rest of the week was spent fishing, biking, and exploring, all while taking in the incredible views. I unfortunately didn’t catch anything, but I did see a baby bear, a fox and a coyote on my last night there!

Biking on Horne Lake trail

I also had the chance to try multiple restaurants in Elliot Lake, all of which reminded me of restaurants I went to growing up. Diana’s had some great pub food – I was particularly fond of the chicken fingers. Mum’s Place was a perfect option for breakfast. It specifically reminded me of TJ’s, a restaurant in Trout Creek that served many of my comfort foods. Maple is a Chinese Canadian restaurant, which felt so similar to the Chinese food restaurant in Powassan, Ontario. Elliot Lake Blossoms was amazing as well – the staff were incredibly friendly, everyone in the restaurant got a free smoothie sample, and their roasted red pepper soup was fabulous!

I was told Horne Lake was the best area to fish in Elliot Lake, but I wasn’t very successful!

All in all, I had a great time in Elliot Lake. I successfully completed my field work, enjoyed the spectacular views, and ate some delicious meals that reminded me of my hometown. If I were to return, I would probably opt to spend more time in nature, exploring the various lakes and trails – I did some exploration by foot and by bike, but have yet to explore by boat or by ATV! And, of course, I would spend more time with the residents to hear their interesting stories about what Elliot Lake used to be, what it is now, and what they hope it may one day become.

The Elliot Lake region contains over 4,000 lakes. Horne Lake (pictured) can be seen from the downtown core.


Although the byline states Madison Empey-Salisbury, this post is actually a collaboration (the first one on Aging Playfully!) between Madison and Rachel Barber. We are excited to tell you a bit about our experience at the OPPI (Ontario Professional Planners Institute) & OALA (Ontario Association of Landscape Architects) 2GETHER Conference back in September. Before we get started, if you have not had the opportunity to read our colleague Ellory’s post about this conference, we highly recommend take a look as she does an excellent job recounting the conference and our trip to Regent Park one day earlier. Now let’s travel back in time to late September…

September 20, 2022
One more day until OPPI. What better way to distract yourself from being nervous than to spend your morning exploring Regent Park and visiting the World Urban Pavilion, where we had the opportunity to meet a long-time member of the community. After listening to a series of presentations at the World Urban Pavilion, we broke into smaller groups and explored all that the space had to offer. On one wall, there was an exhibit showing the history of Regent Park and those that lived therein. It included photographs, sourced from old newspaper articles, showing how Regent Park has changed over the years. It was a beautiful homage to the community and to everyone who has ever called Regent Park home. On the other side of the room stood a model of the Regent Park community, equipped with existing and proposed buildings, green spaces, and roads. To say this model had our classmates in awe may be an understatement. This experience is exactly what we needed to set the tone for the days ahead.

September 21, 2022 (Rachel Barber)
I woke up with butterflies in my stomach, knowing I would be presenting at the conference later in the day. Many people are confused as to why I get nervous public speaking – it certainly isn’t my first time in front of a crowd, given my experience as a solo musical artist. For me, the two experiences are incomparable. With music, I’m performing music that I’ve been showcasing for years. If I decide to perform something new, I have the opportunity to practice it many times before I go on stage. When preparing a spoken presentation, I still have the opportunity to practice, but there are some things you can’t practice for, like the Q&A session after the presentation. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous a few hours before my first conference presentation.

After breakfast and a few welcoming remarks was the Opening Keynote. Wanda Dalla Costa, the director and founder of the Indigenous Design Collaborative at Arizona State University and the first First Nation woman to become an architect in Canada, presented “Walking Backwards into the Future: Indigenous Design Thinking”. I was particularly drawn to the urban design examples she gave that are centered around value systems that have been instrumental to Indigenous social practices for generations. One example was the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles, developed by Māori people in New Zealand and which are now part of the Auckland, NZ Design Manual. These design principals include belonging, conserving the environment, and holistic hospitality, to name a few. In Western culture, we tend to focus on applying the urban planning “rules” we’ve become accustomed to for all our projects. Wanda’s presentation made me realize that this mindset is causing us to forget some of the key values that shape our society.

Instead of attending the following sessions and the Networking Lunch, I made my way to a meeting with Dr. Patricia Collins and her team to discuss the status of the “Communities Left Behind?” project. Since I worked with Dr. Collins over the summer on this project, I presented an update of my quantitative findings regarding school closures impacts at the neighbourhood level. While I was nervous prior to this presentation, the feeling melted away once I began presenting – I felt confident with my findings and was excited to share them.

This feeling of newfound confidence followed me to my conference presentation. After watching my colleague Ellory present – and crush it, of course – I went to the podium and gave my presentation. There was no room for nervousness as I passionately shared my findings. I looked forward to providing the planners in the room with important information regarding the disproportionate impacts of school closures on shrinking cities. My hope is that my presentation provided them with the same sense of urgency I felt while conducting this research, so that alternatives to school closures are considered and community recovery plans are created to mitigate social, economic, and cultural impacts if a school must close. Although I was dreading the Q&A session, I felt adequately prepared to answer the audience’s questions – or, if I didn’t know the answer, I found the correct words to express it. Ultimately, I couldn’t imagine the presentation going more smoothly than it did.

