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How the global research community is benefiting from virtual engagement

November / December 2020 | Volume 19, Number 6

Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

Before the pandemic struck, I spent much time traveling the globe visiting grantee research sites, holding discussions with scientists and health officials and participating in conferences. I hadn’t realized how much I thrived on making these personal connections until COVID-19 sidelined me at home. As much as I have embraced the world of virtual meetings, it has sometimes been a frustrating and exhausting experience. I miss the serendipitous sidebar conversations at events, the ability to renew acquaintances and forge new ones in a free, unstructured way. Sometimes I have found myself struggling to follow simultaneous events, juggling multiple screens, failing to be as fully present as I would have been in person. But in conversations with the Fogarty team, I have come to appreciate that there are exciting opportunities in this brave new world and that many of our grantees and trainees are deriving significant benefits from virtual engagement.

At Fogarty, we have continued our normal practice of convening our community through annual network meetings for those affiliated with each of our funding programs. We’ve discovered that by eliminating expensive travel for in-person sessions, we have in many cases doubled attendance. This has greatly increased participation by low- and middle-income country (LMIC) scientists and enabled trainees to be able to join the conversation and provide their unique perspectives.

We have also heard anecdotally that break-out sessions showcasing trainees have allowed them to share their findings with their peers and cultivate new research partnerships. Some have said they found it inspirational to have the opportunity to measure themselves against the high bar set by their fellow trainees. It also allows Fogarty program officers to hear directly from trainees about how well our initiatives are meeting their needs and what we can do to improve their experiences. The reliance on virtual meetings has also prompted some LMIC institutions to strengthen online learning options and invest in improving internet connectivity, especially in rural areas.

We had planned to host an in-person gathering of Africa’s data science community in Uganda last summer to kick off NIH’s new DS-I Africa program. We pivoted instead to a virtual networking platform, where we hosted live and taped keynote speakers, panel discussions and other interactive events. We invited individuals and organizations to post profiles, engage in message board discussions and connect informally with potential partners in networking lounges. We were pleased that we far exceeded our expected attendance with 2,234 registrants, about half joining from Africa. The original in-person gathering had been planned to accommodate only 350 attendees. The majority of participants responding to a post-event survey reported they had used the opportunity to engage with scientists outside their discipline and world region. Many said the symposium was more advanced than other virtual meetings they’d attended and thought it pushed the envelope of what it is possible to do to recreate the “in real life” experience.

This fall, NIH held its annual grants workshop online for the first time. More than 20,000 people signed up to participate, which was 20 times the usual number. Fogarty hosted a number of interactive sessions on grantsmanship during the proceedings and staffed a virtual exhibit. We were delighted to see that more than 2,000 participants were from LMICs - a vast improvement from business as usual!

Fogarty’s team of disease modelers also got on the virtual bandwagon - offering online genomic epidemiology training to LMIC scientists. Five-day courses included instruction on lab procedures for using the portable MinION sequencing platform, as well as bioinformatic techniques needed to perform quality control of raw data and assemble full SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Trainees learned to create genomic databases and build and interpret phylogenetic trees. The immediate goals were to produce SARS-CoV-2 sequences that can be included in public databases and journal publications. The long-term aim is to advance the use of genomics in public health labs in LMICs.

While I look forward to the day when we can abandon social distancing, we at Fogarty will carefully consider how we can best balance the inclusiveness of virtual engagement with the benefits of in-person gatherings. I think perhaps a mixed-meeting format will become the model for the future.

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