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International attendees praise ACS meeting’s virtual format

Participants say they hope hybrid meetings are on the horizon

by Linda Wang
May 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 17


A screen capture of an award symposium held via Zoom during American Chemical Society Spring 2021.
Credit: Debbie Crans
Sophie Thomas (top right) presents a talk during American Chemical Society Spring 2021.

Before this year, the most recent time Enrique García-España had attended an American Chemical Society meeting was in 2012, nearly 10 years ago. The cost of travel, time away from his teaching and research, and other commitments meant that the University of Valencia chemistry professor could not attend ACS meetings as frequently as he would have liked.

ACS Spring 2021’s virtual format, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, gave García-España an opportunity to not only attend the meeting but also present a talk during a Division of Inorganic Chemistry award symposium honoring his friend and colleague, Kristin Bowman-James, a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kansas. “I met Kristin for the first time in 1990 in a meeting here in Spain. Since then we have been in continuous touch, so for me it was very nice to be there online and to speak,” García-España says.

This sentiment was echoed by other international attendees. Shinobu Itoh, a chemistry professor at Osaka University, says he was honored to speak at a Division of Inorganic Chemistry award symposium for Kenneth D. Karlin, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University. Itoh even attended several sessions that took place around midnight in Japan because of the time difference. The last time Itoh had attended an ACS meeting was in 1998.

More than 12,300 people attended ACS Spring 2021, and 7,700 papers were presented at the meeting on April 5–16. Approximately 22% of the attendees were from outside the US, and 73 countries were represented. The percentage of international attendees was similar to that of the 2019 fall meeting in San Diego, the last one to be held in person before the pandemic began. More than 12,200 papers were presented at that meeting. ACS canceled the 2020 spring meeting and moved to an entirely virtual format for the fall 2020 meeting, which drew 6,532 attendees and where more than 4,100 papers were presented.

Katrina A. Jolliffe, a chemistry professor at the University of Sydney who also presented at the Bowman-James symposium, says that if the meeting had been in person, she would not have been able to attend. “The problem for me is that [the meetings] always come in the middle of our teaching period, and getting overseas for 5 days when it takes a day to get there and a day to get back is problematic,” she says. “The virtual meeting is great because I could be in the middle of teaching but I can still get to the meeting.”

For more than 5,000 attendees, this was their first time attending an ACS meeting. One of these attendees was Antonio Bianchi, a chemistry professor at the University of Florence who also presented at the Bowman-James symposium. “The virtual mode has something magical: a multitude of people, of friends, which materializes in your home in a few minutes,” he says. “In addition, some attendees let their webcams show glimpses of their homes, of their home life, bringing an intimacy that a normal symposium cannot have.”

Sophie Thomas is a graduate student at Cardiff University and presented at the award symposium for Katherine J. Franz, chair of the Chemistry Department at Duke University. Thomas says this was her first ACS meeting, and the positive experience prompted her to become a member. “It was such a big opportunity for me as a PhD student because I don’t have that much experience presenting,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to present if it hadn’t been virtual.”

One challenge for international attendees was managing the time difference, but symposium organizers took that into consideration in their planning. For example, Mi Hee Lim, a chemistry professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology who presented at the Karlin symposium, says she was given a time slot that was at a reasonable time in South Korea. She also appreciated that many sessions were available on demand after the meeting.

Many international attendees expressed an interest in a hybrid model for future ACS meetings, in which people could attend in person if they wanted to, while others could attend remotely. “Virtual is quite good, but we also need to keep attendance in person because that’s something that is also very important for scientific exchange,” says Marinella Mazzanti, a chemistry professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL), who was awarded the F. Albert Cotton Award in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry and gave a talk at the meeting. “You cannot do only virtual, but we can reduce the travel we do for sure.”

ACS CEO Thomas Connelly says ACS is working to make its meetings even more accessible and inclusive, and hybrid meetings are just one part of this progress. “I think we took a big step forward with this meeting,” Connelly says. “As we become increasingly global in our membership, this can be a valuable benefit to our members outside the US.”



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