The Virtual Switch: Online Conferencing during COVID-19

When confronted with the sudden restrictions by Covid-19 measures, the organizers of the annual LOGIC conference had to make a quick decision: postpone, cancel or drastically adapt the event? They decided for the latter option, and ended up pushing forward their own vision of equity, diversity and inclusion in chemistry.

Since 2017, the Leaders Overcoming Gender Inequality in Chemistry (LOGIC) conference has been held annually across Canada as a satellite meeting to the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CCCE). The mission of this conference is to present attendees with opportunities to network with like-minded individuals, enhance professional skills through a series of workshops, and be inspired by a panel of strong role models from diverse backgrounds. This year, the conference was hosted by the Canadians Working for Inclusivity in Chemical Sciences, Engineering and Technology (CWIC) Network.

Initially, the LOGIC2020 retreat was planned to be held in Winnipeg, Manitoba with the theme “Seeing beyond the visible spectrum” where the main focuses were highlighting invisible barriers which minorities in science may face, LGBTQ+ perspectives along the scientific career path, and how to advance equality and inclusion in the chemical sciences.

The changes in life caused by COVID-19 extend to the scientific community, as the vital act of staying home impacted the fate of upcoming in-person conferences.  The events were either postponed, cancelled, or – in a few cases – moved online. After the announcement that CCCE2020 had been cancelled for the well-being and safety of attendees, the organizers of LOGIC2020 had to make a decision.

Finding New Ways to Connect

We did not want the event to be completely cancelled, and even though it could not be held in-person, we thought it would make for a good occasion to bring positive energy and motivation in these times of difficulty. Thus, we came to a consensus that we will put in the effort to make a virtual LOGIC conference possible. This meant that many parts of the program had to be changed, and we had to learn how to integrate our conference into an online one in the best way possible.

The fact that our speakers, panelists, workshop organizers and sponsors were on board to contribute to an online LOGIC motivated us to proceed with planning and reimagining the conference. So, two months before the original conference dates, it was made official that LOGIC was going virtual with a revised schedule that spanned over a full week.

Advertisement for the virtual LOGIC2020 gained international traction and attendees came from different backgrounds and all career stages, with many who were first-time LOGIC participants. The virtual version of  LOGIC brought people together in an unconventional and unprecedented way.

Herein, we describe the conference components, and a breakdown of the virtual aspects of the LOGIC2020 program. We want to show that a successful online conference is possible, and we provide an overview of suggested improvements for future events of this sort.

Invited Talks on YouTube

This year, the invited speakers at LOGIC were incredible professionals who talked about diverse topics ranging from LGBTQ+ representation to catalysing a career in academia. Due to the unique circumstances of 2020, speakers were asked to upload their prepared presentations to YouTube with hidden links only available to the attendees via the Slack software.

LOGIC participants could view these videos at any point during the conference while posting questions and feedback to the speakers on Slack or during Office Hours. This gave the audiences a unique opportunity to interact with the speakers one on one, which may not have been possible in an in-person conference. Moreover, the LOGIC organizers required that all videos posted, including the talks and welcome videos, be accompanied by subtitles to make the videos more accessible.Screenshot of the LOGIC conference

Even though webinars were pre-recorded, we felt that it was important to make time for personal interaction between attendees and the speakers. For that, we organized two live office hour sessions on Zoom, moderated by a LOGIC organizer. Taking into account the international nature of the conference, 3pm CDT was selected for the office hours. These sessions were very different to a regular Q&A at in-person conferences. We opted to have two office hour sessions and invited half of our invited speakers to each time slot. The planned format was to ask questions to one invited speaker, but since anyone could participate in the discussion, it grew into an incredible group discussion with other equity, diversity, and inclusion experts and LOGIC attendees adding to the dialogue. Using Zoom provided everyone equal footing in the discussion and broke down barriers between attendees and invited speakers.

Twitter Poster Session

An online poster session was held to showcase and recognize initiatives and extracurricular work done by students and student-led organizations. The poster session was held on Twitter which has shown to be a popular platform among the chemistry community.

We provided poster templates and directions on how to post them on to Twitter. Based on scope, posters were uploaded under the following hashtags: #LOGIC2020EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives), #LOGIC2020_WiS (Women in Science), #LOGIC2020WICgroup (Women in Chemistry resource groups), and #LOGIC2020SciPol (Science Policy).

The posters covered topics such as equity and diversity in the chemical science world, mental health issues among graduate students, activities of resource groups, and much more. It was an interesting way to hold poster sessions where participants and non-participants could take their time to browse through at their own pace instead of the rushed nature of the in-person poster sessions. The Twitter atmosphere allowed for engagement, questions, and discussions, and was a great networking opportunity. Prizes were also distributed at the end of the conference after being graded by selected judges.

