As we collectively surpass a year and a half together in the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of us suffer from online meeting fatigue and sore monitor eyes. The ASP overcame these challenges this summer and hosted a virtual conference series on July 16, 23, and 30 entitled “Vanguards of Natural Product Research 2021,” leveraging the Virtual Chair platform as a venue to increase engagement and personal connection. The program was very successful in building and maintaining meaningful connections and providing important opportunities to younger members of our society at a crucial moment in their careers.
This event highlighted some advantages of conducting virtual meetings, including spotlighting younger members and fostering participation from distant locations (Figure 1). We are thus virtually including members and attendees that would often otherwise be excluded from attending more-costly, in-person events. The tremendous outreach, diversity, and inclusion of the ASP Vanguards event benefitted altogether more than 450 scientists hailing from nearly 50 countries worldwide, especially including the 18 speakers and 135 poster presenters from the younger membership.
FIGURE 1: Demographics of the conference. Bar chart shows career level of the podium and poster presenters. Pie chart shows the country of all attendees’ registrations. All data were self-reported by participants.
One advantage of the virtual meeting platform and low associated cost has been the greatly increased accessibility of podium presentations for younger members over what tends to be possible during in-person symposia. The Vanguards program website, reproduced here in part as Figure 2, displayed the diversity of background and geography represented by the selected podium presenters that is reflective of broad demographics in the ASP. Speakers were introduced to the extent possible by their own mentors, who are thanked for providing personal remarks and professional endorsements to jobseeking younger members on the global stage. The Vanguards presented their cutting-edge research at the forefront of diverse areas of natural product sciences and drug discovery that the ASP brings together, including biosynthesis, chemical ecology, genomics, informatics, metabolomics, natural product isolation and characterization, pharmacology, total organic synthesis and medicinal chemistry optimization, and traditional medicine.
The tremendous outreach, diversity, and inclusion of the ASP Vanguards event benefitted altogether more than 450 scientists hailing from nearly 50 countries worldwide, especially including the 18 speakers and 135 poster presenters from the younger membership.
FIGURE 2: Vanguards of Natural Product Research 2021 podium presenters. Note: Not able to be reflected on the website in time, Mary Popoola had a last-minute emergency and was substituted by an unrelated presentation from Kathleen Abt (CIIMAR University of Porto).
The podium presentations were held via Zoom akin to the ongoing webinar series, and poster sessions and networking hours operated in the Virtual Chair online platform that facilitated direct one-on-one and small group discussions that mimicked typical in-person conference experiences. The motivation for ASP hosting the Vanguards program was to bring the membership together during a time we could not meet in person for the second consecutive year, and especially provide opportunities for career advancement to graduating students and postdocs or entry level industrial scientists seeking a new permanent position. The greatest early indicator of the success of this event is that we already have first-hand accounts of job offers for younger members that were made during the Vanguards symposium series!
The Vanguards presented their cutting-edge research at the forefront of diverse areas of natural product sciences and drug discovery that the ASP brings together, including biosynthesis, chemical ecology, genomics, informatics, metabolomics, natural product isolation and characterization, pharmacology, total organic synthesis and medicinal chemistry optimization, and traditional medicine.
In addition to being productive, the program was enjoyable! People were interacting with each other who otherwise might never have had a chance to meet or got together in the conference platform for the first time after a long period of separation. There were surprises built in to the virtual world for careful inspectors. For example, the molecular structure of taxol and discodermolide, among other natural products, could be found hiding in certain parts of the virtual conference center. There was also a virtual bar that managed to draw happy crowds (Figure 3). People were seen connecting in from their homes, offices, and lab spaces around the world. Surprise appearances were made by a few family members and pets, and there was even a brief interlude during a podium talk while the presenter glanced out the window to check that a proximal car crash did not need urgent attention before returning in stride to discussing science. We are often reminded, especially during virtual meetings, that we are each human and subject to circumstance even while we are being professional.
FIGURE 3: Vanguards of Natural Product Research 2021 attendees congregated around the virtual bar for a bit of enjoyable networking among new and old friends (SCREENSHOT PRODUCED BY CBN).