Rachel Barber presenting at the OPPI & OALA Conference (Rachel managed to get a photo of her hometown in there!)

With my presentation completed, I was able to relax and enjoy other sessions for the rest of the afternoon. One session I attended was called “Cross-sector collaboration between school boards and municipal planning departments”, presented by the Thames Valley District School Board and the City of London. While the level of collaboration between these entities was admirable, I, along with other audience members, were surprised that no mention was made of collaboration when school closures are being considered. In my opinion, although I think it’s essential to establish protocol for collaboration when contemplating school closures, it was also clear that London schools are dealing with the opposite issue: finding space for children in growing schools. I’m interested in learning more about enrolment projections in London and the demographic change they are facing that is causing their schools to become overpopulated.

With the conference sessions complete for the day, Queen’s University professor Dr. David Gordon invited us and all Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning alumni to a 50th anniversary celebration. I had the opportunity to spend time with two planners from the Thames Valley District School Board, a planner from Owen Sound, and an urban designer from Ottawa. The discussions we had were incredible – an enlightening mix of school board planning, school closures, shrinking cities, and aging cities. We also came to the conclusion that we’re all Habs fans!

Finally, with the evening to ourselves, a few people from SURP and a planner from the City of Kingston went downtown to enjoy some drinks and appetizers. The walk there allowed us to take in the pedestrian-oriented streets and the amazing murals spread across downtown. From presenting, to networking, to simply enjoying London, this day will be one to remember.

September 22, 2022 (Madison)
After two jam-packed days of travelling, networking, and exploring, it was finally my turn to take the podium at the OPPI conference. When yesterday’s SURP reunion came to an end and people began going their separate ways, I decided to turn in early myself. I managed to snag some office space at the hotel to get some extra rehearsal time in before the big day. I called my partner over zoom and delivered the presentation (several times I might add – massive shoutout to him for being such a good sport). Sometimes no matter how many times you practice and how well you know your material, you are still going to wake up feeling nervous. Fortunately for me, these nerves turned to excitement as I walked from our hotel to the conference hall. I arrived around 8am, which left me about two hours before my presentation was set to begin. To pass the time, I grabbed a light breakfast, walked around the exhibition floor, and then headed over to my first session of the day. Before sitting down, I found myself analyzing the room. First thing I saw was the podium, which was situated directly at the front of the room, in perfect view of both the cameras and the audience members. Then, I noticed all the people. There were a lot of people here – I wondered how many more were watching online. I wondered how many people were going to watch my session. A million thoughts and questions, which were thankfully interrupted by the start of the presentation.

An hour passed and suddenly, it was time for my presentation. I made my way to the room where I was greeted by my colleagues Stephanie and Grace, who were set to present right before me. Grace and I made ourselves comfortable at a table at the front of the room. I then watched Stephanie and Grace both crush their presentations and before I knew it, it was my turn to do the same. As I headed up to the podium, I realized that I have never actually used a microphone before. 24 years on this planet and somehow, I have never encountered a microphone (I should really do more karaoke). This realization made me laugh and that, combined with the fact that so many of my classmates were supporting me in the audience, rid me of any lingering nerves.  

Madison Empey-Salisbury presenting at the OPPI & OALA conference .

Before I knew it, 15 minutes had passed, and it was time for questions. For me, the question period is often more stressful than the presentation itself. In the days leading up to the presentation, I tried to come up with answers for as many potential questions as I could. The funny thing is, I did not accurately predict a single question that was asked to me during the question period. However, I was confident in every answer I gave, which awarded me with a sense of accomplishment larger than any level of preparation could have. After the session was finished, I was greeted with kind words from planning students and practitioners from across Ontario. These interactions are what the 2GETHER conference is all about.

Now that I was finished presenting, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. I had the opportunity to attend some fantastic sessions, including one regarding parking lot pop-ups, which I found especially interesting. When the conference came to an end that day, I found myself reflecting back on my experience. This was the second OPPI conference that I have attended (the first being in Toronto in 2019), but the first I had the opportunity to present at. I am proud of how far I have come since my first conference, and I cannot wait to see where I am at by the next one. Until next time OPPI.

bookmark_borderLondon Calling: The OPPI & OALA Conference

I’m very happy to say that this past week, I attended (and spoke at!) my first in-person in over three years. If you read my previous post on how the AAG Annual Meeting, you will know how much I enjoy conferences. I’m pleased to share that the OPPI (Ontario Professional Planners Institute) & OALA (Ontario Association of Landscape Architects) conference did not disappoint. The theme of the conference was ‘2GETHERtwo days, two disciplines. It was the first joint conferences the two associations have hosted together since 2003, and the excitement and eagerness upon entering the conference centre was palpable. Stepping up to the breakfast buffet I felt in my element.  

