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The Rising Value of Plain Science Talk: Part 1

When it comes to placing value on something newly discovered or innovated in the scientific fields, a key yet somewhat lost-in-the-shuffle point is the ability to communicate to a wide audience why this discovery or innovation is rated as highly valuable. Most scientific discoveries, novel techniques, and significant leaps forward in knowledge and implementation are “communicated” via academic publications in journals that have significant value to academics and subspecialists but have limited general public exposure, and in specialty conferences and society meetings where only paying members and interested individuals are able to participate in.

Even when some of those journals are more widely distributed and recognized (Nature, Science, New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, etc.), the actual articles in those journals are written in extremely precise, yet somewhat too technical of a format, to capture the attention and translate the knowledge to the wide swath of the population that might encounter it. And Even when the conferences and meetings are more accessible and have reduced barriers to entry and participation, the actual presentations (the talks, the posters, the workshops) are all geared to communicate directly to peers in the field, not to an interested yet general-knowledge audience.

This is not to say the work itself and researchers doing it are not producing important knowledge. New discoveries and innovations are the keys to maintaining or improving the planet and all its inhabitants’ health.  Knowledge is the key to propelling societies forward. The issue is that for so long, the methods of communication of this type of information has been restricted, both by the avenues that contain this information (journals and conferences that are inaccessible to the public) and the written/spoken formats used to transmit this information (articles and talks delivered in overly technical ways).

The missing ingredient in a recipe that would serve a much greater audience with something more palatable and engaging is called Knowledge Transfer & Translation (KTT). There are many definitions and formats that shape what the KTT factor is, depending on the organization that places importance on it. In a generalized way, I’ll define KTT as: a plan to disseminate newly acquired information to the broadest set of interested parties, accompanied with a framework of how to advance this new knowledge into actions that benefit (sometimes “profit”, in business sectors) the knowledge seekers and broad general public.

Knowledge Transfer and Translation has not always been a focus in academic research circles. Most scientists think of KTT as someone else’s job. I did! In the years it took for me to gain enough education and real research experience (a journey that spans more than a decade, from BSc to MSc to PhD to research fellowship), the vast majority of my time learning has been with the singular aim of discovery & innovation. Once the discovery is made, the only requirement my academic world asks of me is to report this discovery, in the form of a research article that only my peers in knowledge can truly appreciate in full, and maybe talk about this discovery in a 10-min presentation at a conference where many of my peers and interested members of the field I occupy congregate on an annual basis.

However, this traditional and old-fashioned view of the role of an academic has begun to change in the past few years. Discovery and innovation are still the driving forces of academic research, but increasingly, the values placed on those discoveries and innovations are complemented by how much Knowledge Transfer and Translation is placed behind these discoveries and innovations to propel them beyond the circles of subspeciality academic fields. Novel avenues of sharing knowledge have entered the hallways and labs of academia: Online platforms. The digital world with its massive reach and accelerated speed of information sharing is an essential and increasingly irreplaceable tool to implement the KTT directives needed to advance our societies. Science communication (#SciComm) has taken on a new meaning and many new forms that were simply unavailable a few years ago. Social Media has complemented and amplified the use of Traditional Media in broadcasting research and academic data that normally had few ways to reach the proverbial “center stage”.

I’ll tackle this ever-growing list of new and exciting ways of science communication on Part 2 of this series of blogposts, coming May 2021. Until then, you can always reach me for feedback or just to say hi (Twitter: @MoAlKhalafPhD), I am an “Extremely Online Scientist”!

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Hindsight 2020: Lessons From a Calendar Year of COVID

This month signifies a full calendar year since the covid-19 pandemic has been declared a crisis and activated a worldwide response. To be exact, the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020. Of course, the signs were there beforehand. Starting in December 2019, there were officials in China focusing their attention on the city of Wuhan, where a flu-like disease was spreading in a cluster linked to a specific local market. By January 2020, reports of first deaths and first confirmed cases outside of China started to pop up around the world. And in early February, the news about clusters in France, Germany, cruise ships and more, should have made it clear (in retrospect) that we have a global infectious disease spreading around us. It took the world another 5-6 weeks to actually call it a Pandemic. As of mid-March 2020, our approaches have dramatically pivoted, and here we are a year later, living (with tragic numbers of losses and challenges) in a new world.

I wanted to take this calendar-year anniversary to reflect and examine some of my early thoughts and approaches to navigating the covid-19 pandemic. I’m taking full advantage of the fact that I was afforded the ability to write a blogpost on a monthly basis here in the AHA Early Career Voice (author page) as the crisis was unfolding. Within this space of reflection, I’ll try to spotlight and share some learning moments and lessons learned, in an effort to progress and adapt to the ever-changing world I was (and still am) navigating, as an early career scientist in cardiovascular & biomedical research.

