For the People, By the People: Early career researchers organize virtual polymer physics symposium

Symposium Website: 2020 Virtual Polymer Physics Symposium

In these unprecedented and fluid times, conferences and symposia have gone virtual as STEM collectively settles into a new normal. Many large meetings, like the formerly “in-person only” American Physical Society (APS) and American Chemical Society (ACS) national meetings, have been canceled or transitioned to virtual-only participation this year. The 2021 Spring APS meeting will go virtual as well. I love big in-person meetings and have shied away from virtual alternatives thinking they would not provide the same feeling of community with my fellow scientists. However, the isolation of quarantine and the desire to get comfortable with the “new normal” motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and into the world of virtual science meetings this summer. So, when the opportunity to attend the 2020 Virtual Polymer Physics Symposium (VPPS) arose in July, I jumped at the chance to participate. 

The 2020 VPPS was a two-day virtual event organized to fill the void left by the cancellation of the 2020 Polymer Physics Gordon Research Seminar . The event was organized by two early career researchers (ECRs), Konane Bay from Princeton, and Whitney Loo from UC Berkeley, the current co-chairs of the Polymer Physics Gordon Research Seminar (GRS). 

The Polymer Physics GRS is held biennially; the last seminar was in 2018 and, due to the pandemic, the next one won’t occur until 2022. “Two years feels like a lifetime to ECRs and we know many of our colleagues will be at different institutions and career stages in 2022, so we wanted to create a space for them to share and discuss their recent research,” explains Konane. The 2020 VPPS connected more than 100 scientists, including 20 ECRs presenting their work across four oral presentation sessions during the two-day event. In the spirit of the Polymer Physics GRS, this new virtual event also incorporated professional development and discussion sessions, including a Mentorship Panel and the “Dispersity and Diversity Hour” discussion focused on how to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the field of polymer physics and the broader scientific community.

The Mentorship Panel included researchers at different career stages working in academia, industry, or government research. The discussion was focused on steps students and postdocs can take to prepare for future careers in polymer physics as we adapt to a global pandemic. The panelists emphasized the quarantine-proof nature of computational work since it can often be done anywhere including at home and encouraged experimentalists to broaden their computational skill set. Both Nate Lynd, assistant professor at UT Austin, and Michelle Sing, an engineer at Braksem USA, suggested that experimentalists should become familiar with Python as a first step. Debra Audus, a scientist at NIST, highlighted lab work automation and strategic experiment planning to maximize “in-lab” time during the transition to shift-style lab work that many American universities have adopted as a way to overcome the challenges related to performing socially distanced science. 

Participating in the “Dispersity and Diversity Hour” required some homework. The organizers asked all attendees to prepare for the discussion by reading about the experience of Black researchers in STEM (links below). Ben Yavitt, a Stony Brook University postdoc, opened the event by emphasizing that the goal of the discussion was to brainstorm potential solutions to address the issues spotlighted by national movements such as #BLM, #ShutdownSTEM, and #BlackintheIvory. More than 70 attendees participated in small group discussions across 15 breakout rooms led by volunteer discussion leaders. This event was an important first step in raising awareness of the necessary academic culture shift required to empower more scientists of color to pursue careers in soft matter and polymer physics.

Overall, the meeting events were very well moderated and designed for maximum virtual engagement during both the science presentations and the discussion sessions. For me, attending this event clarified the current trajectory of the polymer physics field as it transitions from fundamental studies to applied research focused on exploiting polymer physics for advanced technology. This transition in research focus was evident in some of the science presented during the symposium. While I was apprehensive about the shift to virtual meetings and conferences, attending the 2020 VPPS has won me over. I highly recommend taking advantage of the proliferation of virtual science conferences and symposia to stay engaged, learn about new science and perspectives, and do some networking along the way!

Diversity and Diversity Hour Resources
Science Is For Everyone — Until It’s Not
Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not
AIP Team-Up Report Executive Summary

Disclosure: I am acquainted with Konane Bay, one of the event co-organizers. She was a graduate student in my department, UMass Amherst Department of Polymer Science and Engineering. However, I was not involved in any way with the organization of the VPPS. 

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