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Science Communication


Chemists rethink work travel

Has the pandemic changed what people are willing to leave home for?

by Bethany Halford
June 17, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 22


A woman is having a video call with another person by a window. A plane can be seen flying in the sky in background through the window.
Credit: Kristen Uroda

There was a time not so long ago when it was common practice for Phil Baran to board a plane at night, swallow a sleeping pill, and wake up the next morning thousands of miles away from home. Baran, a chemistry professor at Scripps Research in California, estimates that he cumulatively spent between 3 and 4 months each year traveling to conferences, consulting gigs, scientific advisory board meetings, and seminars. He racked up 250,000 frequent flyer miles annually—often taking red-eye flights to minimize the time away from his family. “It was just horrific. It took a toll on me mentally and physically,” Baran says.

But Baran’s travel schedule changed dramatically in March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him—and the rest of the world—to cancel travel plans. He was asked to make his visits virtual and, after a little adjusting, found he prefers the virtual format. Now, Baran rarely travels for work. He still presents his lab’s research—he’s given more than 80 talks since March 2020—but he does it virtually. “I probably would have had a breakdown if not for the pandemic because it was getting to an unsustainable level,” he says.

Baran isn’t alone. The travel restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many chemists to rethink how often they travel for work. Although some argue that the in-person experience can’t be replicated with a virtual format, proponents of the shift to online presentations counter that when events go virtual, chemists can reduce their carbon footprint, spend less money on travel, and devote more time to their lives away from work. What’s more, they say, virtual events are more accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise attend because of travel costs or restrictions or because they have family obligations that make travel onerous.

“We learned very quickly that we can do a lot online,” says Timoer Frelink, who is CEO of Metrohm Applikon, which makes instrumentation for chemical analysis. During the early days of the pandemic lockdowns, the company set up a primitive television studio to train its instruments’ users and to give seminars online. Frelink and his coworkers also figured out how to remotely connect to their customers’ instruments around the world to help troubleshoot problems.

Frelink concedes that there are some things that are impossible to do with virtual training, like taking apart an instrument’s hardware. Also, he says, when people are physically present, “it is easier to involve everyone and let them participate actively,” which can be more difficult to accomplish virtually. Even so, Frelink says, the shift to online has been positive overall: the company saves money, and its employees get more of their personal time back. “We all learned that less travel is not necessarily bad.”

Judith P. Klinman has been trying to get scientists to travel less for years to curb the effects of climate change. “As scientists, we have a moral imperative to lead the charge because we know enough to be able to evaluate the data and see how serious it is,” says Klinman, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that many events scientists travel for can be done virtually, Klinman says. In collaboration with her colleagues Michael A. Marletta and Jeremy W. Thorner, she created a pledge in December 2020 for scientists to sign that says they will commit to traveling less. “We’re not saying everyone has to stay home. That’s impossible,” she says. “You don’t just accept every invitation. You offer up remote participation, and then you pick and choose some number—not a huge number” of events to attend.

Klinman says that when she’s invited to speak, she asks if she can do it remotely, and she has set up several collaborations since the start of the pandemic in which she and her coworkers meet only virtually. “It’s shocking to me how productive it has been intellectually and scientifically,” Klinman says.

Leonardo Chiappisi, a scientific coordinator at Institut Laue-Langevin, agrees that less travel is better in some respects, but he says there are some things that don’t translate to a virtual format. Chiappisi hosted a symposium a few days before he spoke with C&EN and he enjoyed getting to meet with the participants face to face. “I almost forgot what it was like to talk with people with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and discuss scientific topics,” he says.

That sort of networking is critical to scientists, particularly early in their career, Chiappisi says. “I feel sorry for the missed opportunities of the students I am supervising. They are carrying out their PhD in very difficult conditions, in a period of their career when creating a network is essential.”

I think we should move to a position where we have a mix of virtual and personal attendance and that is an accepted practice.
Christopher Barner-Kowollik, chemistry professor, Queensland University of Technology and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

With fewer opportunities to network in person, many early-career scientists are adjusting to virtual formats. Shelley Minteer, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah, says she’s been contacted by young scientists asking to have “virtual tea” via videoconference. “It is an opportunity for them to show you their science and get feedback,” Minteer says, but she thinks it takes more effort than simply walking up to someone at a conference and asking if you can chat with them about science at the next coffee break.

Minteer says that she enjoys traveling and is looking forward to getting back to her prepandemic travel schedule. “I enjoy that aspect of the academic life. And I also would say that I don’t get as much from a virtual presentation as I get from a live presentation,” she says. “You definitely get something different from being there and actually meeting people. And I think you build more collaborations when you’re in person than you do virtually.”

But Minteer has seen the virtual format work well. She’s the principal investigator for the US National Science Foundation’s Center for Synthetic Organic Electrochemistry. The center’s funding began in September 2020, and Minteer says she hoped to have an all-hands meeting in person. But after 9 months of postponing, she decided that a virtual meeting would be necessary.

“I was worried that the graduate students—if they didn’t meet each other in person—that they wouldn’t trust each other and build good collaborations. And that hasn’t been the case,” Minteer says. Instead, the students embraced the virtual format. They used the platform GatherTown, now named Gather, which has a video game aesthetic, to create a virtual space for the all-hands meeting. Participants had avatars and the space had an area for presentations and for scientific posters.

Virtual symposia have been so popular with the American Chemical Society’s Division of Organic Chemistry that the group has created a new virtual symposium chair to organize such events, says Lamont Terrell, the division’s chair. “We will make sure that going forward we always have some virtual presence because the demand is there for it,” he says.

The move to virtual meetings was eye opening for Rebecca Ruck, a chemist with Merck & Co. Ruck cofounded the Empowering Women in Organic Chemistry (EWOC) conference, and when that meeting was first moved to a virtual format in August 2020, she saw the move as a sort of Band-Aid—far from ideal but the best response to a bad situation.

Ruck says she was surprised by how well the format was received. “We got a lot of feedback from faculty saying, ‘This is amazing, because our students who are doing research over the summer can hear from outstanding women in the field and hear about their journeys and hear about science.’ ” These students wouldn’t have been able to go to the meeting in person. That resonated with Ruck, particularly in terms of attracting a diverse group of people to chemistry. “When you can only have 200, maybe 300, people in person, and then you can hit 1,000 attendees in a virtual setting from all over the world, I think that’s a powerful construct,” she says.

The 2022 EWOC conference, which will be held June 23–24, has a hybrid format, with both virtual and in-person components. Ruck plans to attend the in-person event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she says she expects the meeting will maintain a virtual presence for years to come.

Deborah Johnson, president and CEO of the Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology, says her organization’s pivot to virtual symposia during the pandemic also expanded the attendee pool. “Besides keeping the scientific community engaged, a major value of conducting these events was the tremendous access that we offered to trainees, students, postdocs, and people from low- and middle-income countries,” she says.

Keystone repurposed the funding the organization would have used for travel awards and instead used it to offer free access for many attendees. “It was transformational and democratized science in a way that was unprecedented,” Johnson says. She estimates that Keystone provided free registration to almost 6,000 people who attended nearly 50 virtual symposia in 2021. Many wrote to Johnson to say that they would have never been able to attend a Keystone meeting otherwise. “That’s why it’s really important in my mind for us to keep this in our conference portfolio,” she says.

As people become more comfortable with travel, Keystone is trying to assess what the demand will be for returning to in-person meetings versus accessing meetings virtually, Johnson says. And while she hopes to keep a virtual component, she says there are costs that make it challenging, including the price of the platform for livestreaming as well as staff resources to manage both in-person and virtual events.

For ACS, which publishes C&EN, there will be a virtual component for its large biannual meetings at least through 2023, says Bethany Kashawlic, who is ACS’s assistant director for meetings. At ACS Spring 2022 in San Diego, 9,770 people attended the meeting in person and 3,539 people attended virtually—1,031 of those virtual attendees were based outside the US.

For the upcoming ACS Fall 2022 meeting in Chicago, Kashawlic says roughly 40% of the meeting will be hybrid, which means for about 40% of the talks, people will be able to attend virtually or present their talks virtually. The other 60% of talks will be available only to attendees in Chicago.

Much of the demand for virtual options at ACS meetings has come from international attendees, who can have a hard time getting to meetings in the US because of visa restrictions or just because of the long trips involved, Kashawlic says. They don’t want to spend days and thousands of dollars traveling just to give a 20 min talk at the meeting. “They’re going to go ahead and figure out how they can do that virtually from their office,” she says.

When you can only have 200, maybe 300, people in person, and then you can hit 1,000 attendees in a virtual setting from all over the world, I think that’s a powerful construct.
Rebecca Ruck, chemist, Merck & Co.

Presenters like the hybrid meeting option, but attendees who aren’t giving talks or posters prefer to attend ACS meetings in person, Kashawlic says. And although there is recorded content from the meeting available after the event, she says that people tend not to access those on-demand talks after the meeting ends.

As long as COVID-19 keeps travelers’ prospects uncertain, Kashawlic says, hybrid meetings will be a necessity, but she hasn’t seen a tremendous demand for them among ACS meeting attendees. People “still want that physical connection and those networking opportunities that you don’t get in that virtual or hybrid environments,” she says.

Timur Atabaev, an assistant professor at Nazarbayev University, says he appreciated the ability to attend ACS Spring 2022 virtually to show his group’s recent results and to learn new chemistry. He adds that travel restrictions and visa delays made it difficult to attend in person from his home in Kazakhstan. “A virtual meeting is useful for saving time and funds and also useful for minimizing CO2 emission,” he says in an email. The virtual meeting experience makes it “hard to establish new collaboration links,” he adds, “but we can save our time for additional experiments and funds to purchase additional reagents and equipment.”


Christopher Barner-Kowollik, a photochemist and materials scientist who holds positions at Queensland University of Technology and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, agrees that attending ACS Spring 2022 virtually was useful, but it doesn’t replace the in-person experience, particularly for making connections with other chemists.

“Less work travel has taken the pressure off family life quite considerably, and that is always a good thing,” he says in an email. “I think we should move to a position where we have a mix of virtual and personal attendance and that is an accepted practice. Virtual attendance is also good for the environment and allows for greater diversity in the speaker line-up,” because funding available for travel varies among universities and countries, he says.

Mark Levin, a chemistry professor at the University of Chicago, says he doesn’t want to see work travel disappear completely, but he also doesn’t want to go back to the prepandemic travel pace that can be such a grind for early-career faculty. Videoconferencing allows him to, for example, give a talk in Europe and still tuck in his 2-year-old daughter at night, he says. “I’ve missed very few bedtimes, and I deeply appreciate that.”


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