Cell Bio Virtual 2020 attracted global scientific community to a lively virtual space

No one knew exactly what to expect when Cell Bio Virtual 2020 launched on December 2, 2020. We’ve all grown accustomed to the ASCB|EMBO meeting being an in-person event. After the pandemic hit and so many workplaces and organizations shifted to online and virtual experiences, it could have been just another mind-numbing long web conference. But when all was said and done, Cell Bio Virtual 2020 was a resounding success, offering up the expected depth and breadth of leading-edge cell biology research. 

Over nearly three weeks in December, as opposed to the usual five in-person days, cell biologists from across the globe gathered online to give and watch talks, attend networking sessions and roundtables, participate in Tech Talks and a virtual scavenger hunt, cheer for awardees, and generally extract every possible bit of content available from the ASCB|EMBO online meeting. From the opening days of educational and professional development sessions, through the scientific Symposia and Workshops, to the poster sessions, engagement was high and attendance rivaled that of the in-person event with over 6,000 registrants. 

One of the most amazing things about Cell Bio Virtual 2020 was the ability to attend so many more sessions than you might normally be able to attend in person. Except for some networking events, roundtables, and poster discussions, attendees had several weeks after a session happened to go back and watch the recorded Keynotes, awards lectures, Symposia, Minisymposia, and Workshops. Much of the annual meeting programming can still be found on demand on the ASCB website at www.ascb.org/videos-on-demand. Some recordings are open access and some require a current ASCB membership to view. 


Education and Professional Development Sessions Had Clear Focus 

Unlike at an in-person meeting, for Cell Bio Virtual 2020 this writer was able to attend many of the education and professional development sessions. It was clear that the topics of these sessions had been modified to fit our current circumstances. Notable was the Minisymposium “Teaching Excellence Amidst Uncertainty,” which addressed not only how higher education had been impacted by the disruption of the global pandemic, but how racial and ethnic inequality were impacting undergraduate research experiences, mentoring, and assessments. Educators could also discuss distance learning, science sharing, and workforce development during COVID-19. Popular sessions included an updated distance-version of “How to Give a Chalk Talk” and “Raising Mental Health in the CellBio Research Community: Sidestep Stigma and Learn Peer and Trainee Support.” The LGBTQ+ Committee’s Ally session opened the floor to some frank discussion of the ways that professional colleagues outside this community can offer support and understanding. 


Scientific Talks Took Advantage of the Online Platform

Symposia and Minisymposia at ASCB|EMBO annual meetings always feature talks with stunning images, interesting graphics and charts, and sometimes short videos. But moving to an entirely online platform gave some presenters the opportunity to engage their attendees like never before. No one took advantage of this platform perhaps more than Manuel Théry of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Paris, who presented the film Microtubule Mechano-sensations (https://vimeo.com/488648110) during the Symposium “Dynamic Intracellular Organization.” In the film, he shared his research and life-long fascination with the growth, beauty, and functions of microtubules. Go watch it if you want to see some stunning video of microtubules. 

Of course the COVID-19 theme showed up during the week of scientific sessions, and several of these sessions proved fascinating. The Special Interest Subgroup “COVID-19 Infection: Deciphering Cellular Responses” explored the virus from the outside in, beginning with an animated life cycle consensus model of the virus developed by the lab of Janet Iwasa at the University of Utah. This session also had researchers exploring the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, looking at how the virus attaches to membranes and impacts the cilia in the lungs, and examining the genetic diversity of the virus. Speakers pointed out how rapidly so much data about SARS-CoV-2 has been generated and remarked on the extremely collaborative nature of most of the work. Then ASCB President-elect Ruth Lehmann of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research led a Special Symposium on COVID-19 featuring two leading experts in the study of SARS-CoV-2, Montserrat Bárcena from Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands, and Silvi Rouskin, also from the Whitehead Institute. These sessions combined with individual talks and poster sessions on the virus allowed attendees the opportunity to really grasp an overview of the state-of-the art research on this strain of coronavirus.