In March 2020 I wrote a blog titled “Science Communication Is The Bridge We Need”, not specifically addressing Covid-19, but the pandemic was definitely was a topic on my mind from what I was reading early last year. I wanted to share my thoughts and personal viewpoint, that echo chambers and microenvironments of news sharing are dominating the internet, and scientific facts are getting missed/lost/covered up. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that many decision-makers and lots of folks were simply not placing the required amount of urgency and focus on the news about Covid-19 that was spreading worldwide. My two-cents back in March 2020 were that more robust science communication can help with evidence-based news information sharing. I admit I’m proud of that March 2020 blogpost, no redo needed!

By April of last year, my thinking was already shifting with regards to how the pandemic is going to affect early career advancement, and what paths may be ahead. The title of that blog post was “Future Planning in the Time of Corona”, and again, I feel good about how this blogpost holds up! The theme in that written piece was centered on the often cited political tagline “Never let a crisis go to waste”. My take was that a global pandemic is one of the few causes that can truly bring to attention plans and areas of need that a vast majority of the world population can together work on.

A month later, in May 2020 I think I was slightly too optimistic and jumping a little bit ahead of myself! The title of the blogpost was “COVID-19 Stage 2: Embracing Progress, Cautiously”, and while I’m glad I measured my wording… it is now more accurate to say that most of the globe was still in Stage 1 of dealing with the pandemic back in May of last year. In June I wrote about my year-long leadership experience in my local institute’s trainee committee, my way of taking a break from always writing about the pandemic.

By July of 2020 I noticed what we now call pandemic (or covid) fatigue, and the rising tides of anti-science sentiments that started to build up as a result of the masking and social distancing regulations that have changed from one set of recommendations to a different set of ideas within a few months (from March to July). This is why I felt the need to write “Knowledge Advances Incrementally”, a blogpost where I spotlight the main working ethos of the scientific method, which boils down to:

  • Have a question
  • Come up with a testable hypothesis
  • Run the experiment
  • Collect data and analyze results
  • Verify/validate results by replication
  • Conclude what new information you can, making sure to stay exactly within the boundaries of the experiments and data you collected.

The last thing I’ll highlight is my blogpost recapping my experience in attending and participating in the annual Basic Cardiovascular Sciences (BCVS) meeting. This was the first major conference meeting that I have previously attended in-person that switched to a virtual format. I titled that blog post “A New Way To Participate”, and in retrospect, it was one of the most instructional and useful learning experiences that summer. I discussed the advantages (and challenges) that the virtual conference format brings to early-career scientists. Additionally, I pointed out some tips and tricks on how to navigate a fully online annual meeting. Back then there were a lot of wrinkles and tweaks that we learned from, and have implemented in other virtual conferences later in the year. My overall opinion still is positive, and I think that a future that includes an in-person meeting supplemented and balanced with an online component is the best way to progress and upgrade the conference format.

My take-home message today, looking back at this full calendar-year of covid exceptional circumstances, boils down to this: Humility, empathy, and optimism for a better future are essential keys to navigating the rough waters of living through a pandemic. Take care of yourself, and if possible, be helpful to others.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Personal and Community Advancements are Interlinked

When it comes to advancing your professional career path, it can feel like it’s a very singular and personal journey, built on sequential sets of decision-making opportunities that ultimately only affect you. Today in this blog, I aim to share the many angles that emphasize a viewpoint that shows advancing your own professional career is in fact a community building effort, and it is very possible that those decision-making moments, challenges to overcome, and opportunities to pursue, can ultimately affect a host of individuals that are interconnected with you, on a professional, and personal level.

Let’s start by pointing out the fact that currently all of the science and health sectors are significantly being affected by the Covid-19 global pandemic. These are special circumstances that bring about unique challenges and pressures on the decision-making processes that early careers (and actually, careers of all stages) have to tackle. Part of the unique situation that we’re all dealing with is the mixture of increased separation and distance within professional working groups (either in actual physical space, or with the addition of a larger work-from-home element), coupled with the shared connection that so many of us are basically dealing with very similar stresses (the novelty of the situation; the larger than normal burden on physical and mental health; the uncertainty of short/long term professional plans, etc.).

These challenges are all coming on top of the already known and understood stresses and pressures involved in trying to pursue advancements in a professional career path. So questions can come up in our mind every once in a while, such as “Should I delay, or reduce my strive to grow professionally for now? Should I hold on to what I have, make sure I ride out the storm? How can I think of professional advancement at this time, when so many are dealing with extraordinary challenges?”. These are valid and excellent thoughts to have, and to try to find actual answers for. Each one of us faces a few similar, and many distinct, sets of factors that contribute to our decision making process regarding our current and future professional paths.

When it comes to professional advancement, sometimes looking after your own self interests also serves as looking after the interests of the many communities that you belong to. Moving forward in a career path allows for a number of positive changes to happen simultaneously:

The professional space that you occupied can be now filled by someone else. 

Moving forward professionally frees up the junior position that you previously held (and managed to succeed in, allowing for the advancement to happen). Now someone else can come in this space, learn and have an opportunity to advance in their future, in a way similar to what you’ve done. Bonus community points: Now you are able to be a direct, or indirect (formal or informal) mentor to this new individual, or at the very least a useful contact and advisor.