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s go back to a day earlier before the conference. The School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University (where I study) had arranged for a bus to pick up a group of students and transport us from Kingston to London, a drive that is 4.5 hours with no traffic. I didn’t mind though as I had an insurmountable number of readings to catch up on. However, I had helped to plan a short detour. The bus would stop in Regent Park in Toronto, a neighbourhood that was once Canada’s first social housing project that has recently undergone revitalization to include a mix of affordable, rent-geared-to-income, and market rate housing units. After learning extensively about the area last year it was rewarding to finally see it and get a sense of the neighbourhood in person. Our last stop before hitting the road again was the World Urban Pavilion in Regent Park, a dedicated “exchange hub” to promote the exchange of research, knowledge, and innovation in urban development from around the world. At the Pavilion we got to hear from a long-time resident of Regent Park who spoke to the initiatives within the community as well as their perspective on its revitalization. We also learned that the Pavilion is guided by the United Nations-Habitat Human Settlement Program, that is guided by a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) to work towards a better urban future. As we left, I got sight of a phrase on the Daniels Spectrum building in Regent Park, it reads “ROOTED IN REGENT PARK CONNECTED TO THE WORLD”. I was touched by the phrase and prompted to think about how I was rooted in the places that I was from, but I was unsure of exactly how these places were connected to the world. However, in Regent Park there was an evident sense that it was a place that extended beyond its physical boundaries. However, in the blink of an eye it was gone, we were back on the bus continuing our trek to London. Yet the atmosphere on the bus had changed, as everyone was buzzing with excitement and sharing thoughts on what we had learned from our visit to Regent Park.  

Daniels Spectrum Building in Regent Park, Toronto

After spending a substantial amount of time in Toronto traffic we eventually arrived in London. Now all that was on my mind was my presentation tomorrow. Although I had many opportunities to present in class last year, I still had never done a conference presentation in person. The morning of my presentation I woke up bright and early to prepare. I arrived at the conference building to a large breakfast buffet, however, I had to make the tough decision of opting for only one cup of coffee to avoid the jitters for my presentation. I spent the rest of the morning speaking with planners and landscape architects alike, and I was able to sit in on some incredible panels and presentations. At lunch I sat with some alumni who shared their experiences and provided some insight on what life was like after graduation. But after lunch my time had come – it was time to present. However, I had an unusual feeling, usually I get quite nervous and uneasy before presenting, but on this day, I felt excited, invigorated, I couldn’t wait to have other eyes on the material that I’ve been working on for months. As I was presenting, I felt proud, not only of myself and my colleagues on the work we had done, but of the participants in the photovoice study who had undertaken the difficult task of reflecting on play and their perceptions of it in the environment. Seeing some of their photos of the screen felt deeply personal. I had always explained that we had decided to use photovoice as the research methodology as it allows for us as the researcher to get a look through the “lens” of the participant and their experience with the phenomenon being studied. However, having the photo enlarged and shared with a room full of practitioners more than 4,000 km away from where it was captured, actualized to me the power of photovoice. The room full of practitioners from across Ontario were almost peering into the world of that older adult, they were seeing what they had seen. And although everyone’s interpretation of that photo may be different, it still sparks a conversation. A conversation that I was happy to engage with during the questions period, where relevant topics such as planning and memory loss, access to transportation, and how to implement age-friendly environments were all discussed. As I walked out of presentation room, I felt satisfied, and I was ready to celebrate with my classmates.  

Presentation time!

The next day at the conference I was approached by a student who complimented me on my previous days’ presentation and explained that in their home country of Japan aging and social isolation is a major issue. After a wonderful conversation about the potential of play infrastructure, we parted ways, and I thought “ISOLATION: ROOTED IN VICTORIA CONNECTED TO THE WORLD” and then “PLAY: ROOTED IN VICTORIA CONNECTED TO THE WORLD”. Although these are sentences that my brain makes up subconsciously while I overfill my cup with coffee, it reminded me of a theme that I always forget to consider. It is that of ubiquity or universality. That all places are in a way connected to the world by way of human nature. That we as human beings all want similar things despite living in very different environments and conditions. The fact that older adults around the world are experience isolation and loneliness, also means that this can be improved on through play. And although play may look different from place to place, or even person to person, the desire, and the need to belong are still there rooted in the individual but connected to the world.   

As I boarded the bus back to Kingston that evening, I felt a renewed passion for the project and for play itself. I settled in for a long road trip nap, comforted by the fact that 2GETHER anything is possible.  

Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning students at the 2GETHER Conference in London, ON

bookmark_borderThe Air Tastes Better Here

August 14, 2022: 6:00am. That is the time I see when I check my clock. As someone who does not consider themselves a morning person, 6:00am is not exactly my favourite time of day. But today is different – it is travel day (kind of). My flight actually leaves tomorrow at 6:30am but between the 3-hour drive to the airport and my need to be several hours early for my flight, we are leaving the house at 11:30pm. That leaves me a good 17 and a half hours to get ready – seems doable. I spend a portion of the day packing my suitcases, followed by a little too much time basking in my own excitement about the trip. Can you blame me? It has been 2 years since I last set foot in an airport. 11:30pm finally rolls around and we pack ourselves and the suitcases into the truck and begin our journey to Toronto. We arrive at the airport around 2:30am and I realize I may have got us there just a little too early considering we aren’t able to check our bags until 2 hours prior to our departure time. After some waiting, we check our bags, go through security, head to our gate, and finally board the plane. At this point, I have been awake for a full 24 hours, but that is the last thing that is on my mind.

Adventure is out there

August 15, 2022: I think the air tastes better here. That is the first thing I remember thinking after we stepped off the plane. Two flights and 6.5 hours later, we finally arrived in Victoria. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel to drop off our baggage. Unfortunately, we could not check in until 4pm and it was barely past 10am, which left us plenty of time to explore the city. Our first stop was Frankie’s Modern Diner to grab an early lunch (which was fantastic). After we finished eating, we left the diner and explored Victoria until our check in time. Remember earlier when I said I was awake for 24 consecutive hours? Well, it has now been 32 hours and I am more than overdue for a nap. When I wake up, we decide to head down to Clover Point Park and Finlayson Point to catch the sunset and relax before work the following day.

Sunset overlooking Finlayson Point

August 16, 2022: Oh, the joys of jetlag. It is once again 6am, I am well rested and ready to get to work. The only problem is my first interview does not start for 6 hours. To make good use of all this time, we decided to grab breakfast and go for a walk. This walk led us to the iconic Beacon Hill Park, where we saw beautiful landscapes and some unexpected wildlife.   

After a few more hours of exploring, we made our way back to the hotel so I could prepare for my first interview. Any nerves I might have had were outweighed by my excitement to get out and talk to people again. The interviews scheduled for that day went even better than I could have imagined. Finally having the opportunity to talk to people and discuss their perspectives on the project made everything feel so much more real. I left each interview with a brand-new perspective and fresh set of ideas to incorporate into our research. After each interview finished, I found myself already looking forward to the next.

Unexpected (but welcome!) wildlife in Beacon Hill Park

August 17 & 18, 2022: For the two remaining days, I continued to start my day at 6am, grabbing breakfast and setting out on a morning walk around Victoria. We averaged about 10 kilometres every morning, so we were able to see a large amount of the city in the short time we were there. Some highlights of our daily adventures included going to the Breakwater Lighthouse, seeing the vibrant houseboats in Fisherman’s Wharf, and spotting some very energetic seals (sea lions? Maxx thinks they might be otters? If you are reading this and know the answer, please email us to set the record straight!) swimming close to the shore.

Seals? Sea lions? Otters? Something adorable!

Before I knew it, it was time for my last interview. We met around noon in a coffee shop and had an exceptional conversation. As I made my way through the questions, I found myself wishing the interview did not have to end. The final moments of the interview were bittersweet and once we said goodbye, I stayed in the coffee shop and reflected on my experience over the past couple of days. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to travel across the country and talk to people with such diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. I felt excited to revisit our research with a new perspective, inspired by each and every person I met with in Victoria. But before I do that, it was time for a little vacation. We took advantage of already being on the west coast and decided to travel to Tofino, Squamish, Whistler, and Vancouver. We spent our time exploring beaches, camping, and hiking in the mountains. It was the perfect opportunity to reset before coming back to Ontario, getting back to work, and preparing for my final year of my graduate degree.  I could not have asked for a better trip, and I cannot wait to see where this project takes us next.

Houseboats in Fisherman’s Wharf

A few extra photos from my post-research trip

bookmark_borderReaching for the Clouds – CIP Conference in Whistler, BC

Unable to travel to far destinations since 2020, I was starting to get the itch for adventure. Working remotely as a research assistant for the summer, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to see friends, family, and perhaps even visit communities I had never been to before. So when I found out that I was the recipient of the 2022 David Palubeski Bursary from the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and that I would have the opportunity to travel to Whistler, BC to accept my award at the annual CIP conference, I was over the moon. The David Palubeski Bursary is awarded to a student who demonstrates interest in planning initiatives in small and medium sized communities. Growing up in Northern Ontario has influenced my desire to contribute to research on smaller communities and their common challenges, such as urban shrinkage, an aging population, and the perception of being “left behind”. In addition to the support of the CIP, I am grateful to have received an Ages Foundation Travel Award to assist me in paying for the trip.

On July 4th I began my journey to British Columbia. After flying into Vancouver, I hopped on a shuttle to Whistler with four other people, all of whom happened to be planners attending the conference. Our driver was very knowledgeable of the built environment of Whistler, Vancouver, and everywhere in between, which led to great discussions on our 2-and-a-half-hour trip. We even made a stop at Porteau Cove Provincial Park to stretch our legs and take in the beautiful scenery.

