When Dr. Shalini Prasad, Head of the Department of Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, submitted her abstract for presentation at the ACS Spring 2020 National Meeting & Expo, it was under the assumption she would be presenting her findings live and in-person in front of an audience of her peers. Her findings were also interesting and novel enough to catch the attention of the ACS public relations team, who planned a press release and other activities to gain wider distribution for her research. However, COVID-19 changed all that. When the conference was cancelled and ACS quickly shifted to launch SciMeetings – a virtual platform for hosting meeting presentations, posters, and proceedings from the conference – Dr. Prasad had a decision to make; present her findings virtually via the platform or wait until next year to present in person as originally intended. In this interview, Dr. Prasad discusses why she chose to go ahead with a virtual presentation, the pros and cons of this approach, and how the pandemic could change scientific meetings long-term.
Tell me about your decision to move your presentation from an oral in-person presentation to a virtual one.
Dr. Prasad: As you know, I was originally scheduled to give a talk at the ACS conference. There was also a press release planned and I worked closely with the ACS team to prepare for the press activity as well. When some parts of the conference were moved online, there was an option to post my talk to SciMeetings or hold it until next year and present it live. I thought the work was interesting and should be shared now, rather than wait. However, what I would give as a virtual “talk” would have to be different than if I were speaking about it in person. In person, my slides had no narrative, as I would be narrating them as part of the talk. Here, that would not be the case. Instead, you have to be able to tell a deeper story with your slides and use more pictures to do so – tell a visual story or create a storyboard.
Is there added value in presenting your research in this way – as a full story?
Dr. Prasad: There is a lot of value. For example, I received a lot of input from researchers in parts of Europe where English is not their first language. In this virtual form with the fuller story documented visually, they could clearly understand from the pictures what the research was all about. And there was interest from non-researchers too – local newspapers in Europe were contacting me about the research as well and interested in writing stories to promote it.
More importantly, I was able to reach out to a larger audience and in a different way. For example, if you use social media, you have lots of opportunities to disseminate your research more widely. In my case, ACS still did a press release about my research which linked back to the paper, and I posted it on my LinkedIn page and then it was reposted multiple times. Also, I have since submitted the paper to ACS for publication and, once published, my goal is to be able to connect all these pieces together – the virtual presentation, the press release, the published paper, and all the conversation and dissemination surrounding it.
Lastly, it can help you find collaborators and even funders for research from a broader audience – in Europe in my case. They can find you through social media and start a conversation with you. I have even been able to secure funding this way – because of the increased visibility.
What advice would you give both researchers and conference organizers considering a virtual presentation?
Dr. Prasad: Post COVID-19, this may become the new normal, so having guidance for researchers on how to present in a visual format would be very helpful. For example, conference organizers could create templates for researchers to use in developing presentations for virtual posting. Also, researchers should become adept at using social media to promote their research. Conference organizers can help with training here as well.
How do you think conference may change or should change going forward?
Dr. Prasad: Conferences should have a hybrid model for delivery in the future – in-person and virtual – this will become necessary. And they should provide an archival platform like SciMeetings going forward - especially In the interest of open access and sharing. If a researcher is willing to present their information at a conference, they should have no issue having it available digitally in this way as well. You can also look to expand the posting and add things like videos of the researchers talking for 30-60 seconds about their research as well.
Beyond the general wider dissemination, there is now data and stats to show the interest level in the research. You can generate a report for the researcher to show the level of interest in their work. And conference organizers can do things like track all the traffic and then go back and do press releases for things that elicited a lot of interest where it wasn’t anticipated. This can all be used to stretch the conference experience.