Organizers of scientific meetings around the world began to realize their events were in jeopardy as early as late January 2020 when cases of COVID-19 were confirmed outside the epicenter of Wuhan, China. By the time the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on March 11, many meetings had been postponed or cancelled entirely. Some organizers, however, took the opportunity to go virtual for the first time or build on previous experience with small events to convert large in-person meetings to virtual events.
One of those meeting organizers was Rosemarie D. Wesson, Ph.D., P.E. Wesson received a grant from the National Science Foundation in the fall of 2019 and had planned to host a 300-person conference March31-April 2 in Arlington, VA for junior faculty members interested in applying for the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER).
With the conference only six weeks away, it became clear that holding an in-person meeting would be impossible. Still, the decision to go virtual was not an easy one for Wesson and fellow organizers of the 2020 NSF Engineering CAREER Proposal Workshop. Sure they were a group of tech-savvy engineers, but they had never offered a multi-day event online before.
“In the end, we decided we didn’t want to run the workshop and be responsible for the technical difficulties participants might have,” says Wesson, Associate Dean for Research and Professor Chemical Engineering at The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Grove School of Engineering. She approached KI for both technical help and help taking the original agenda and making it more amenable to a virtual event.
The workshop focused on giving participants some of the basics for submitting a successful CAREER application. The participants reviewed and evaluated sample proposals during the 36 mock panel breakout sessions. Wesson says these smaller groups allowed for some of the networking that would have otherwise happened in person.
Workshop organizers surveyed the participants immediately following the event and received 209 responses. About 95 percent agreed that the workshop was valuable and 93 percent said they would recommend it to a friend. Just under half of respondents (47 percent) said, if given the choice, they would prefer to attend this workshop virtually. About 58 percent said they would recommend the virtual format for future proposal workshops and 97 percent said the event was well-managed.
For her part, Wesson says she still would like to hold these kinds of workshops in person because networking is so important during the early stages of a researcher’s career. “I still think, in the end, that there are benefits to being able to talk over a meal or over drinks.” But, if they had to do it again under normal circumstances, Wesson says her team agreed they would probably host a hybrid event, incorporating virtual aspects with face-to-face opportunities. “There definitely are positives to having virtual meetings, as well.”