Porteau Cove Provincial Park

Once we arrived in Whistler, I needed to find something to eat. That’s when I experienced Whistler Village for the first time. I tend to be a nervous traveller, especially when I’m alone. However, the Village made me feel not only safe, but welcome. There were plenty of tourists in the area at any time of day, adequate lighting, as well as a sense of security from all of the shops and the hotel rooms and housing above them. And in case you’re wondering about lunch, I found a local pub called the Beacon Pub & Eatery and ordered a delicious meat lover’s flatbread.

Whistler Village

After a good night’s sleep, I started off the first day of the CIP conference with a walking tour “Accessing Whistler Through All Ages” led by Emma DalSanto, Annie Oja, Vanessa Pocock and Sarah Tipler, who are all staff members of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, as well as Chelsey Walker, the executive director of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program. As someone with an interest in age-friendly planning, I found this tour very enlightening. One of the key concepts that caught my attention was the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by the Resort Municipality of Whistler to map out all accessibility features (ex. tactile paving, accessibility signage, etc.) and to note if any of them require maintenance or replacement. I also found it incredible that Whistler has an entire webpage dedicated to accessibility, including maps that can assist those requiring barrier-free paths to plan their commutes before arriving. Even if one does not plan in advance, the Village is full of signage indicating the nearest accessibility features, such as a map near every staircase displaying the nearest ramp.

Example of Ramp Access map located in Whistler Village

During the conference, I had the opportunity to attend many sessions discussing new planning initiatives and/or research. One of my favourite sessions was “What Is an Anti-Racist Planning Future for Canadian Cities? From Theory to Practice”, presented by Dr. Zhixi Zhuang and Ryan Lok from Toronto Metropolitan University (you can read more about Ryan Lok’s research on multicultural diversity in smaller cities here). Their presentation outlined the social exclusion felt by many immigrants, especially in smaller cities. An interesting case study on Brooks, Alberta, was discussed, a small community whose immigration rate is above the national average.

Another one of my favourite presentations was by the Keynote Speaker Mitchell Silver, the president of the American Institute of Certified Planners and former New York Parks Commissioner. His presentation, which mostly focused on quality parks and open space for everyone, was inspiring. He gave a few examples of parks he helped revitalize out of the dozens of projects he was involved in during his term as Commissioner and reflected on the positive impacts these parks had on nearby neighbourhoods. He emphasized the need to stop focusing on “affordable housing” and to start focusing on “affordable neighbourhoods”.

The view at Roundhouse Lodge, located at 1,850m altitude

While the scheduled sessions were enlightening, the most useful resource the CIP conference provided was the ability to connect with urban planners and planning students from across Canada. Most of the networking occurred during the Opening and the Closing Receptions. Prior to the Opening Reception, which was held at the beautifully designed Squamish Lil’ wat Cultural Centre, I was invited to attend the President’s Reception as an award winner. It was during this time I had the chance to meet other CIP and Canadian Institute of Planners – Planning Student Trust Fund winners, as well as the members of the College of Fellows. The Closing Reception was held at the Roundhouse Lodge, which required a gondola ride to reach. The view of the snowy mountain peaks from that altitude was incredible. These events gave me the opportunity to discuss my research interests and my future professional plans with others, while also learning about interesting planning research and projects taking place across the country.

CIP held an Awards Luncheon that celebrated every winner of a CIP or CIP-PSTF award from 2020-2022 (since there was no in-person conference held in 2020 or 2021). It felt amazing to accept an award for the research I’m so passionate about, but it was equally as incredible to hear the unique research topics of the other award winners, from the presence of trams in Quebec City, to nutritional planning. I also had the opportunity to meet Brandon Powell, a professional planner who is also the son of the late David Palubeski.

Brandon Powell (son of the late David Palubeski), myself, and Lindsay Soon (2021 award winner)

Unfortunately, on the last day of the conference, I tested positive for COVID-19. In retrospect, I should have followed stricter health protocols (even if those protocols were not being followed by most conference attendees or tourists). With my shuttle to Vancouver leaving in less than 24 hours, I needed to quickly make a decision about the next couple of days. Isolating in Whistler would be very inconvenient and expensive. However, traveling with symptoms of COVID-19 would put others at risk. And with Canada experiencing a national Rogers Telecommunications outage – which affected phones and also Interac, e-transfer and credit card repayments – the decision was even more difficult to make. I finally decided to continue my quarantine in Whistler, in the same room I had reserved for the conference. I am very grateful to Dr. Patricia Collins, my summer research supervisor, who supported me in making my reservations and found someone to bring me groceries. With COVID-19 still spreading in Canada, I believe provincial and federal governments should be doing more to encourage those with COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate to limit the spread of the virus. At the same time, funding through travel insurance or another source should be made available to those who are unable to travel home if they must self-isolate. Ultimately, I wish everyone would acknowledge that we are still living through a pandemic and that COVID-19 is not a simple flu or cold.

