Navigating the Virtual ESA2020 Meeting

Many of us regular ESA delegates were disappointed that the 2020 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting had to go virtual. I look forward to the annual chance to catch up with colleagues and friends, meet new ecologists, and hear about the latest research. This year I was looking forward to several days in Salt Lake City with the chance to explore the city and environs.

However, I embraced the opportunity to attend virtually. Off the bat I have to commend the ESA for successfully taking on the challenge in what must have been an enormous undertaking. For most of us, this was a meeting of firsts. It was the first virtual meeting at such a large scale. I had attended another local virtual meeting earlier in the summer, but in that case, they spread presentations out one-a-day for a week. ESA2020 was on a massive scale, just like the usual meeting that many of are used to attending in person.

A few days before the meeting, my lab group and I worried during our weekly Zoom that not everything was ready on the meeting site. But presentations and posters were being actively uploaded, and by Sunday just about everything was there. I took up the opportunity, and rather than spending the day travelling to Utah, I sat down at home and in an unsurpassed fit of enthusiasm exhausted myself watching 9 presentations. I posted a question after watching Carla D’Antonio et al.’s paper, and I was excited to get a response within a short time. One of our lab posters (Ren et al) had a question by Sunday evening which lead author doctoral student Zhe Ren responded to.

The online program resembled the usual program with a bewildering array of presentations of different types ranging from plenaries to symposia, and from contributed papers (pre-recorded) to posters (uploaded PDFs). As usual, I scrambled to decide what to attend. I usually make my mind up over coffee each morning, so I charged up my espresso maker at home and did the same this year. 

The theme of the meeting was ‘Harnessing the Ecological Data Revolution’ and many of the papers were on this topic. Using large datasets, networking, and data archiving and access were the topics of many sessions. I gravitated to those involving grasslands and enjoyed papers such as those presented by Meghan Avolio and Kimberly Komatsu that made use of the CoRRE database to investigate how plant communities are responding to global change drivers.

Another very important theme present throughout the meeting was that of diversity and inclusion, and environmental justice.  Coping with COVID-19 came up a lot. In fact, the last session I attended was a networking hour on COVID-19: Impacts on Teaching in which participants shared experiences and ideas on how we would deal with the upcoming semester or term. For me, an online teaching experience starts in less than one week’s time, and I’m worried. I’m not ready.

I took in the plenary sessions, inspired and impressed by the potential to use artificial intelligence and machine learning by Lucas Joppa, the need to restore the atmosphere by Rob Jackson, the importance of atmospheric rivers by Tashiana Osborne, and the implication by Russell Monson that isoprene is a molecule as ecologically important as Rubisco (he didn’t actually say that). For context, atmospheric rivers are ribbons of atomospheric moisture that form over the Pacific Ocean and can feed snowfall over land. Isoprene is a volatile hemiterpene chloroplast metabolite emitted from many plants that among other roles affects atmospheric methane and ozone.

In addition to the plenaries and other paper sessions, I also dropped into a few Q&A sessions, unmuting myself and sharing my video a few times (I mostly lurk), and asked a few questions of poster presenters. Overall, I attended over 40 presentations – far more than I usually do!

The one type of session that really didn’t work for me was the posters. There were many poster sessions, but they were available for the whole meeting with no time slot or way to engage with the authors in real-time. The posters were just static one-page PDFs of the poster. It would have been better to have a Zoom link when the poster presenters were available, perhaps as a themed group with a moderator, to field questions and discussion.

Overall, I prefer being at a face-to-face meeting because of the better opportunities for personal engagement and networking. And, sorry Journal of Ecology Associate Editors, no working dinner in a fancy restaurant this year! But, I did get a lot from this virtual meeting and will probably attend others. I suspect that going forward we will see hybrid meetings, perhaps with tiered registration levels, and availability of certain types of session for online delegates. 

Surprisingly, when the final Q&A session finished at 4:00 pm on Thursday, I felt a familiar feeling of deflation that the meeting was over. At least I didn’t have to drag myself through airports to get home. 

David Gibson Executive Editor, Journal of Ecology

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