Virtual Smalltalk, Roundtable Discussions (… and Karaoke)

Previous LOGIC retreats had hosted very successful face-to-face networking sessions. For example, in 2019, the workshops and concluding banquet had pre-assigned seating, which forced participants to sit with unfamiliar faces at each rotation. The feasibility of this is partially related to the smaller scale of the retreat, having just below one hundred registrants for 2019. Many of the conference participants were students or early career professionals, thereby making the networking opportunities at LOGIC impactful for finding mentors, allies, and collaborators. Moving into 2020, we were determined to keep that calibre of networking alive, despite being in an online format. We did this by using live Zoom meetings, where most participants had their cameras turned on and their names attached to their camera window, in order to allow for a face-to-face interaction. We did not require cameras to be turned on, however, to ensure equity best practices were upheld.

“It was easier than expected to build connections virtually.”

Participants joined one large Zoom meeting, and then were divided into a series of breakout sessions. The break-out room function separates the participants into groups where they could communicate in a smaller meeting. Each breakout session had about five participants and lasted approximately fifteen minutes. Participants would be brought back into the main Zoom meeting to debrief about the last breakout before being placed into the next session with new faces. Each session began with general introductions between the participants, such as their current location and career level. Then, the remaining time was used to dive into other topics, including discussing quarantine regulations with people from different provinces or countries, what the weather was like, or bonding over familiar colleagues.

At in-person conferences, it can feel intimidating and tiring to network and meet new people, and some will prefer to remain in the social circle they came with. With this event, the random breakout rooms forced participants to chat with people they otherwise may not have talked to. Notably, the Zoom networking felt comfortable, and it was easier than expected to build connections virtually. However, this scheduled social hour was just one of many chances for social interaction.

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Focused discussions were held on the final day of the retreat. Simultaneous Zoom meetings took place covering different roundtable discussion topics: science communication, science policy, mental health in grad school, LGBTQ+ in STEM, how to be an ally, and more. The sessions ran for one hour and had anywhere from three to fifteen people join in the conversation depending on the interest of the topic. These roundtable discussions were run by an expert in that field and each session was moderated by a designated LOGIC organizer. Therefore, the conversations remained focused on one topic and allowed people to safely delve into ideas that they were passionate about or interested in learning more about.

Additionally, LOGIC organizers hosted several informal Zoom hangouts over the week. This gave participants a chance to talk in a larger group about anything off topic and even included a Zoom karaoke session. Thus, by the end of the week, LOGIC2020 participants had many chances to socialize with many new people during a time when social distancing is critical, thereby achieving our goal of hosting successful networking opportunities.

Panel Discussion – No more Fear of Asking Questions

The conference culminated with a panel discussion on the final day, featuring four chemists from different career paths.  This event was hosted using Zoom Webinar, which provided a user friendly and tunable online platform. Zoom Webinar provides two different options for individuals to participate in the online space: either as a “panelist” or an “attendee”. To better mimic the atmosphere of an in-person panel discussion, panelists and moderators participated via “panelist mode”, where both their video and microphone were on, whereas the audience participated via “attendee mode”, where their video and microphone were off during the event.

We opted to use the Q&A box feature while disabling the chat window function, therefore minimizing confusion about where to post questions. However, in hindsight, the chat window function may have been a helpful tool in providing live-time feedback or comments from the attendees during the event, which will be considered in the future. The Q&A box also offered the option for participants to submit their questions anonymously. This was a welcomed feature and was included in hopes that participants would feel more comfortable posing questions to the panel. Asking questions during an in-person conference may be intimidating, thus allowing anonymous question submission offers a unique advantage of using an online space.

“All in all, the online space provided a unique experience that mimicked the feel that would have been obtained in an in-person event.”

Another function, which was appealing of Zoom Webinar, was the moderators were able to control whether an attendee had access to use their microphone. This allowed attendees to ask their question live to the panel. When a question was posed in the Q&A box (and was not submitted anonymously), the moderators were able to prompt the attendee to ask their question live in their own words. This was a positive feature as attendees were able to engage in conversation with the panelists and enabled for follow-up questions. All in all, the online space provided a unique experience that mimicked the feel that would have been obtained in an in-person event, and the anonymous question submission was an advantage of using an online platform.

Exchanging Ideas in Workshops

The LOGIC2020 program included two workshops; one was facilitated by Dr. Lisa Willis and the other by Catalyst – a global non-profit organization that aims to “accelerate women into leadership”. Dr. Willis’ workshop focused on how to write an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) statement for applications and grant proposals to the NSERC (a major funding agency in Canada). Catalyst’s workshop, on the other hand, discussed how to engage men as allies in order to promote a gender-inclusive environment.

Both workshops were hosted using Zoom Meetings. Participants were separated into two groups in an effort to reduce the number of attendees, and to promote discussion within the workshop. Each group visited one workshop for an hour and a half, and then following a 30-minute break, the groups moved on to the second workshop. Zoom Meetings provided an effective environment to aid the exchange of ideas during the workshops. The screen share function allowed Powerpoint presentations to be visible to all attendees.

