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Jacelyn Peabody Lever of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, goes virtual for the American Physician Scientists Association annual meeting.

American Physician Scientists Association/YOUTUBE/CC-BY/Jacelyn Peabody Lever/Laboratory of Steven Rowe at UAB

As COVID-19 forces conferences online, scientists discover upsides of virtual format

Biochemist Kathleen Prosser wasn’t planning to present her research at a conference this spring. But when COVID-19 caused organizers to cancel a series of local chemistry meetings across Canada—called Inorganic Discussion Weekends—and offer a virtual alternative, she signed up to give a talk. Prosser, a Canadian citizen who is a postdoc at the University of California (UC), San Diego, figured she’d be talking mostly to fellow Canadians. But by going virtual, she gained an international audience. The day after her talk she heard from a chemist in Australia, asking for more details and hinting at a future collaboration. “The time zone difference would not have allowed them to see it live, but they watched it [afterward],” she says.

As the novel coronavirus outbreak shutters businesses and disrupts everyday life for billions around the globe, massive annual conferences and small society meetings alike have moved online. The new format poses numerous technical and organizational challenges, but it also offers opportunities—for reaching wider audiences, reducing the carbon footprint of meeting travel, and improving diversity and equity. For some meetings, the shift may be permanent.

The scientific community is “making lemonade out of lemons,” Prosser says. “It’s taking [a situation] that’s really quite horrible and providing people a way to connect in spite of it all.”

In many ways, virtual conferences offer a better experience, says Russ Altman, associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (AI). Altman’s institute had planned an inperson conference this month, but COVID-19 forced organizers to scuttle it. In its place, they threw together a virtual conference to discuss how AI can help scientists fight the ongoing pandemic. The event was a smashing success, Altman says. The original conference—meant to focus on how AI intersects with neuroscience and psychology—would have drawn a few hundred attendees, but 30,000 people tuned in to the online version.

Altman says the virtual environment allowed moderators to better control the flow of discussion and questions from the audience. By privately messaging one another behind the scenes, they were able to discuss how a session was going and make adjustments in real time. “For example, we had one panelist who we thought was contributing a little bit too much,” he says. The moderators responded by using private messages to encourage others to speak, and they made a mutual decision to ask questions designed to draw comment from other, less vocal panelists. “That’s hard to do in person because everyone is up [on stage] and you can’t have a backchannel conversation.”

During the audience question period, the moderators didn’t open up the virtual floor for anyone to speak. Instead, they asked audience members to type their questions, and “a little army of people reading chat windows” prioritized the most insightful inquiries. “It’s not just one person who ran up to the microphone after a talk and takes up all the airtime,” Altman says.

Prosser had a similar experience with her chemistry talk, noting that because moderators could screen questions from the audience, she didn’t face the “nonquestion questions you sometimes see at meetings.”

Scientists acknowledge that virtual conferences can’t entirely replicate the conference experience, which normally involves impromptu meetings in hallways and other social get-togethers. “Humans are a social species,” notes Jennifer Kwan, a clinical fellow at the Yale School of Medicine. “We’re used to being able to see body language, being able to interface with someone in person.” So virtual meetings might lose some of their appeal once stay-at-home requirements loosen, she says.

Even so, Kwan sees growing support for online opportunities. She organized a virtual session this month for the annual meeting of the American Physician Scientists Association, one of the first large conferences to go virtual. Close to 500 attendees tuned in to her session, which featured Francis Collins—director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health—as a guest speaker and focused on ways to support early-career scientists amid the turmoil of the coronavirus outbreak. Kwan says the success of her society’s meeting “has spurred the discussion of [hosting] additional virtual sessions in the future.”

For some societies, the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t so much started discussions about virtual conferences as accelerated them. Last fall, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s governing board began to ponder how to make future meetings more accessible, affordable, and environmentally friendly. “A lot of our membership had started to ask about our carbon footprint,” says George Mangun, the director of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis who sits on the society’s governing board. Originally, board members discussed holding a portion of the 2021 meeting virtually. But when the pandemic hit, they adjusted their strategy and now plan to hold the entire 2020 meeting online in May. If the conference succeeds this year, Mangun notes, it will further solidify the society’s march toward virtual meetings.

Altman agrees. “Whether we like it or not, the scientific community is going to very quickly come to expect this.”

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