In summary, the people I met, the views I saw, and my experience with COVID-19 have made this trip an unforgettable one. I look forward to taking a closer look at my conference notes to research new ideas and contemplate how some of these ideas can apply to the topic of shrinking and aging cities. I also look forward to my next conference experience to relive some of the amazing experiences I had at the CIP conference and to experience other things for the first time. Here’s hoping COVID-19 won’t be a conference attendee next time.

bookmark_borderOn the Road Again (Fieldwork)

Like many of you, I have not done much traveling in the past two years. I settled into the “new normal” of cancelled plans and future travel credits. The four-and-a-half-hour road trip between Ottawa and Toronto was the most action my suitcase had seen in months. After my trip to New York City to speak at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting was cancelled in February 2022, I did not allow myself to get my hopes up about the impending research trip to Victoria, BC. Plus, in March I came down with COVID-19 and with little more than a month before I was set to leave things were not looking good. Next thing I knew it was April—exam season. I was up to my eyes with assignments, group projects, and deadlines, however, all I could think about was Victoria. We had started participant recruitment and at first the responses were slow to come in, mentally I began to prepare myself for yet another postponed trip. Mid-April came and with it a wave of eager participants, it was finally confirmed I would be going to Victoria.

The objective of the trip was to conduct three focus groups with participants to discuss the photos they had taken having partaken in a photovoice process for the Aging Playfully project. For background, photovoice is a participatory research method in which participants document their reality visually by capturing images surrounding a particular theme. In the case of our research study, the theme was play, and participants were tasked with capturing photos of environments that either encourage them or limit their ability to play. Therefore, the focus groups that were to take place in-person in Victoria, were designed to allow the participants the opportunity to share and discuss the meanings behind their photos. Prior to the trip I was constantly checking my inbox to see if I had received participant photographs, as I had no pre-conceived notion as to what they may capture.

April 30th, the night before I left, I was eagerly printing off flight documents while my partner condemned me for not using the airline’s app. I was ready, with a suitcase and backpack full of printed paper, I boarded my first flight since 2020. After two surprisingly short flights, I had arrived. And although I had been to British Columbia before, I was taken aback by how beautiful and lush it was. Seeing it in person I understood why so many people retired in Victoria, as it has a temperate climate, natural beauty, and variety of outdoor activities.

After a long night’s sleep, I was excited to spend the day exploring Victoria. It was important for me to get a sense of the city before I would hear about it from the participants. One of the places that I had heard about prior to my arrival was Clover Point Park. It consisted of a small peninsula jutting into the ocean, with benches, picnic tables, and walkways leading to and from the park. From what I observed it was a popular spot for dog walkers (I have white pants with muddy paw prints that can attest to this). The story of Clover Point Park had preceded itself; it had recently undergone a redevelopment that had apparently caused controversy in the community. I, of course, could not resist a bit of planning drama so I made it a priority to investigate the site. From what I heard, prior to the redevelopment of the park, cars could drive almost to the edge of the point, and there was ample parking throughout the site. The locals informed me that it was a popular spot for storm watching, and the parking lot made it accessible to those who could not walk the distance to the point. However, the recent redevelopment had taken a pedestrian friendly approach to the site by limiting parking and putting street furniture over the former lots, as well as creating a continuous foot and bike path. Once I arrived at the site it was clear that vehicles no longer had direct access to the waterfront, and I understood why the issue had divided the community. However, had this redevelopment made the site more playful of a place? As I stood at the end of the point pondering this, I began to feel excited for the discussions that would take place over the next two days.  

Royal Oak School, Victoria, BC
Royal Oak School, Victoria, BC

After checking the forecast and seeing nothing but rain, the decision was made to move the focus group discussions from a local park to indoor facilities. The first was to take place in an old schoolhouse that had been converted into a community hub, I could not help but be charmed by the space. I set up the table and chairs and laid out each participant’s photos from the photovoice exercise as they began to enter in. What struck me most after the first focus group was of how different my interpretation of the photos was in comparison to the participant interpretation. I had employed Tsang’s (2020) method of photovoice analysis, which required that the researcher first interpret the photos prior to the photovoice discussion, and I quickly learned why the method was set up in this manner. Photos that I had thought would be symbolic of one theme, turned out to have a completely different meaning. I was thoroughly impressed by the participants dedication to the study. I left the community centre, excited and a bit nervous for the next day’s focus groups—what would tomorrows discussions bring?

Victoria, BC City Hall

The last day of focus groups were held at City Hall in downtown Victoria. The City had generously loaned us a room for the day in which to hold the discussions. While these focus groups were slightly larger than the first, the discussions were just as lively, and I appreciated the diverse perspectives that were present at the table. Some participants had lived in Victoria for less than a year, while others had lived there their whole lives. Regardless, everyone eagerly shared their stories behind the glossy photographs. As I cleaned up the room after the final group, I could not believe that data collection was over. After months of preparation and uncertainty it was incredibly fulfilling and satisfying that for the first time in a long time everything had gone as planned. The entire process had given me a newfound appreciation for academic research and the dedication of academics who undertake it. Coordinating the trip had not been easy, however, it had taught me to be adaptable in my planning—to be prepared for the unexpected.

Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC
Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

I collected my things from city hall and headed south, I wanted to take one last walk through Beacon Hill Park before heading back home. Wandering through downtown I stumbled across a ping pong table in the street. No, it was not someone’s moving day, but rather a piece of street furniture—intentionally placed to promote play. Although minutes ago, I had been commending myself for my adaptability and preparedness, I took the table as a reminder to sometimes embrace the unexpected and spontaneous. As I took out my phone to take a picture, I realized that all along I had been participating in my own personal photovoice exercise—capturing images of the built environment that made me feel playful.

Outdoor public ping pong table, Victoria, BC
Outdoor public ping pong table, Victoria, BC

On the plane ride home me and my partner began sorting through images we had captured throughout the trip. I found that we had remembered the places we had gone differently, while some places spoke to him, I found that others resonated more to me. I had felt playful in nature or intimate street spaces, while he had been drawn to environments with a large structural landmark. Through this I was reminded of how our physical environment, individual characteristics, and social preferences all play a role in shaping what play means to us.

Although I will be working on another project this summer, I look forward to revisiting the photos in the fall. Until then, I will be practicing my ping pong skills for my next trip to Victoria.

bookmark_borderPlanning is People

Hello, my name is Madison Empey-Salisbury, and I am one of the members of the Aging Playfully research team. I am currently working towards my Master of Urban and Regional Planning from Queen’s University, with a concentration in health and social planning. Before coming to Queen’s, I completed my Bachelor of Environmental Studies in Honours Planning at the University of Waterloo. September 2022 will mark my sixth year of studying urban planning at a post-secondary level, which seems surreal as I can still remember my first day walking into class at Waterloo. Throughout my years of studying planning, my research interests have changed entirely. In the early years of my undergraduate studies, I was most interested in the aspects of planning related to housing issues such as gentrification, displacement, and racist housing policies. These concepts changed how I perceived planning altogether as it opened my eyes to how differently people and communities as a whole can be affected by the same development.

While I have always had an appreciation for housing and the people that work in those positions, I had a change of interest midway through my undergraduate studies after working in various co-op positions centred around transportation. I previously held positions working as a Transportation Assistant for the City of Brantford, a Planning and Development Assistant for the Toronto Transit Commission, and an Active Transportation Research Assistant at the University of Waterloo. I found the Research Assistant position to be especially interesting as I was able to explore the benefits of different modes of transportation, while also gaining a better understanding of the barriers that some populations face when trying to access active and public transportation.

I held this Research Assistant position in the Fall of 2019, which is the same time I was first introduced to age-friendly planning. Dr. Samantha Biglieri (now a colleague on the Aging Playfully project) was working closely with my supervisor at the University of Waterloo at the time, she approached me asking if I wanted to contribute to an upcoming project she was working on related to aging. My role in the project was to interview a practitioner about his role on his city’s age-friendly plan, and then write a vignette based on his answers to be featured in the book. Upon finishing the vignette, I submitted it to Samantha and carried on with my work as a Research Assistant and as a student finishing up my undergraduate degree.

Fast forward to 2021 – a year into the pandemic. I receive a package in the mail, which was initially very confusing and made me wonder what I had ordered and how I could have completely forgotten about it. I opened the package to discover a copy of Aging People, Aging Places: Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada, which featured the writing I had done almost two years prior. Naturally, I was very excited to have my name and writing published in a book and could not wait to tell everyone that I knew. After I ran out of people to tell, I carried on with life after undergrad. I spent the summer working, waiting for my first semester of graduate studies to start at Queen’s University in the fall. During one of the orientation events, the professors were introducing themselves and suddenly, I heard a name that sounded incredibly familiar. I realized that one of the new professors, Dr. Maxwell Hartt, was the lead Editor of Aging People, Aging Places!

Upon meeting him in person a few months later, he announced that he had two research positions available on the Aging Playfully project and I was immediately interested. I applied for and was later offered one of the positions on the team. When I received this news, I was very excited for the new direction I was taking as a graduate student but could not help but reflect on where I started. I was initially very surprised at how different my research interests were compared to when I first started studying planning, but then I discovered the common denominator. In all three areas of concentration, I have always focused on people and how planning can help enable or hinder access to a better quality of life. The exciting thing about research on older adults is that I can still call upon my previous interests as they are incredibly relevant to an aging population, whether that is ensuring access to quality affordable housing or improving the accessibility of active and public transit for older adults. So, on paper it may seem like a pretty substantial transition, but I see it more as an extension of what I was really interested in all along, which is the health and wellbeing of our population. I cannot think of a better way to explore this interest than focusing on older adults, who are quickly becoming the most populous age group across the world.