Dr. Willis was able to strategically integrate break-out rooms into her workshop in order to promote conversations amongst participants. Then after five or so minutes, the host could bring the participants back together into a big group and continue the workshop from there. Online conferences have their challenges as communicating through a screen inhibits personal interactions; however incorporating break-out rooms was one of the features that allowed the host to integrate a more personal feel to the workshop and facilitate discussion across participants.

The workshops were held on the Saturday of the week-long conference. Despite initial excitement circling the workshops, attendance was lower than expected. A flipped-approach to the conference schedule may provide a solution to this problem. Feedback provided after the event suggested the content of the conference was too spread-out. For online conferences in the future, it may be more beneficial to include the interactive portion of the conference at the beginning in order to increase attendance and give participants a chance to interact with each other early on.

Day-to-day Communication via Slack

When planning for the virtual LOGIC retreat, we wanted the attendees to have an opportunity to interact with each other and engage in discussions. One of our primary goals was to have everything integrated into one platform that was user friendly, and to also stay organized by having discussions separated into different categories. Hence, Slack was selected as the platform to make daily announcements, have discussions about the webinars, networking, and share resources. The Slack software also allows integration with the video conferencing platform Zoom.

Slack was an essential tool during the virtual conference. There were individual channels created for the keynote seminar, recorded webinars, workshops, networking, and daily announcements. A private channel was also created for organizers to communicate with each other in case of emergency situations. These channels allowed attendees to engage with the speakers, workshop hosts, and have detailed conversations with other attendees. The speakers and workshop hosts were able to provide detailed answers to any questions that were asked during the retreat, and it kept the conversation going throughout the duration of the conference.

Slack also offers an analytics tool where you can track engagement through how many messages are sent during events and the activity, or posting habits of attendees spanning the length of the conference. We saw a huge spike in daily active members and active members posting messages at the beginning of the conference (160 users), but by the end of the week it had dropped by 75%. The private messaging feature on Slack also allowed users to network with other attendees. However, with the comfort of staying at home and being behind a keyboard, it was sometimes challenging to have sensitive and uncomfortable discussions. Nevertheless, Slack made it very accessible and effortless to engage in discussions and network.

Improved access and flexibility

Moving LOGIC2020 online came with the advantage of reaching a broad network of individuals around the globe. Participants were from Canada and the United States, Belgium, England, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and Australia. Accessibility to LOGIC2020 was also improved since moving to an online platform required no registration fee for the first time. The cost of organizing an online conference was significantly less than an in-person conference and the conference budget could be covered entirely through sponsorship.

“Offering LOGIC2020 as a free conference eliminated financial barriers and further promoted an inclusive environment.”

As a result, this improved accessibility of LOGIC2020 to attendees who may not have been able to access funding to cover conference registration and travel expenses. Offering LOGIC2020 as a free conference was an exciting moment for the organizing committee as it eliminated financial barriers and further promoted an inclusive environment embodying the vision of LOGIC in creating equity and inclusion in chemical sciences. The virtual format gave a free, open invitation to discuss intersectionalities through the lens of a chemist and serve a much wider audience than ever before.

An ongoing goal of LOGIC is to show chemists of all levels of their career that regardless of their gender, race, sexuality, etc., they deserve the chance to be successful in this field. However, these pathways to success are not always equitable, therefore LOGIC also aims to show all members of the community how they can be an ally and support one another, in order to break down systemic barriers in STEM. One such method is through visibility, such as providing a platform for diverse chemists to speak about their career at LOGIC. For example, at LOGIC 2020, this included having a tenured professor who opted to be “out in STEM”. This was for the purpose of showing younger members of the LGBTQ community that they are welcome in STEM, that they should feel safe in this space, and additionally open conversations about challenges and provide support for publicly identifying yourself as part of the LGBTQ community. Having a free virtual LOGIC conference can provide attendees access to the LGBTQ in STEM community, which is especially important for those in countries where it is not as accepted.

Other advantages in improving accessibility of LOGIC2020 was the ability to include closed captions during presentations as well as having a more flexible conference schedule. During the week-long LOGIC conference, webinars were posted each morning and were available throughout the conference. This enabled attendees to view the webinars at their own time, and accommodated international attendees where time is an important factor in participation in the conference.

All of these components were a challenge when we quickly adjusted the organization of the LOGIC2020 program and moving our conference to an online platform gave us the opportunity to explore online accessibility. Speaker subtitles, schedule flexibility, and having an online portion to include more international attendees are all important aspects of accessibility that we have worked through and will port over to our in-person conference in 2021.

[Title Image by Chris Montgomery via Unsplash]

Nadia Laschuk, Nikhat Lubna, Meagan Oakley, Brooke Richtik, Simarpreet Singh and Nour Tanbouza

Nadia Laschuk, Nikhat Lubna, Meagan Oakley, Brooke Richtik, Simarpreet Singh and Nour Tanbouza are the organizers of the Leaders Overcoming Gender Inequality in Chemistry (LOGIC) conference in 2020.

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