Evolution and the Origins of Life

There were a surprising number of sessions that related to evolution and the “tree of life” this year, or perhaps this writer just noticed this because she was able to experience so much more of the meeting than is typically humanly possible. For example, Svante Pääbo, the meeting’s Keynote speaker from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, gave an overview of his work studying the Neanderthal genome, even linking a gene variant that we inherited from them to the potential severity of COVID-19 symptoms. The Subgroup “When Branches of the Tree of Life Meet: Cell Interactions Between Organisms” provided examples of fascinating and even weird cell–cell and organism–organism interactions that occur when species from different kingdoms come in close proximity to one another—either by accident or by choice. Here we learned about how cells aggregate to form communities for the “common good” and how different species work together to improve immunity or provide nutrients (see p. 36). 

The Minisymposium “Evolution and Emerging Models” featured a talk by Rebecca Moore of Princeton University, who explained how Caenorhabditis elegans learns to avoid certain pathogenic types of pseudomonas (a kind of bacteria it likes to eat) after a single exposure to the purified RNA of a detrimental species. Thibaut Brunet from the University of California, Berkeley, showed how cell contractility in a simple choanoflagellate in response to environmental or mechanical stimuli gives insight into the morphogenesis of more complex animals. And if you made it the last day of the second week of Cell-Bio Virtual 2020, the Subgroup “Bacterial and Archaeal Cell Organization” featured researchers who were investigating the complex ways that these simple and primitive organisms structure themselves, their organelles, and their processes. Of note was the talk by Alex Bisson from Brandeis University, who described how different Haloarchaea (salt archaea) use self-assembly to centralize essential processes such as phospholipid modification, protein synthesis, and secretion to the middle regions of the cell. There was even a popular workshop, “Evolution of the Cell,” moderated by then ASCB Past-President Andrew Murray, which featured a panel of experts on the subject and a Q&A. Fortunately this workshop, and others, can be found on the ASCB website. 


Posters, So Many Posters

The final week of Cell Bio Virtual 2020 featured well over 1,000 poster discussions. Each poster, in the form of an uploaded image file and a short video recording by the presenter, was available from the beginning of the meeting for attendees to peruse at their leisure, preferably in advance. The concept of the poster discussion sessions was to allow attendees a chance to ask questions of the presenters and for the presenters to engage with each other since their poster topics were related. 

The format, however, forced attendees to make some hard choices about which discussions to go to. And although the live discussions were not recorded, one could certainly follow up with any presenter via email or messaging within the system. In some instances, presenters used the time for open discussion, while in others they recapped the presentations in their recorded video. For a virtual setting, this was about as good as you could get to capture the essence of a poster session. However, live poster sessions were probably a feature that many attendees missed the most this year.


Final Thoughts on the Virtual Meeting

There are rewards and challenges to attending a huge scientific meeting entirely online. One of the biggest challenges expressed to ASCB via social media and email was the loss of opportunities for informal networking found around the dining table or at a bar, or in a chance meeting or impromptu discussion after a talk. But the meeting offered attendees other rewards not possible in an in-person setting. Most obviously, the meeting allowed attendees to go back and re-watch sessions again or catch other sessions that were happening concurrently. On the recordings, you could also skip ahead, increase or lower the volume, clearly see the slides or movies, and be able to read every question being asked. Personally, I become extremely distracted in a large, hot (or chilly) meeting room, but here I could watch from the comfort of my home with a cool drink and my cat by my side. 

The networking and roundtable discussions provided a more intimate setting to interact with speakers in a less formal way. And the built-in activities such as the scavenger hunt, exhibitor Tech Talks, and vendor booths offered a break from so many
web conferences. In a global pandemic, concessions and compromises had to be made for the well-being and safety of the community. ASCB hopes its members and attendees, presenters and exhibitors felt that Cell Bio Virtual 2020 approximated the impact of our traditional meetings to the highest degree possible. Certainly the quality science was there in abundance. 

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.