Within a matter of weeks, COVID-19 changed the world. Borders are sealed, schools and businesses shuttered, and millions of people are hunkered down in their homes. The spread of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has forced cancellations across almost every sector of society, including sports competitions, weddings, trade fairs, and music and film festivals. Academia has not been spared. In the face of the pandemic, scientific conferences have quickly morphed from a place to share ideas and make new connections to potential hotspots of infection.
In the life sciences alone, dozens of meetings have been canceled, postponed, or moved online. Some researchers have planned online replacements. Many are worried about broader disruptions to academic life.
For many scientists, these conferences are a chance to share research, learn new skills, and meet future supervisors, students, and collaborators. Aadel Chaudhuri, a professor of radiation oncology at the Washington University School of Medicine, has a lab that’s only a year-and-a-half old—and two graduate students and a postdoc were planning to present their work at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in April in San Diego. So the announcement that the spring gathering was postponed was disappointing news, he tells The Scientist.
If [virtual events] become normalized through this crisis, I think that will be really positive moving forward.—Rebekah Oomen, University of Oslo
Not being able to attend that meeting would be “a detriment to our ability to communicate our science and present to a broader audience and develop meaningful collaborations,” he says. “I’m in an area that’s very translational and we kind of rely on this type of communication to advance our field forward.” However, Chaudhuri adds, conference cancellations are not a bigger deal than everything else getting canceled across the academic sector—from classes to commencements. Because AACR plans to hold the conference later this year, Chaudhuri says he hopes that his group will still have an opportunity to present their work.
Emily Roycroft, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne who had planned to attend the now-canceled Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) meeting this summer, notes that while she’s lucky to have a postdoc position already secured, for many researchers, conferences are a chance for students and early-career researchers to make connections and find out about open positions. “The cancellation of conferences makes developing these connections harder,” she writes in an email to The Scientist. “But more broadly, I fear that the current global uncertainty means that many hiring opportunities could go on hold.”
A handful of conferences, including those organized by ENDO, AACR, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, will occur either partially—or entirely—online. In cases where such substitutes don’t exist, some researchers have been planning their own.
When Matthew Helgeson, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, heard that the American Chemical Society’s March meeting in Philadelphia was canceled, he and his colleagues immediately started planning a virtual replacement. “The hope was that we could more or less recreate as much of the in-person programming as we could,” he says.
Over the span of about two weeks, the team was able to organize the virtual program. Although logistical issues—time zone difference for attendees in Asia, for example—meant some of the original speakers would be unable to participate, “we ended up with quite a big fraction of the original program,” according to Helgeson. The meeting spans three days during which the in-person conference had been scheduled. It includes 23 symposia—attendees can choose to join several simultaneous presentations delivered via Zoom—and a virtual poster session on Twitter, where presenters can share their work under the hashtag #ACSCOLLPoster.
Rebekah Oomen, a postdoc at the University of Oslo, was organizing a symposium for SMBE in hopes of creating a new network of researchers. “I feel I’ve definitely lost this huge opportunity,” she tells The Scientist. “My research is going into a sort of new area and I need to find my community.” To make up for this loss, Oomen plans to organize an online replacement for the symposium.
According to Roycroft, a number of societies are currently asking for feedback from members about how best to deliver online alternatives—and early ideas include online symposia, e-posters, and virtual networking sessions. “When things eventually calm down, it would be great to see the development of these ideas more,” she adds. “I think right now, everyone is quite distracted with the current circumstances.”
These virtual replacements are the silver lining of cancellations, according to Oomen. “People with accessibility issues and people that are concerned about the climate have been pushing for these options for a long time,” she says. “If [virtual events] become normalized through this crisis, I think that will be really positive moving forward.”
For many researchers, a canceled conference is just one of many problems they are currently facing. Not being able to go into the lab has means that scientists need to find workarounds or put their experiments on hold.
I traveled to the United States just to learn this technique. Now, I’m doing just doing paperwork.—Jeann Sabino-Carvalho, University of Brasília
Since early last week, Oomen has been unable to be onsite at the Institute of Marine Research in Norway where she’s been examining the reproductive biology and behavior in cod. Postponing the study would mean waiting until spawning season returns next year, so she’s continuing the work via a technician—one of the few people who is still allowed onsite. “I have to just communicate with that person for several hours over the phone to instruct them,” she says. “It’s a bit stressful to not be able to do things as you did before and have the help that we need and, at the same time, try to not let everything just be wasted, go out the window, because you have to shut down.”
Continuing studies from a distance isn’t an option for everyone. “I’ve heard from a lot of researchers who are either having to completely cancel their experiments or downscale them to a bare minimum,” she tells The Scientist. “I think very little research is going in full scale as planned.”
Jeann Sabino-Carvalho, a PhD student at the University of Brasília in Brazil, arrived at Iowa State University in February as a visiting scholar to learn a new method for studying neural circuits in human subjects. He arrived in February and had only planned to stay until May—but because of the coronavirus, he’s unable to do this work. “I traveled to the United States just to learn this technique,” he says. “Now, I’m doing just doing paperwork.”
For some, conference cancellations have been overshadowed by COVID-19’s more widespread effects. Jason Tan Liwag, a master’s student in molecular biology at the University of Philippines Diliman, says that the Endocrine Society’s (ENDO) March meeting in San Francisco, which was canceled earlier this month, would have provided an opportunity to meet other scientists face-to-face, learn what graduate school abroad might look like, and gain a holistic view of the current research landscape. “It’s devastating to not be able to not have been granted that [opportunity],” he says. “At the same time, with the ongoing crisis, career is one of the few things that are on our minds at the moment.”
Clarification (March 24): The article has been updated to indicate that Rebekah Oomen is unable to be onsite at the Institute of Marine Research because of the current coronovirus outbreak.
Diana Kwon is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMKwon.