Breaking Down Silos to Stop COVID-19

Scientists across the country are focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19, testing potential treatments and developing a vaccine. The science must go on. The world depends on it. But how can researchers collaborate at a time when labs are shutting down and there are restrictions on meeting face-to-face? 

 By going virtual, of course.

When the response to COVID-19 meant that scientists would have to cancel in-person events, the KI team offered to share what it has learned over the years with the scientific community by hosting two free webinars to teach scientists how to rescue their face-to-face meetings

“Without the meeting, I would never have known they existed.”

Nicole Frank, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Disease (3i) Initiative at the University of Utah. The initiative includes 185 principal investigators and the members of their labs on the Salt Lake City campus. Frank used what she learned from KI to run a virtual meeting that wasn’t already on the 3i calendar: Flash Talks on COVID-19-related research. 

“I learned quite a bit and it sparked several new collaborations,” wrote virtual attendee Jessica Kramer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, in an email to Frank. The new collaborations will save money and allow researchers to improve each others’ experimental design, Kramer said. “Without the meeting, I would never have known they existed.

According to Frank, about 60 to 80 people typically attend 3i’s weekly seminars. She and her colleagues expected 30 to 50 3I members  to attend the COVID-19 Flash Talks on March 20th. Instead, 207 people attended — a surprising number given the fact that she and her 3i colleagues decided to organize the virtual event just 10 days before, and she attended the KI webinar only a week before.

Frank learned first-hand how productive virtual events can be in February 2019 when she participated in the KI-facilitated Creative Scientist Workshop sponsored by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science. “I was blown away. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t want to attend any in-person meetings ever again.’”  

Vicente Planelles, Ph.D.

Collaborators Close to Home

Now Frank has brought the virtual experience to her own campus. The COVID Flash Talks event consisted of 12 talks given by researchers at various stages of COVID-related research. “These were very preliminary talks. In fact, two researchers didn’t even have slides,” Franks says. Each presenter was given 10 minutes, seven to present and three to answer questions. “It all ran very smoothly.”

The feedback from the event has been overwhelmingly positive. “Typically, I would have gone outside our institution to seek certain types of expertise, but now I know some of that expertise is right here,” said Vicente Planelles, Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

Frank is thrilled that the event is helping researchers like Kramer and Panelles work together to combat COVID-19. It also has helped her do her job. She is now organizing a coronavirus working group on campus and has also been given matching funds from the campus’ Vice President of Research’s office to do a call for seed grants. “Getting that support was partially due to the success of our event.”