Lab closures, project delays, funding concerns and restricted travel – 2020 as a scientist was a tough one. Thankfully, labs are back open and delayed projects are picking up once again. Travel restrictions are still in place however, meaning that in-person events are still a way off. Fortunately, the biological community is a resilient one and over the last 12 months has managed to transition to online events. We’re all familiar with the pros and cons of virtual events by now, but we remain firm in our belief that creating opportunities for scientists to gather, whether virtually or in person, is the priority.
To keep the community talking, our Scientific Meeting Grants and Small Meeting Grants can be used for both virtual and in-person events. Last year, we funded a number of events that had to transition online in response to the pandemic. We caught up with the organisers to find out more about their experience of running a virtual event and hear how our financial support helped them successfully transition online.
Hosted by the University of Exeter, the organisers of the second South West Zebrafish Meeting were originally awarded a Scientific Meeting Grant for an in-person meeting. In response to the pandemic, the organising team reassigned their grant money to accommodate a virtual format. “The main focus for us was to try and make the meeting as interactive as possible while also being easy to navigate,” explains Dr Lucy Brunt, a postdoc with Professor Steffen Scholpp at the University of Exeter and a member of the organising committee.
With our financial support, the team waived registration fees, subscribed to virtual platforms and hired audio-visual equipment for the speakers. Zoom was used for talks, breakout sessions and an informal Zebrafish Zoom Café, while Wix.com hosted the meeting website and Padlet.com was used for the poster sessions. “We learned that it was really important to have an informal space for people to interact between talks,” says Lucy. “The zebrafish café gave everyone a central hub to return to, while Zoom rooms made further, intimate discussion possible.” Setting up the poster session presented the main challenges of switching to a virtual format, but the team settled on using Padlet. “As well as being able to click on the PDF versions of the posters, we added an under-poster comment section for informal Q&As,” explains Lucy.
“We learned that it was really important to have an informal space for people to interact between talks.”
As we all now know, attention spans wane far quicker during online events and the team has taken this on board. “If we were to do a virtual meeting again, we would shorten some of the sessions,” says Lucy. “It would also be nice to set up discussion rooms across institutions in the South West for easier communication between PhD students, postdocs or PIs.”
“Event virtually, it gave us a great opportunity to get up to speed with the research/techniques being carried out and to create new links with researchers.”
Despite switching to a virtual format, the meeting successfully showcased the wide variety of developmental, disease model and ecotoxicology zebrafish research being carried throughout the region. “Even virtually, it gave us a great opportunity to get up to speed with the research/techniques being carried out and to create new links with researchers,” says Lucy. Participants echoed the same sentiment, expressing their appreciation that a meeting was at all possible amidst the pandemic.
Last year, the Society for Leukocyte Biology held their 53rd annual meeting, titled ‘Host-Microbial Interactions in Health and Disease: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ With a virtual event ahead of them, the society used their Scientific Meeting Grant to support the technical components of an online format. “It was difficult at first to change course,” says the society’s Executive Director Jennifer Holland. “The society planned well though and we had enough time to properly get the needed resources and tools aligned for successfully advertising and conducting the event.” Using Zoom for the talks, the meeting also incorporated video posters.
“We learned that virtual events can be very productive and have a farther reach than in-person events.”
Switching to a new format is no mean feat but the team found that flexibility, careful planning and teamwork meant their event was a great success. “We learned that virtual events can be very productive and have a farther reach than in-person events,” says Jennifer. While the value of face-to-face interactions cannot be replaced, the meeting demonstrated that tools do exist to provide alternatives when necessary. Remarkably, participation and attendance of the virtual event was four times the usual number than at in-person events. “We had global participation, and amazing positive feedback and appreciation from our attendees,” says Jennifer.
Planning for the 2021 meeting is already underway and for a second year running, the meeting will be online. Drawing on their experience last year, the society has a few tweaks in mind. “We would have liked to create more opportunities for virtual networking via chatrooms in 2020 and this is something we are trying this year,” says Jennifer.
“We had global participation, and amazing positive feedback and appreciation from our attendees.”
With the world in different stages of lockdowns, Jennifer also shared her thoughts on the future of scientific meetings. “I believe people miss being together but the virtual format has highlighted the benefits of this alternative platform,” she says. “I think in-person events will return when possible but that the added global reach, lower travel costs and carbon footprints will perpetuate virtual events in some form going forward.”
Celebrating their 40th birthday, the British Society for Matrix Biology virtually hosted their annual spring meeting earlier this year. Organised by Professor Stephanie Dakin from the University of Oxford, the theme of the meeting was ‘Inflammation, Fibrosis, Resolution and the Matrix’.
“We had a diverse programme, excellent presentations by young researchers, fantastic keynote talks and a lots delegate interactions.”
Armed with a Scientific Meeting Grant, Stephanie used the funds to engage with a virtual platform that would facilitate as much interaction between delegates as possible. “There is an obvious shift in focus towards platform management and navigation,” says Stephanie, “but I tried to make this as user friendly as possible.” An additional responsibility when hosting a virtual meeting is to provide documentation for speakers and delegates on how to navigate and use the platform. “It’s a lot for one individual to cover! Fortunately the staff at the platform were experienced and very helpful,” she says.
The conference platform enabled poster presenters to showcase their work in a way that would not have been possible via Zoom. “Poster presenters showed an electronic version of their poster, had the opportunity to upload a short video of their work and could also connect with delegates via a live link to respond to their questions,” explains Stephanie. “Each poster presenter had their own bespoke area on the platform where delegates could visit and either type questions or ask them directly via video.” Additional features such as direct messaging and a chat function contributed to elevated levels of delegate participation and interaction.
“Perhaps the future of the international conference is a hybrid approach…”
Virtual meetings have been the norm for the past 12 months and we’ve all experienced technical problems. Fortunately Stephanie’s meeting ran smoothly. “We experienced minimal technical glitches and the feedback we received was exceptionally positive. We had a diverse programme, excellent presentations by young researchers, fantastic keynote talks and lots delegate interaction.”
For Stephanie, the future of scientific conferences could be a hybrid approach. “Virtual conferences can offer greater flexibility and inclusivity for delegates and speakers,” she says. “Perhaps the future of the international conference is a hybrid approach, where delegates have the option to visit in person or join remotely online.”
The past year has been an unknown venture for all of us, but we are so glad to hear that our Scientific Meeting Grants are helping the community to unite, exchange ideas and continue the discussions that are vital for scientific progress.
You can apply for financial support to organise an in-person or virtual meeting, workshop or conference anywhere in the world in the fields covered by our journals. Two different grants are available depending on the size of the event and the level of funding required. Find out more, including how to apply and upcoming application deadlines.