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New opportunities amid the challenges of the pandemic

by Lee H. Latimer, ACS director-at-large
October 24, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 41


Photo of Lee Latimer.
Credit: Dylan Studios
Lee Latimer

The challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic are evident all around us. But out of these challenges come substantial new opportunities. Who knew we could participate in an American Chemical Society national meeting from our home offices, work offices, the beach, or wherever we are?

Chemists are learning to master communication tools that were used much less frequently, if at all, only 9 months ago, and we are increasingly using social media to share information and stay connected with one another.

Through it all, ACS has been providing accurate and reliable information through its various channels, including C&EN, the Education Division, and weekly ACS webinars. The society has also adapted many of its programs, such as ACS Project SEED, to a virtual platform and has provided its local sections, divisions, committees, student chapters, and other groups with Zoom accounts so they can continue running their programs virtually.

The experience of ACS members in embracing new forms of communication at the local, regional, national, and international levels will make for an exciting future amid the challenges of the pandemic.

Not having to arrange for a venue and travel logistics to bring speakers to a meeting opens up many possibilities. Local sections, for example, can use virtual technologies to extend their geographical reach and increase the frequency of their events. And it is now relatively easy for local sections thousands of miles apart to partner on activities. These virtual technologies also enhance ACS’s ability to connect with its members internationally.

The elimination of geographic obstacles has enabled committees to establish topical sessions to discuss the society’s core values, such as professionalism, safety, and ethics, and diversity, inclusion, and respect. Committees are also taking advantage of Zoom’s breakout rooms to host regular networking sessions with small groups of members.

For our national meetings, the introduction of broadcast technology came seemingly overnight rather than being phased in over several years. The virtual format of the past two national meetings is expected to morph into hybrid formats that can be improved from meeting to meeting. Various ACS groups, such as local sections, divisions, and committees, will have an opportunity to see how these virtual formats work and determine what would be best for them.

The evolution of our meetings makes attendance and participation possible for the almost 80% of ACS members who cannot attend ACS national meetings for reasons such as distance or the demands of work. These virtual formats address another big issue with our meetings: many concurrent sessions. Now these talks can be available on demand. The 3-D interactive expo that debuted at the ACS Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting bodes well for the inclusion of vendors from new technical and geographic areas. Virtual networking is evolving rapidly with each national meeting and will continue to improve, although it will be hard to replace the serendipity of bumping into old friends in the hallways.

This new world is also opening up opportunities for regional meetings to assemble virtual symposia to supplement the in-person talks so important for student development. The expo presentations will also have room to grow. With the virtual format, I expect to see more divisions working actively with regional meeting organizers to expand not only their programs but also whom they reach both in the US and internationally.

To be sure, the future will not be like the past, nor will it be easy. We still need to address many issues, including registration charges, technological consistency, and meetings’ goals. As a very large society with many concurrent sessions at its national meetings, ACS can be both an experimenter and a driver of style and technology. No other professional society has done a hybrid meeting of the scale of an ACS national meeting, though our expectation is for a hybrid meeting in San Antonio. That will be interesting!

Members of the Task Force on the Future of Meetings are very interested in the ideas and applications our members develop in this challenging and exciting time. Let us know your feedback and suggestions at

The experience of ACS members in embracing new forms of communication at the local, regional, national, and international levels will make for an exciting future amid the challenges of the pandemic. The future of meetings has arrived much sooner than we expected. Let’s get going!

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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