Plants in Cyberspace: Lessons Learned from an entirely virtual Midcontinental Paleobotanical Colloquium
The 37th Midcontinent Paleobotanical Colloquium (MPC) was set to be hosted in Seattle in early May of 2020, organized by us in the Strömberg lab and other paleobotanists at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Rooms were reserved at the new Burke Museum, deals struck with local hotels, catering plans made, field trips were planned and reserved, and abstracts and travel award applications were submitted. Then, all of that was disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic, making the idea of an in-person meeting a pipe dream. While disappointing, we soon began to realize the opportunity we had in front of us to contribute to some positive changes in our field. For years, many people have talked about the problems that emerge from our current model of in-person academic conferences—mainly involving carbon emissions and exclusion of attendees of along axes of, for example, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and academic status. We wanted to create a model and example of how an academic conference could be run virtually, still preserving the important benefits of an in-person meeting, while at the same time promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of paleobotany. More broadly, we also wanted to allow students to show off their work and stay connected with their scientific community in the middle of the pandemic. To gauge the interest for such a meeting, we deployed a survey among those previously registered. When we received positive responses, a virtual MPC was rescheduled to May 29-31. This blog will include an explanation of how we ran it, how it turned out, what people thought, and will end with a discussion of the potential positive impact of virtual conferences on diversity and inclusivity.
The Midcontinent Paleobotanical Colloquium (MPC) is a relatively smaller conference of usually 20-60 in-person attendees, hosted by different institutions every year. The meeting encourages a student focus in oral and poster presentations. Despite the name, the conference takes on a larger breadth of research than just the middle of North America.
In order to gauge the attendee’s impression of various aspects of the virtual conference, a post-conference survey was circulated. Sixty-two people responded, out of which one was an avocational paleobotanist, eight were post-docs, 26 were professional paleobotanists, one was a retired professional paleobotanist, and 26 were student paleobotanists. Further, our respondents were mostly participants (42) but about half of our presenters also responded (9 oral presenters and 11 poster presenters).
The components of an in-person meeting we wanted to preserve were oral sessions, poster sessions, social/networking events, and workshops. We used Zoom Pro as our virtual platform to host the meeting, available to us free of cost through the University of Washington, although attendees could join with only a Zoom basic account. To curb zoom bombing, a separate private website was created, in addition to our public and previously advertised website, to host all zoom links and act as one stop shop for the conference. We emailed it to those registered only a few days before the conference began and asked that no one share the link. Here is a quick summary of our schedule (all times in PDT, see more detailed schedule [https://sites.google.com/uw.edu/mpc-2020/virtual-mpc-2020?]):
Friday May 29th
10 am–3 pm: Online Database Solutions for Paleobotany Workshop
5–7 pm: MPC Pub Trivia event
Saturday May 30th
8:00 – 8:30: Introduction and Eulogy for Brian Axsmith
8:30 – 10:00: Oral session 1
10:00–11:00: Break, with “coffee break” social event from 10:30-11:00
11:00–12:00: Oral session 2
1:00–2:30: Poster session 1
4:00: Happy hour
Sunday May 31st
8:00–10:00: Oral session 3
10:00–11:00: Break, with “coffee break” social event from 10:30-11:00
11:00–12:00: Oral session 4
1:00–2:30: Poster session 2
Survey respondents overall were very positive regarding the technical program and design of the conference. Most (97%) thought that the length of the conference—two days encompassing four oral sessions and two poster sessions—was a good amount of time. Overall, respondents rated their likelihood of attending a future MPC as 4.68/5 on average.
We had 201 registered participants, 22 oral session presentations, and 21 poster session presentations over the course of the weekend. Paleobotanists that are early in their career appear to prefer presenting their work in a shorter presentation format (i.e., poster rather than oral talk). Sometimes this format is appropriate (e.g., for preliminary results), but other times this choice could be motivated by early career researchers generally being less assertive. To encourage early career paleobotanists to present oral talks and posters/lightning talks in a proportion equal to what professional paleobotanists typically do, during the registration process we gave participants the opportunity to choose their preferred presentation format but also the option of not expressing any preference. We then tried to accommodate everyone’s first choice but prioritized early career presenters over professionals for oral presentations. Many professionals showed their support by being extremely flexible in their preferred presentation format. This resulted in early career researchers representing 72% of all presenters (25 students and six postdoctoral researchers). Additionally, we had 85 registered participants in the Friday workshop (Online Database Solutions for Paleobotany). Overall, the number of people that partook in the Virtual MPC is more than three times as many as the most well attended MPCs in the past.
