The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed scientific meetings, preventing travel and in-person gatherings. The research community is adapting by moving meetings online, experimenting with different approaches and formats. For example, the 2020 Advances in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Therapies and the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference meetings offered a combination of prerecorded and live talks that were posted during the scheduled conference windows.
The recent Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Global Symposium took a different approach. It posted prerecorded talks available on demand from September 1, then followed them up with a live Q&A session with speakers and session chairs on September 22 (Sep 2020 news). The content of talks was highly coordinated to ensure all areas were covered and information not repeated. Attendance exceeded expectations, with about 1,660 people registering for the free meeting. Before the pandemic, the conference was scheduled to be an AAIC preconference. These usually draw a few hundred attendees.
This format garnered positive reviews overall, with researchers suggesting other meetings might want to try the same approach. However, some noted that the format might be unsuitable for very large conferences because of the amount of preparation required on the part of the organizers.
The organizing committee, which consisted of Alison Goate at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Elizabeth Blue at the University of Washington, Seattle; Margaret Pericak-Vance at the University of Miami; and Badri Vardarajan at Columbia University, New York, considered the meeting to have been an educational forum. “We wanted viewers to get a global sense of what was going on in the field of AD genetics,” Pericak-Vance told Alzforum.
The committee divided the meeting into seven themes, each with its own session chairs. They chose the speakers for each theme and worked with them to make sure the key background was conveyed. Chairs reviewed the slides ahead of time, eliminated overlap between the talks, and harmonized the look of the presentations, noted Lindsay Farrer at Boston University, who chaired the session on neuronal signaling and tau. Talks included some new data, but less than at a live meeting, the chairs agreed.
It appears the preparation paid off. “I learned so much from the presentations on biomarkers and neuroimmunity. I’m still watching some of the talks,” Pericak-Vance said. All sessions will remain available online for the next year.
The concluding two-hour Q&A session drew 360 attendees, who submitted questions ahead of time or during the session. Questions were grouped by session topic and directed to the appropriate speaker. Endocytosis session co-chair Carlos Cruchaga, Washington University, St. Louis, said the questions were more insightful than some at in-person meetings. Alas, the drawback remains that there was less back and forth than in person, said session chair Philip De Jager, Columbia University, New York.
This highly curated format may be unrealistic for large meetings with hundreds of sessions, and future conferences will experiment some more. For example, the AAIC Neuroscience Next conference on November 9-10 will try lightning poster rounds.
Looking ahead, as the pandemic becomes better managed, hybrid meetings may become possible. “Virtual elements offer the potential for our conferences to reach far more scientists and other audiences around the globe who may previously have experienced financial, travel, cultural, or other barriers to attending an in-person event,” Maria Carrillo of the Alzheimer’s Association wrote to Alzforum. One advantage of virtual meetings is that they are less expensive to host, as there are no travel expenses and speakers receive no honoraria.
Richard Mayeux at Columbia University Medical Center believes online meetings will become a standard part of scientific collaboration. His hospital now offers video access to its weekly grand rounds, which has doubled “attendance.” “People in our satellite hospitals could never make it to rounds before, but they can log in for an hour. This isn’t going away,” he said.
Nonetheless, all researchers Alzforum contacted agreed that virtual meetings cannot replace an in-person experience. Much progress at live meetings occurs during hallway chats and over meals, where researchers discuss cutting-edge findings and arrange collaborations. “The pandemic really is slowing down science. It’s a big loss to the field,” Pericak-Vance said.—Madolyn Bowman Rogers
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