Broadening Participation in Scientific Conferences during the Era of Social Distancing

December 2, 2020

by Nevin Young

These days, most conferences and meetings are on-line. But what are the best strategies for organizing a successful virtual meeting? A recent publication in Trends in Microbiology by U of M Plant Pathology professor, Linda Kinkel, along with post-doctoral fellows, Michael Fulcher, Marian Bolton, Michael Millican and Matt Michalska-Smith, describes a scientific workshop they organized in December 2019 (before the impact of COVID-19) demonstrating many key strategies for success.

The National Science Foundation, the funding agency for the workshop, wanted a high-profile meeting exploring the exciting new area of microbiome research with broad and diverse participation, but had a limited budget. That meant that Linda, her post-doc team, and the other organizers could only invite a select set of participants to attend in person. The challenge was how to attract, connect and engage a much broader audience while ensuring a high-quality meeting experience for all. The resulting workshop – Deciphering the Microbiome – brought together more than 450 scientists from 25 countries, 388 of them virtually, for large audience lectures, intimate small group discussions, one-on-one “hallway” conversations plus the creation of sustained special interest communities. At the encouragement of NSF program officers, the organizing team published what they learned about planning and executing successful on-line scientific meetings.

The team identified several key steps that lead to an effective on-line meeting. They found that the action with the most significant impact was creating multiple “virtual communities” that came together even before the start of the meeting. This enabled participants to become familiar with the tools for seamless communication and start to build on-line communities, including self-organized communities, ahead of time. One social networking tool that was especially helpful was Slack, which provided a platform for conference-wide discussion as well as more intimate discussions within individual virtual communities. The organizers found that pre-meeting training for moderators and for on-line participants to learn the software, get to know one another, and instill a sense of responsibility to participate were also essential for success.

Not only did the meeting bring together a worldwide community of researchers, organized in record time – Deciphering the Microbiome also acted as a catalyst for an entirely new microbiome funding program area within the NSF portfolio. Moreover, a special issue of the scientific journal, mSystems, is now publishing a collection of early career scientist-led Perspectives papers that summarizes the interdisciplinary microbiome science highlighted at the meeting. As the world expands the use of virtual meetings and conferences, the lessons from this meeting should be especially relevant.