Protocol for moderators
The Format--Logistics of the oral sessions were handled live by a team of four moderators (see protocol for summary of duties). We set up a meeting rather than a webinar because webinars were not readily accessible through our zoom account. Oral presentations were pre-recorded and played during the session by moderator 1 to avoid interruptions or delays because of the variable internet connections of the presenters. We asked for presentations to be ~12 minutes, allowing ~3 minutes for Q&A. We provided instructions for how presenters could record their presentations using Zoom or PowerPoint. All presentations were scanned for potential technical issues ahead of time. Moderator 2 introduced the speaker and presentation (noting if the speaker introduced the title of their talk themselves). During the entire oral session, moderator 3 made sure everyone’s video and audio was off, to alleviate bandwidth issues and minimize distractions. The chat was enabled so that only moderators (i.e., host and co-hosts) could send messages to “everyone”, and attendees could send messages only to moderators, also to minimize distractions. Q&A was designed in a way to promote inclusion, giving the option of attendees to ask questions anonymously in the chat (another reason to restrict the chat) or to ask the question themselves. For the latter, attendees would simply enter their name in the chat and moderator 2 would call on them to unmute themselves. As Q&A was beginning, moderator 1 displayed a slide with Q&A instructions, moderator 4 made sure the presenter was unmuted, requested their video be on, and “spotlighted” their video. Moderator 4 was also the “ethics moderator” on call (see below).
How it went—On Saturday we noted at least 137 participants in the oral session, and on Sunday 142 participants. At any one time, there were up to 108 participants in the oral sessions, indicating that people choose to come and go as needed. All in all, the oral sessions went smoothly, the workload was manageable for all moderators, and the video and audio quality were good for attendees. It was helpful for moderator 1, who was sharing their screen with the video of the presentation, to have dual monitors and essential for them to have good internet connection and to share the downloaded versions of the video files. When sharing your screen it is best to share specific apps rather than the whole screen, but the apps must be opened prior to sharing your screen in Zoom. During Q&A, participants often sent their questions to modertor 1, rather than moderator 2 who had changed their display name to "QUESTION MODERATOR". We ran into one significant technical difficulty involving an offset in the audio and video (slides and animations) of three pre-recorded presentations; the slide the presenter was speaking about was not the one displayed. In affected videos there was a ~5 second black screen at the beginning of the .mp4 file after the audio began. We realized this problem was not apparent in the original submitted video file but arose after the video was downloaded onto the moderator’s computer. The problem seems to be in how particular video player apps merge audio and video components of a video file (particularly when presentations are made in PowerPoint?). Using a different video player app or computer fixed this issue. To mediate this problem in the future, we suggest going through all downloaded videos on the computer and video app with which they will ultimately be played, to check for these problems ahead of time.
Feedback—Survey respondents indicated that oral sessions were effective in their design (rated 4.13/5). Oral presenters were slightly more likely to rate the format of their presentation sessions higher (4.56/5 on average). Respondents noted that the pre-recorded videos allowed presenters to relax during their session, that this format allowed for a greater diversity of speakers and attendees, and that the Q&A style encouraged more attendees to ask questions.
Suggestions on how oral sessions could be improved include 1) more time for questions either by shortening talks, adding a separate general Q&A session, or increasing time in each oral session (mentioned by 15 respondents); 2) have presenters give their presentation live during the oral session to allow more connection with the audience and alleviate technical issues (although we, again, note that many presenters may have slower internet connections which could potentially lead to more technical issues, not fewer) (mentioned by 9 respondents); 3) share the presenter’s video or materials separately or ahead of time to allow participants to peruse; and 4) require presenters to include the video of them presenting during their talk (not just their presentation with audio overlaid)—note that we suggested but did not require this.
