I was ready. I was so ready. I had all my chargers and AV adapters. My presentation was backed up on a USB drive. I had every talk I wanted to go to on my calendar. I had sent emails to professors I wanted to meet and network with. I reached out to friends I only see in March in a different city every year. It was 10 pm on Saturday, February 29. My flight to Denver was leaving at 6 am in the morning. Then the email arrived —
URGENT: 2020 APS March Meeting in Denver, CO – CANCELED.
Due to rapidly escalating health concerns relating to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the 2020 APS March Meeting in Denver, CO, has been canceled. Please do not travel to Denver to attend the March Meeting. More information will follow shortly.
That was it. All the preparation, all the planning, thrown out the window because of the novel coronavirus that was quickly spreading throughout the world. Writing this more than 2 weeks later in the face of a bona fide pandemic with entire countries locked down, the decision was extremely prescient and prudent. At the time, it felt a bit like being forced to eat vegetables as a child.
But as soon as the APS March Meeting was cancelled, would-be participants started self-organizing their own virtual conferences. Fittingly, the Division of Soft Matter (DSOFT), which largely studies self-organization, led the charge. Professor Karen Daniels from NC State University used Twitter to announce that plans were underway to host virtual talks, and one day later had a place for people to sign up to host and give the talks they had prepared for Denver. The Division of Biological Physics (DBIO) also followed suit, led by Professor Phillip Nelson from the University of Pennsylvania. By the end of the week, a remarkable 60 sessions between both DSOFT and DBIO were held online, all due to grassroots organization over social media and word-of-mouth.
The method of choice was definitely Zoom, with BlueJeans and Google Hangouts also being used. The first virtual session I attended was (appropriately) The Physics of Social Interactions, hosted by Professor Orit Peleg. I was shocked to see over 50 people in the Zoom meeting, but even more shocked at how smoothly the entire process unfolded. Professor Peleg kept the speakers on time and the “Raise hand” feature on Zoom made asking and answering questions easy and painless. The first virtual DBIO session held was the Delbruck Prize session, where Professor Jim Collins from MIT was being honored for his work in synthetic biology, including some pertinent work on cheap and fast testing for various diseases. That session had over 100 participants and still went just as smoothly as the smaller ones. I was also able to give my talk virtually to a total of 5 people present, but I’ll put my ego aside to be happy I gave it at all.
These virtual talks definitely do not replicate the conference going experience, but they do come close. In my experience, many people attending talks are already on their laptops attending to their own business, so listening to a virtual talk while answering emails from the comfort of one’s desk felt familiar. When it comes to gathering scientific information, the virtual meeting was a great success. Even those who were unable to attend the meeting were able to see some talks of interest to them. However, as one might expect, the social component of the meeting was largely lost. Hallways are where the magic really happens at conferences, and the closest approximation the virtual APS meeting had was Twitter. Nevertheless, sending a quick email to a speaker whose talk you liked could accomplish most of the networking one might try to accomplish.
While it’s hard to find a silver lining in COVID-19, these virtual meetings will almost certainly open the doors for future scientific meetings allowing virtual talks to be given by those who cannot attend. As scientists, we should model what it looks like to lower our carbon footprint without impeding professional advancement. In addition, virtual talks give access to meetings for those who cannot physically travel for financial, familial, and/or physical reasons, promoting the inclusion of traditionally marginalized populations in the larger scientific community. As more meetings get corona-cancelled, such as the upcoming APS April Meeting, the use of virtual conferences will only become more streamlined and normalized. I personally believe this will change the way scientists communicate around the world for the better, even if it took a pandemic to get here.