Being human in the context of conference planning also must necessarily involve consideration for the family life of prospective attendees. Dr. Alejandra Prieto- Davo commented during attendance of the Vanguards, “I can’t always find babysitters, funding, time off, and make all the arrangements to go to a meeting, so I usually have to choose one per year to attend. I really love that we can stay connected by webinars and the Vanguards event, and I hope that continues!” This aspect of inclusion is another grand advantage of the virtual platform. The importance of inclusion can also be expanded and applied to earlier exposure of scientists to the ASP. Dr. Simon Jackson reported, “It has been so wonderful to be able to participate in this event from my home in Ireland. The online platform allowed me to have an undergraduate student involved who would not have otherwise had the chance to attend an in-person meeting with the travel costs associated.” A few more testimonials from attendees of the ASP Vanguards of Natural Product Research 2021 event are included here to highlight some of the positive feedback and brainstorming ideas received during and after the program:
“It was a bit weird to walk an avatar around the screen of the virtual conference center but it was also quite fun, and the popup interactions were a great simulation of what happens during an in-person meeting. Kudos to the organizers for finding a great platform for the Vanguards program and fingers crossed for an in-person ASP meeting in 2022!” –Dr. Marcy Balunas
The greatest early indicator of the success of this event is that we already have first-hand accounts of job offers for younger members that were made during the Vanguards symposium series!
“The Vanguards program inspired me to think that the ASP and individual researchers should consider using platforms such as Virtual Chair / gather.town to promote outreach to other locations to explain and illustrate how natural products drug discovery impacts everyone. This could be done at the local level (schools) and virtually anywhere else in the country or world.”–Dr. Roy Okuda
“The in-person annual meetings always offered a convenient opportunity for lab alumni reunions, and I think this virtual platform can facilitate more people coming together during or after scheduled conference hours. I want to get a lot of people from our old group back together and catch up on what everyone is doing now!” –Dr. Patrick Still
“I don’t know that I would have stayed in chemistry research had it not been for my interactions and engagement through the ASP. The importance of the society and its conferences cannot be overstated, even with this and last year’s meetings being all virtual. Every meeting has opened up new opportunities for me to develop as a scientist, forge new connections, and walk away inspired.”–Dr. Joe Egan
The Vanguards program benefitted in both planning and execution from lessons learned through last year’s Zoom-only ASP Younger Members Virtual Symposium 2020, which was summarized previously. [The ASP Newsletter, 2020, 56 (3): 21-23.] The organizing committee for the Vanguards 2021 symposium series included Drs. C. Benjamin Naman, Karen VanderMolen, Robert Cichewicz II, Cindy Angerhofer, and ASP Business Manager Ms. Laura Stoll, and the newly titled Dr. Joe Egan, who successfully defended his thesis just days before the last part of the conference program. (Congratulations to Joe!) We are collectively thankful to all participating presenters and attendees, as well as Advion X Interchim for corporate sponsorship and the Executive Committee of the ASP for providing financial support to make registration free for all attendees. Presenters were charged a nominal fee of $10 to offset costs and ensure that only serious abstract submissions would be received and reviewed. The abstracts were evaluated by current representatives of the ASP Younger Members Committee: Drs. Vinayak Agarwal, Fatma Al-Awadhi, Skylar Carlson, Eduardo J. Caro-Diaz, Joe Egan, Jie Li, Joshua Kellogg, Emily Mevers, and Rana Abdelfattah Montaser, who are all thanked for this service to the Younger Members Committee and the ASP.
We look forward now to the next annual meeting, scheduled for July 23-28, 2022, in Charleston, South Carolina (http://aspmeetings.pharmacognosy.us/), to reunite in person or meet new members of the ASP and other participants for the first time. Meanwhile, we appreciate having had this opportunity to connect remotely online. We recognize that greater inclusivity and outreach, together with lower costs, are among several advantages of virtual events that merit the consideration of adding online interim meetings to the repertoire of benefits afforded by ASP membership, even after in-person conferences can resume. Be on the lookout for a feedback survey coming your way soon, or reach out directly to members of the Vanguards organizing committee or the Executive Committee to share your thoughts.
We recognize that greater inclusivity and outreach, together with lower costs, are among several advantages of virtual events that merit the consideration of adding online interim meetings to the repertoire of benefits afforded by ASP membership, even after in-person conferences can resume.