The Format--Poster sessions were done as pre-recorded 3-minute lightning talks; we provided presenters with instructions on how to record those. These presentations were available on our private website for folks to watch before, during, or after the poster sessions. We felt that back-and-forth discussions are an important components of poster presentations and wanted to preserve that aspect in our virtual sessions. Thus, each presenter had their own separate zoom meeting that participants could pop in and out of by following links to those rooms posted alongside the videos on our private website. Presenters shared their screen and were able to access and share many more resources during discussion than they would at an in-person meeting. We asked those who had a Zoom Pro account to create their own meeting and send us the link. A Pro account is required because Zoom Basic has a 40 minute limit on meetings. For those that did not have a Pro account, we created a meeting for them from the Pro account of a member of our organizing team, but note that a single user cannot create multiple meetings that happen simultaneously, so each new meeting needed to be created by a different user.
How it went--From our perspective the sessions ran very smoothly. The number of people who were in a given meeting at one time was similar to, or exceeded how many gather around a poster at an in-person meeting. There was some confusion from some attendees on the format of our poster sessions and where to access the meeting links and the videos. We suggest that, if this format is followed in the future, meeting organizers make sure that those points are made very clear to everyone ahead of time.
Feedback--Survey respondents indicated that the poster sessions were effective in their design (rated 4.39/5). Respondents particularly noted that this style allowed for a greater engagement with speakers, more time to ask questions and learn about research, and that a great amount of collaboration and mentorship was achieved through this format. Suggestions on how poster sessions could be improved include 1) allowing presenters to visit other posters (either changing the format of the session, making the session shorter for less overlap in posters, or giving presenters the option to leave their posters at a set time to see other posters) (mentioned by 3 respondents); 2) use a format other than lightning talks (interactive poster (e.g. Prezi), static .pdf of a poster rather than video presentation); and 3) at least one respondent suggested finding hosting websites other than Google or YouTube to allow scientists from China, Cuba, North Korea and other countries where Google is banned to participate.
Protocol for moderators
Format--We hosted a workshop titled Online Database Solutions for Paleobotany Workshop, led by Ellen Currano, Andrew Zaffos, Dori Contreras, and Claire Cleveland. The purpose of the workshop was to stimulate community discussion and input into the development and implementation of The Paleobotany Portal (PBOT), an integrated web client and database for fossil plants. This was the most logistically complex component of our conference because we wanted to allow small pre-assigned groups to discuss particular topics via breakout rooms. During these discussion sessions, members of the group would have access to materials that facilitated discussion and note taking via Google Drive. Specifically, Google Documents were made for each group that included the session sturcutre, aim, mission, and specific questions to discuss. Attendees were sent a pre-workshop survey to gauge what themed discussion groups they were most interested in participating in and this was used to create a list of breakout room assignments. Those who did not fill out the survey were usually placed in groups at random. This list was uploaded to the zoom meeting and used to create “pre-assigned” breakout rooms. The workshop started with an hour long pre-recorded introductory presentation and general Q&A, followed by three separate sessions of small group discussions. At the end of each discussion session, everyone would come back to the main meeting and each group would report out. The workshop ended with a meeting re-cap and invitation to fill out a post-workshop survey.
How it went--Despite the complicated logistics the workshop ran very smoothly with no technical issues. We counted ~68 attendees. Important to note, in our experience managing breakout rooms, people do not always automatically sort into their pre-assigned breakout room. There seems to always be some amount of manual sorting that needs to take place, and it can only be done when participants are present in the meeting. Luckily, we always had at least a 30 minute period before discussion sessions began where a moderator could manually assign those unassigned people into breakout rooms. We suggest that, if you are organizing something similar, to give yourself at least a 15-minute window of time to manually sort those folks who, for one reason or another, were not successfully pre-assigned into their breakout rooms.
