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By Leah Poffenberger
Had 2020 been like any normal year, APS would have hosted a March Meeting in Denver, CO, and an April Meeting in Washington, DC. Everything was set for these meetings, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, causing the March event to be cancelled and April to initially be in limbo.
But thanks to tireless work from several APS departments, decisive leadership from the meeting’s program committee, and support from the physics community, the April Meeting wasn’t cancelled—it just went virtual. The meeting took place on April 18 to 21 as scheduled and drew in over 7,000 participants, almost five times the expected number for a typical, in-person April Meeting.
“I think it was purely amazing: that we did the meeting as a whole, the number of people [who attended] and the number of sessions that went on—and they went off mainly without a hitch, aside from a little glitch here or there,” says Hunter Clemens, Director of Meetings at APS. “What I loved was seeing comments like ‘I’ve always wanted to go to this meeting and I haven’t been able to attend. It was great to be able to participate.’”
For anyone who has attended an April Meeting, this year’s line-up was familiar, despite the venue changing from hotel meeting rooms to home offices, kitchen tables, and living rooms. As usual, the meeting kicked off Saturday morning with the Kavli Foundation Keynote Plenary—this year featuring three Nobel Laureates: James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Eric Cornell—and continued through Tuesday with exciting live talks, poster sessions, and networking opportunities.
A brand-new virtual meeting platform, hosted by the Freeman company, the long-time audio-visual support provider for APS meetings, allowed speakers the option of presenting a live talk or uploading their presentations into an “on demand” session. In live sessions, attendees could use a chat window to have discussions, ask questions, and shower speakers with (emoji) applause.
“The [meeting] platform wasn’t in its final form, but I think the overall experience for the attendees was a very positive one in terms of delivering the scientific content, considering that all of the speakers, all of the staff, all of the session chairs were working from home,” says Mark Doyle, Chief Information Officer at APS. “Nobody was really in their place of work, and the content was able to be delivered. It was all recorded and it's available online for a long time to come.”
More than 700 speakers who had committed to the original April Meeting were still able to give live talks during the 4-day conference, while others uploaded theirs for later viewing. Typically, decisions about speakers and the scientific program are made far in advance—but to completely change the format of the meeting required some last-minute coordination.
“The hardest part, I think, was getting all of the program coordinated. But in this case, we had to go back to speakers and reconfirm: do they still want to give [a talk?] Do they want to do 'on demand'? Do they want to 'live-stream'?” says Clemens. “I think that was the biggest challenge."
APS leadership formally cancelled the in-person event on March 12 and continued to meet to set a structure for a virtual meeting. On March 18, program chair Tao Han proposed that the meeting take place on its original dates in order to keep on board invited speakers who had already committed to a certain timeslot.
“I made it clear: I would be the last one to accept this cancellation. I would be hugely disappointed…I was obviously emotional,” says Han. “We worked so hard for a great program and physics does not stop. Science does not stop. We had to move on in some way."
Fortunately, Doyle and Clemens had already identified Freeman’s meeting platform as a potential place to hold a virtual meeting. On April 3, exactly two weeks out from the meeting, Freeman officially started working on the April Meeting and the APS IT, Meetings, and Communications departments undertook a herculean effort to bring the meeting to fruition.
“At first, I said why don’t we only do the plenary sessions and the public lecture—those are high profile talks—and leave the rest to our divisions,” says Han. “[Doyle] said, ‘Okay, let's see how far we can go’...It's just amazing for them to have put everything online and I'm really extremely grateful.”
Launching an all-virtual meeting was a monumental task, but the developed tools and lessons learned can likely be used for future meetings, especially in a post-COVID-19 world.
“I think there's going to be a new normal next year. I don't know what it is yet in terms of live meetings. I'm hoping it doesn't affect them too much, but I have a feeling it will,” says Clemens. "I do think we should, going forward, have much more of a hybrid meeting. And when I say hybrid, I mean a virtual component of the live meeting so that we can reach that audience that doesn't go [to meetings] and hopefully grow the audience.”
While other societies are launching online meetings, the APS April Meeting currently stands as one of the largest ever online meetings, thanks to support from the physics community.
“I want to show appreciation for the support all over the physics world. Our APS leadership, our program committee, and our APS staff members, they're the real heroes,” says Han. “I also want to thank our community: our Society. For 7,000 people to sign up at such a short notice—That's strong support."
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik