In early March, when it appeared increasingly probable that the American Chemical Society would cancel its national meeting in Philadelphia because of the novel coronavirus, organizers of the ACS Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry (COLL) went to work on a contingency plan: move its technical program to an entirely virtual format.
The idea to go virtual began taking shape after some members of COLL, who were also members of the American Physical Society’s Division of Soft Matter (DSOFT), participated in DSOFT’s virtual symposia after APS canceled its annual meeting in March. “There were enough of us that had a good experience with that other programming that we saw that this was something we could do in our division,” says COLL chair Kathleen Stebe.
“We decided early on that the intent was to try and replicate as much of the technical program from Philadelphia as possible,” says Matt Helgeson, who took the lead in organizing COLL’s virtual program, which was done entirely using the videoconferencing app Zoom.
From Sunday, March 22, through Tuesday, March 24, presenters from COLL delivered 155 oral presentations virtually out of 710 oral presentations that had been accepted for the Philadelphia national meeting. Speakers presented from around the world, including from Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK, and the US.
“It was an anchor to normalcy in the midst of shutting down our labs,” Stebe says. “There was something actually very healing in getting to a session of experts and colleagues and listen to them share what’s interesting. It was a sense of solidarity that we can pull together as a community and that we can make it happen.”
Presenters, presiding chairs, and attendees were sent basic instructions on how to use Zoom and access the sessions, and organizers used a Google spreadsheet to compile the sessions taking place, along with a link to each session.
Helgeson says that most sessions had between 30 and 50 people at any given time. “Some had up to 60 or 70, which I think for many of the sessions is actually more than they would have averaged over a 4 or 5 h in-person session. So that was impressive,” he says. “I think it speaks to the availability of the platform and our ability to disseminate the information to a big audience.”
The virtual format was interactive. If attendees wanted to ask questions, they could use the “raise hand” feature in Zoom. Program chair Ramanathan Nagarajan says he found the virtual format to be an uninterrupted way of listening to the talks. “I didn’t have to worry about anybody moving around in the meeting room,” he says. “I was learning more sitting at my desk and listening to the talks than sometimes at the meetings.”
To complement the oral talks, Meagan Elinski, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, organized a virtual poster session on Twitter. From 6:00 p.m. on Sunday to 6:00 p.m. (EDT) on Monday, participants tweeted images of their posters using the hashtag #ACSCOLLPoster. More than 30 posters were presented on Twitter.
The virtual nature of the meeting did raise some intellectual property questions. “There’s the danger that someone could basically record the entire session and then do whatever they want with it. That was a big concern,” Helgeson says.
Nevertheless, the desire to share science took precedence. “I think our speakers were quite brave, and they shared their content that was their best, most recent science,” Stebe says. “We wanted anyone with a poster to be careful, speak to your coauthors, make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re posting.”
To preserve the immediacy of the meeting, the sessions were not recorded. “That live-meeting aspect is what made it very special,” Stebe says.
Although virtual meetings could never replace in-person meetings, they have demonstrated their invaluable contribution to sharing science. “I think human beings thrive by interpersonal contact,” Stebe says. “But given the situation where we were not able to meet, this was a fantastic substitute.”
As for future ACS national meetings, the division is ready to go virtual again, if needed. “How fortunate we are that this happened at a time where the technology is there and can support it,” Nagarajan says.