Feedback—Twenty-three participants completed non-anonymous surveys about current database use; sixteen participants completed an anonymous survey about the workshop and PBOT. Results indicate that plant fossil collections are not adequately available online and that current databases (PBDB, iDigBio) are underutilized by paleobotanists because of limitations in terms of data structure and organization, particularly the dependence on formally named taxa. Anonymous respondents indicated high excitement about PBOT (average score of 8.9/10), and all named respondents were interested in participating in future working groups. Respondents thought the large number of participants was positive and commented on the many different perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas that were represented. In terms of workshop structure, respondents generally enjoyed the breakout group discussions and found five person groups conducive to inclusive discussion. About half of the responses said that 30 minute breakout sessions were too short for introductions, adequate discussion, and summarizing the main points. Several noted that Zoom’s time warning messages were easy to miss, and it might be useful to investigate other methods of providing time updates. One participant brought up the need to “stress the importance of giving space and listening to everyone,” and two participants thought that students and postdocs might have participated more had breakout sessions been longer. Multiple respondents requested more time for the whole-group recaps following the breakout groups so that every group could report on their discussion. Respondents also suggested assigning breakout groups earlier so that participants could prepare and gather their own ideas, which could then be discussed. The workshop conveners found the Google Docs to be an effective way to capture discussion summaries and are excited to let the data and ideas provided by participants guide further development of PBOT!
Format--We allowed participants to either form their own group ahead of time, or to sign up and randomly be placed on a team (of 5 people maximum), by providing their name and email. Participants signed up on a Google Sheet embedded on our private website. These groupings were then uploaded to “pre-assigned” breakout rooms prior to the start of the event. The trivia consisted of 6 rounds, 5 questions per round, most of the rounds were hosted by guests. The round host would read the questions aloud, and then a google form would be posted in the chat with the questions typed out and a place to submit answers. Teams would then be sent to their breakout rooms to discuss for ~7 minutes. Once everyone was back in the main session, the round host would read out the answers. Simultaneously, a trivia moderator would copy the answers from the google form into a scoresheet, and quickly add up a team’s points for each round. A pivot table would automatically keep track of total points.
How it went--Trivia was a blast! We had 10 groups sign up and had ~54 attendees. We imagined the event lasting ~1.5 hours, but because the group was so lively, it ended up lasting just over 2 hours. As mentioned above, people do not always automatically sort into their pre-assigned breakout room. There seems to always be some amount of manual sorting that needs to take place, and it can only be done when participants are present in the meeting.
Feedback--Participants thought favorably of the event (average response of 4.21/5). Most thought the length of Trivia was just right (20/28 respondents) though some thought it was too long (6/28 respondents). There were varied suggestions relating to the content of the questions, some said there was too much paleobotany focus, some said there was too little paleobotany focus, some said it was too U.S.-centric. One other suggestion was to better emphasize that questions will be available via google form or alternatively integrate that aspect into Zoom so that there is less repetition. Finally, a few respondents suggested pushing trivia to the second night of the conference to allow a more open, welcoming first night with mingling.
Protocol for moderators
Format--The primary goal of the coffee breaks was for folks to meet new people and network. In traditional meetings, social groups can often be cliquey and very intimidating to break into. To help overcome this, virtual meetings allowed a unique opportunity to assign participants to breakout rooms of 3 people randomly and we provided some suggested ice breaker questions via the chat. These groups would last ~5 minutes and then would be randomly re-shuffled. Usually 5 rotations of groups would happen in the 30 minutes allotted to the coffee break.
How it went--We had 41 and 32 participants at coffee breaks on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. This amounts to ~40% of those who attended the oral sessions. Creating random breakout rooms is much more logistically simple than pre-assigned ones, so the technical side went very smoothly.
Feedback--Participants thought quite favorably of the coffee breaks, with an average rating of 4.17/5. Respondents particularly enjoyed the opportunity to meet other paleobotanists, interact with researchers they had not met before, and get a quick survey of the variety and diversity of scientists at the meeting. By far the biggest feedback was to allow more time in each breakout room (13/30 respondents); respondents also suggested using a system that would ensure participants never ended up in the same room multiple times (although we are unaware of how to implement this functionality in Zoom); some respondents also seemed to indicate they would have preferred a more free form social event where they could specifically seek out certain other people to chat with.
Format--The goal of the happy hour was for attendees to catch up with friends/colleagues, network, and to meet new people. We thought it was important to find some way to break folks up into smaller groups, because conversations in Zoom with big groups tend to be dominated by the most talkative attendees. We encouraged people to set up their own zoom meetings ahead of the happy hour if there were particular people they would like to meet with, much like you would organize your own get togethers at an in-person conference. If they wanted to make those meetings public, there was a Google Sheet embedded on our private website they could post that link to. As organizers, we created a few of our own themed meetings as well (e.g., “K-Pg boundary”, “Paleobotany--anything goes”).
Feedback--Participants thought quite favorably of the happy hour, with an average rating of 4.42/5. We noticed that participation in the public groups was relatively low (5-20 participants in each happy hour room) but that participants all enjoyed themselves and expressed enthusiasm for having a free-form social event to catch up with colleagues or to meet new people. We also noticed that the number of happy hour rooms formally set up through our shared Google Sheet was relatively low (only 6 rooms); we feel this may be the result of some confusion from participants on how to set up these sessions, or misunderstanding that participants were able and encouraged to set up their own meetings. Suggestions from our survey on how a virtual happy hour could be improved include 1) calling for a happy hour on the final day of the conference or else some re-shuffling of the order of social events to allow a more informal social time at the end of the conference; 2) some respondents seemed to not have understood the format, so better advertising that the rooms are entirely participant-initiated and hosted would be useful; 3) to allow participants to see who was in each room and look for specific colleagues they wanted to see (although we note several logistical challenges with this). Another option to be considered is to hold the central Zoom meeting open, without breakout rooms, as a spontaneous gathering place where people can just chat or set up new Zoom rooms to move onto, akin to the hallway of a conference venue.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Virtual MPC
In planning this conference, we felt strongly that a virtual format would enable a greater diversity of researchers to participate. Furthermore, the MPC conference is aimed at encouraging early career scientists (e.g., students, postdocs) to share their research and interact with each other and with more senior mentors. With this in mind, we advertised broadly and encouraged, in particular, students to participate. We did so via social media (e.g., Twitter), emails to colleagues, and with help from the Paleobotany section of the Botanical Society of America. We gave preference to abstracts submitted by students, particularly for oral sessions. Before the conference we adapted a code of conduct specific to the meeting (using a code of conduct developed for a Paleo Society short course) that clearly laid out dos and don’ts during the conference itself. When registering, participants had to check a box to acknowledge that they understood and agreed to adhere to this MPC code of conduct; we also posted this code of conduct on the private website and reminded participants of its existence and how violations could be reported before every session. During the oral sessions, we allowed participants to submit questions anonymously to encourage those who might be more reticent to speak up, and when many questions were submitted we randomized the order in which we called them to hear a diversity of voices. One of our moderators (moderator 4) was solely in charge of ensuring conduct was equitable and respectful. This moderator was on call to intercede in the event of inappropriate questions, “zoom bombing”, or other conduct violations. Furthermore, moderators were listed as on-call in event of any conduct infractions which participants would like to report during the conference. We also created social events to encourage mixing and mingling in an attempt to help early career researchers to meet and network with established scientists.
We are happy to report that there were no conduct violations during the conference, and that overall participation from early career researchers was high (25 students and 6 postdocs out of 43 presenters). We regret that we did not collect demographic information, so we are not able to assess our overall diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Based on survey respondents, however, we believe that the conference was overall successful in its mission to encourage diversity and inclusion, although we recognize there is a long way to go on this front. Respondents were asked about our DEI efforts to involve more early career researchers as well as minorities from our discipline. Overall, respondents felt that our efforts to promote student and early career folks were effective (4.24/5 on average) as well as promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (4.26/5 on average). Some of the specific feedback we received on these efforts included:
Early career: Social events focused on advice for early career paleobotanists and/or career advice should have been included, possibly a panel or other format (2 comments); alternatively, some suggested a meet and greet among early career researchers (e.g. students) to promote networking among peers; finally, some suggested we could increase advertising to additional media streams (Facebook page, dedicated Twitter feed, reaching out to paleobotanical societies in different countries etc.).
Diversity, equity, and inclusion: Participants specifically noted that the online format lowers the financial barriers to involvement and that the ability to ask questions anonymously would help to promote groups with past discrimination experience to ask questions. The respondents would like to have seen: 1) panels or breakouts to discuss how to engage URMs in research (as undergraduates or graduates) to promote a more diverse pipeline; 2) recruit more diverse speakers; 3) include a land acknowledgment statement; and 4) offer chat rooms in various languages to welcome international scientists. One suggestion we as organizers would add, is to collect demographic information on participants at registration and from respondents in a post-conference survey.
