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Attendees at a conference at CSHL, an in-person tradition started in 1933. These conferences were suspended from 1943 to 1945 during WWII and were virtual during the pandemic in 2020 and for most of 2021. Photo by Miriam Chuai/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

For scientists, meetings and conferences aren’t just a chance to catch up on the latest research, gossip and see old friends: they can also provide an intellectual spark that enhances their careers and leads to new collaborations.

Amid the pandemic, almost all of those in-person conferences stopped, including the annual courses and meetings that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hosts. The internationally renowned lab has run meetings since 1933, with a few years off between 1943 and 1945 during World War II.

CSHL’s David Stewart. Photo by Gina Motisi/CSHL

While scientists made progress on everything from basic to translational research, including in laboratories that pivoted towards work on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, they missed out on the kinds of opportunities that come from in-person interactions.

Assuming COVID infection rates are low enough this fall, CSHL is hoping to restart in-person conferences and courses, with the first conference that will address fifty years of the enzyme reverse transcriptase scheduled for Oct. 20th through the 23rd. That event was originally scheduled for October of 2020.

One of the planned guest speakers for that conference, David Baltimore, who discovered the enzyme that enables RNA to transfer information to DNA and is involved in retroviruses like HIV, won the Nobel Prize.

“I am hoping that there will be significant participation by many eminent scientists, so that is in itself somewhat [of] a ceremonial start,” wrote David Stewart, Executive Director of meetings and courses at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

To attend any of the seven in-person meetings on the calendar before the end of the year, participants need to have vaccinations from either Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca.

Attendees will have to complete an online form and bring a vaccination card or certificate. Scientists who don’t provide that information “will not be admitted and will not get a key to their room or be able to attend the event,” Stewart said.

CSHL also plans to maintain the thorough and deep cleaning procedures the lab developed. 

Stewart hopes that 75 to 80 percent or more of the talks presented will be live, with a virtual audience that could be larger than the in-person attendance.

“It is important to have a critical mass of presenters and audience in-person, but there’s no real limit on how large the virtual audience could be,” he explained.

Typically, the courses attract participants from over 50 countries. Even this year, especially with travel restrictions for some countries still in place, Stewart expects that the majority of participants will travel from locations within the United States.

The Executive Director explained that CSHL was planning to introduce a carbon offset program for all travel to conferences and courses that the facility reimburses starting in 2020. After evaluating several options, they plan to purchase carbon offsets from Cool Effect and will encourage participants paying their own way to do the same or through a similar program.

The courses, meanwhile, will begin on October 4th, with macromolecular crystallography and programming for biology. CSHL hopes to run six of these courses before the end of the year, including a scientific writing retreat.

“We are looking to 100 percent enrollment for our courses, so likely this year that will largely be domestic,” Stewart explained.

The courses, which normally have 16 participants, may have 12 students, as the lab tries to run these training opportunities safely without masks or social distancing.

From March of 2020 through the end of last year, the lab had planned 25 meetings and 25 courses. As the pandemic spread, the lab pivoted to virtual meetings. “I felt like a car salesman trying to sell virtual conferences,” Stewart recalled. For the most part, the lab was able to keep to its original schedule of conferences, albeit through a virtual format.

In addition to the scheduled meetings, CSHL decided to add meetings to discuss the latest scientific information related to COVID research. 

Stewart approached Hung Fan, a retired virologist at the University of California at Irvine, to help put together these COVID exchanges. Those meetings occurred in June, July, August, October, and January. The sixth one recently concluded.

The meetings addressed “everything around the science of the virus,” Stewart said, which included the biology, the origin, the genomics, the immune response, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, among other scientific issues.

“There was a lot of excellent work being done around SARS-CoV-2,” Stewart said. “We were trying to identify that early on. It was helpful to have people who knew the field well.”

Fan said he combed through preprints like the CSHL-based bioRxiv and related medRxiv every day for important updates on the disease.

Fan described the scientific focus and effort of the research community as being akin to the Manhattan Project which built the atomic bomb during World War II, where “everybody said, ‘We have a common enemy and we want to apply all our capabilities to combating that.”

While Fan is pleased with the productive and valuable exchanges that occurred amid the virtual conferences, he recognized the benefit of sharing a room and a drink with scientific colleagues.

“A lot of the productive interactions at meetings take place in a social setting, at the bar, over dinner” and in other unstructured gatherings, he said. “People are relaxed and can share their scientific thoughts.”

After presentations, Fan described how researchers discuss the work presented and compare that to their own efforts. It’s easier to talk with people in person “as opposed to making a formalized approach through letters and emails.”

Photo courtesy of Pexels

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

In my daily conversations with a range of people over the last week, I have heard stories I thought I’d share, as a reflection of the reality of our lives.

The first involved a discussion with Joe about his vaccination. Joe had been trying to sign up for a COVID vaccination for weeks. He thought he’d landed a coveted vaccination appointment at Jones Beach. Driving out there for a 6 p.m. appointment, he drove in circles.

The site had the wrong address, he said. In addition, even the correct address, which had a phone on-site that wasn’t working, naturally, was closed that day because the winds were too high.

“Who would put tents up on Jones Beach?” Joe asked, his voice barely rising but his frustration evident from the time wasted trying to get a vaccination that would allow him to do a job that required interacting with the public. “If you want to build a tent, put it somewhere that’s not as windy. It wasn’t even snowing.”

Fortunately, Joe, who spent more time the next day sharing his experience with a vaccination operator, was able to schedule a make-up appointment much closer to home.

The next day, I spoke with Matthew, who is worrying about his son Jim, who is a sophomore in college. Jim, you see, has already received a COVID warning. A second warning or infraction could send his son home, which would, as Matthew put it, “not be good for anybody.”

As it turns out, Jim has a girlfriend, Sarah. Normally, that wouldn’t be such a cause for concern for his parents or for the university. Still, with his girlfriend living in a different penitentiary, I mean, dormitory, Jim is not allowed to visit with Sarah.

The problem is that Sarah, who is an excellent and committed student, not only works hard at school, but also inspires Jim to expend considerable additional academic effort.

If Jim stops seeing Sarah, which he may do to comply with school rules designed to protect the campus from spreading the dangerous virus, he will miss time with his close friend, while he will also likely not study as hard.

My friend Matthew advised Jim to be careful and comply with the rules, although I could tell that he felt his own return on the investment he spends for college will likely be higher if Jim spends more time with his studious friend.

Finally, I spoke with Paul, a friend who regularly attended conferences before COVID shut all those events down. Paul traveled at least four times a year to meetings all over the world, visiting interesting places but, more importantly, speaking with people in his field.

One day in 2019, Paul was sitting in one such conference and was taking notes. As the conference ended, he and the man sitting next to him, whom he’d never met, struck up a conversation. The man suggested a follow-up effort to the work that might help the industry. Realizing he had the ability to do exactly what the stranger suggested, Paul asked if the man would mind if he used the idea. The stranger was delighted and a friendship, and an idea, was born.

I asked Paul how much he missed conferences and if he planned to attend them when the world reopened.

He said he would not only jump at the chance, but might even attend conferences he wouldn’t have previously considered, just to benefit from such random and potentially beneficial interactions. His only hesitation is that he hasn’t gotten his vaccination yet. He wondered what I thought about driving out to Jones Beach.