I officially began working as an RA on the Aging Playfully project in January 2022 and I cannot say enough positive things about the experience I have had so far. In the 4 months I have been working on the project, I have gotten the opportunity to work with an amazing team of academics from different cities across Ontario (and even abroad in Wales!), contribute to some very unique projects, and gain new insight on a direction of planning that has yet to be explored. Having the opportunity to converse with the other members of the team and bounce ideas back and forth has been so valuable and always leaves me eager for the project’s next steps. I think the thing that excites me the most about our team is that each member has their own distinct research interests, but we all share a passion for the project. Each member of the team brings a unique perspective and area of expertise to the table, which has really enriched our discussions and the way I was thinking about the topic. From the moment I was introduced to the research topic, I could not wait to get started. Four months later and those feelings have only grown stronger. I am so excited to continue working and eventually share our findings with all of you.

bookmark_borderAAG or Bust!

I love conferences. From the tote bags filled with sponsor “swag”, the excited chatter that often fills a hotel meeting space, the winding line-ups for the buffet, and the opportunity to speak and learn from other professionals in your field.

Over the past seven years, I have been privileged to be a part of many such conferences, often as an organizer, volunteer, or attendee—but until February I had never participated in one as a presenter. Therefore, when Aging Playfully project lead Dr. Hartt suggested that I present a poster at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting I was reluctant. For years I had been content playing my role behind the scenes organizing presentations and lectures, the idea that someone would be interested in what I had to say was honestly a bit intimidating. However, I was proud of the paper we had created, and when he informed me that the meeting would be in-person in nowhere other than New York City all that hesitancy flew out the window. After almost two years of virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was eager not only for the opportunity to travel but also to once again experience the buzzing atmosphere of a conference that I had missed so much.

I promptly applied to receive a conference travel award, while pursuing accommodations in NYC. Having last traveled to New York City in 2017 with my undergraduate student association, I have been keen to return ever since. New York City has never failed to exceed my expectations. After I heard back in early December that I had secured funding to attend the meeting, I felt as though nothing could derail my plans to travel to New York in February. This, of course, was an extremely naive position. If the saga of COVID-19 has collectively taught us anything it is to always expect the unexpected. The same day that I received the award, I learned that some friends (that I had luckily not been in contact with) had been infected with COVID-19. While this of course was worrisome, I had not yet heard of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, and I had little notion that this represented the very beginning of the mass spread of the virus. The following weeks in December were a blur marked by final papers, rapid tests, and worried phone calls. Although I was able to escape to my home in Ottawa un-infected for the holidays, I knew that my poster presentation in New York looked increasingly unlikely.

By the time the new year rolled around New York City was out of the question. AAG had taken a poll and opted to move the event online in response to Omicron. While I was undoubtedly disappointed at a lost opportunity to travel, I was still looking forward to the chance to share my poster virtually. I got to work designing the poster, obsessing over text size and alignment, and making sure everything was in the right place. One of the benefits of virtual presenting is that there was no need to print the poster, rather I could continue to tweak it as I pleased without looming printing timelines. After review and edits, the poster was submitted and the only thing I had left to do was wait somewhat nervously for the event. Having attended some virtual conferences, I knew how they typically went: keen faces were replaced with blank screens, questions from presenters were met with radio silence, and worst of all wi-fi connections were interrupted. I worried that instead of having the opportunity to share our work I would be speaking into the void of cyberspace.

After some scheduling difficulty, it was confirmed that I would be a part of a virtual session on February 25th. When the day finally came, in stark opposition to enjoying the complimentary coffee provided at in-person conferences, I prepared for my presentation by frantically resetting my wifi modem out of fear that it would drop the connection while I was speaking. I read and re-read our paper picking out the points I wanted to emphasize to my virtual audience. As a result of the scheduling conflict, I had been placed in a presentation session as opposed to a poster session. This meant that while the other presenters had power points at the ready, my poster stuck out like a bit of a sore thumb. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of attendees to the session, as it turned out I would not be presenting to an empty virtual room after all. After sharing the findings of our research, I was even able to answer some questions, which was more engagement than I had originally anticipated. More so, I also got the opportunity to hear about the fascinating work of the other presenters in my session. As I closed my laptop screen at the end of the meeting, I was reminded of how far we had collectively come in the past two years—despite the chaos of COVID-19 I was happy to see people pursuing their research in spite of unprecedented challenges.

In the basement of my parent’s home, I have a shoebox filled with a collection of conference lanyards, to me, they serve as mementos of the experiences and conversations I hold near and dear. Although this is not what I had expected my first speaking engagement to look like, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in AAG’s Annual Meeting from my home office. Further, I also want to commend and thank the organizers of the meeting, who were always quick to help and respond to any questions I had, while taking on what I’m sure was the challenging task of transitioning an in-person event online.

On the last day of the meeting, I was reminded of the true benefit of virtual meetings: curling up on the couch, in my PJs, with a cup of tea, and watching the pre-recorded sessions on demand.

[You can see my conference poster here.]