A Summary of Lessons Learned
For at least a couple of decades, members of the science community have discussed the many problems that the current model of academic conferences pose and sought to come up with solutions in the form of online conferences (e.g., Jones, 2000; Reay, 2003; Welch et al., 2010; Pacchioni, 2020; Sarabipour et al., 2020). One of these problems is the enormous carbon footprint that conference (or seminar) air travel leaves, resulting in the agonizing dilemma that climate-conscious scientists—such as many, if not most, paleobotanists--are themselves contributing to global warming in a way that far outweighs any other personal choices to reduce carbon emissions (e.g., a vegetarian diet, taking the bus instead of driving a car) (Reay, 2003; Hiltner, 2016; Quinton 2020).
Another major disadvantage of traditionally run in-person conferences is in the diversity, equity, and inclusion area. First of all, conferences can be prohibitively expensive after considering travel, accommodation, registration, field trips, and food expenses—particularly for those traveling internationally. Even networking can be expensive, as it is often done at restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. This, even if unintentionally, creates a filter of either academic (easy access to travel grants or support) or socioeconomic status (Reay, 2003; Achakulvisut et al., 2020). For international researchers, travel bans or issues with getting a visa might similarly hinder in-person participation (Hu, 2018; Pacchioni, 2020). Second, many conferences eat up several days, if not a week of participants’ time, including travel, which can be difficult or prohibitive for people with family or other caretaker duties, who have disabilities or are sick, are working a second job, or whose religious practices interfere with travel during a certain time (Achakulvisut et al., 2020). Women (who still tend to take on more of the caretaking role), single parents, and economically disadvantaged scientists are most likely to miss out on in-person conferences because of the time commitment. Even for researchers that are able to get away from their normal life, such travel can take a vital emotional or physical toll (e.g., in the form of jetlag, missed sleep, missing out on time with children). Third, many aspects of the typical conference format do not promote DEI. For example, the question and answer sessions tend to be dominated by senior researchers, whereas more junior scientists, particularly women and minorities are more likely to feel shy about asking questions (Achakulvisut et al., 2020). Networking at regular conferences often relies on the individual courage of junior scientists to introduce themselves to senior professionals who, for a variety of reasons (service work during the conference, meet-ups with collaborators or colleagues) don’t necessarily go out of their way to meet a broad set of new and future colleagues. Even during scheduled networking events, it can be intimidating to walk up to a more senior professional, and this would tend to hit women and minorities hardest. Finally, enforcing codes of conduct can be difficult during regular meetings, even when there are designated monitors and reporters, such as This IS PS Liaisons or GSA RISE at GSA meetings, because people are spread out and there are not always witnesses or people that can intervene when microaggressions or harassment happens.
It seems clear that virtual conferences are here to stay. This is not just because of the recent restrictions on travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but because they can go a long way towards making scientific meetings more environmentally friendly, as well as diverse, equitable, and inclusive. The online format lowers the stakes (time, money) of participating, allowing for flexibility in degree of participation (e.g., important for caretakers), and there are new ways of effecting networking (e.g., “speed networking” in randomized breakout rooms) that promotes inclusiveness. The moderated online sessions and events invite more diversity in terms of whose voice is heard (through, e.g., anonymous questions, using random call). The virtual format also lends itself to effective intervention if there is ever a violation of a meeting code of conduct (which, in our case, luckily, there was not), which should, hopefully, make participants feel more at ease and welcome.
The Virtual MPC 2020 was, to our knowledge, the first paleontological conference to attempt an entirely virtual format. When organizing it, we tried to take advantage of some of the beneficial traits of online conferences just discussed. However, in light of the deeply racist, sexist, and ableist system that we, as scientists, are still operating in, we know that we need to do much better. For example, we can actively work to make sure women and BIPOC participants are amply represented in the conference program, not least as keynote speakers (Arnold, 2015). Therefore, we are committed to keep improving the formula so that we can eventually create a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive conference experience.
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