Your new position will benefit from having you join.

Remember that advancing your career, getting the “new job”, is not just a win for you, but also for the job itself! Progressing through your career path means you’ve gained skills and experiences that will be of value to the new community and position you’ve moved into. This is also a reminder to always look inward towards what you can provide for the new career, not just look for what the new career provides you. Obviously there is a learning curve to every new professional position, but your unique collection of skills and experiences is just as important to integrate into this new path.

Science and healthcare serve the local, national and international population.

As an early career scientist, I always anchor my thoughts around this basic truth. My career progression depends on my ability to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and innovation, geared towards serving the needs of the global population. In my case specifically, my job focuses on reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease, and finding new ways to promote and sustain a longer healthier life. For me, professional advancement allows me to expand my reach and work towards affecting more people in a way that contributes to their health and global knowledge. When it comes to your professional path, make sure to evaluate and appreciate your own current and future contributions to the communities you’re part of.

So my take home message today is: advancing your own professional career path is in fact not just an act of singular self interest, but an opportunity to help progress the community you are leaving and the community you are joining. The current global pandemic has brought on some additional challenges and stresses that must be acknowledged and appropriately taken into account. All of these factors play a role, but should not dissuade anyone from striving towards advancing one’s professional career.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Professional Resolutions with a New Perspective

Let me add myself to the collective millions (billions?) of folks who are glad to have passed the year-end milestone and are hoping, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this coming calendar year is very different! We can finally say now “2020 is behind us!”. Many have faced personal and professional challenges that could not be foreseen. Some have had success as well, despite the difficulties on the road to personal and professional progress. Some have had success because 2020 provided them ingredients for it, and I hope that these individuals utilized this success to benefit others, and provide support to those in need.

Like many others, I use the page-flip into a new calendar year as a marker and opportunity to reflect and reset my mind. By no means is this necessary, I have had years where I was firmly anti “year-end mindset”, because a calendar switch is an arbitrary marker of time passing, and I think a lot of folks have had, or still have, this outlook, which is fine! Still, I think this year I wanted to write this blogpost about professional resolutions just as a fun exercise, and maybe (hopefully) put something out there that would benefit (inspire?!?) someone towards a path for professional advancement. This resolutions list will not contain personal goals like achieving the desired weight or reading more books. Let’s get started.

(Submitted by author, modified from CC-0 images at pixabay.com)

1) Explore and find the potential to grow your professional community.

Trainees and early career folks tend to be very focused on their individual or small team “projects”. While this is important, it could obscure the wider “community” aspect of advancement that’s needed to build and expand one’s career. In 2021, I want to continue exploring new ways to participate in professional community building (like joining committees, participating in campaigns, being active in welcoming new members at work, to give a few examples). However possible, find the potential to grow and connect with other professionals within the field.

2) Make ambitious and novel plans for professional advancement projects (with a catch).

One of the things that are very commonly mentioned about 2020 is the reduction/delay/loss of some desired professional accomplishments, which were planned or anticipated before the global health crisis materialized and became unavoidable. A lot of trainees and early career professionals spent much of 2020 trying to salvage whatever they could to complete tasks. This is understandable. Having said that, the “salvaging work” mentality is at best a temporary approach to professional advancement, and at worst, an active hindrance to progress. Making a concerted effort to plan and perform novel and ambitious projects in the new year is a way to get one’s career trajectory back on a climbing slope. The catch I alluded to earlier is vital to note here: in addition to being ambitious in planning, be forgiving of yourself as you track the progress of these new projects. The global health crisis is still ongoing, and everyone is navigating new territory with this whole career advancement reality.

3) Highlight and celebrate all successes on your career path (small or big).

There is a prevalent stream of thinking within academic, scientific, and medical spaces that orient members of these communities to only focus on the biggest accomplishments achieved. Celebrating a publication years in the making, a graduation (also years in the making), a promotion to more senior status (years in the making… do you see the trend?!), and so on. The past year has certainly reduced the number of success stories for many, especially for the early career folks. In 2021, I think it would greatly benefit us to celebrate more professional milestones, even the small ones, and to highlight and be proud of any professional success achieved. The longer we delay enjoying the journey we are on, the longer and drearier the journey will feel like, and maybe even become. The old saying “success begets more success” can be made more accurate by saying “celebrating success paves the way for more success”.

So, as we all metaphorically and collectively turn the page and start a new chapter, leaving 2020 behind us, I aim and resolve myself to advancing my professional life by connecting more, thinking of novel, fun, and ambitious new projects, and to celebrate each small or big step forward on my early career path towards a fulfilling professional journey. Have a happy and healthy new year!

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Reflections and Projections: An Interview Post a Virtual Conference

As many of us know and have experienced by now, the 2020 global pandemic has forced most conferences to cancel, postpone, or alter their planned in-person settings. For meetings that opted to switch these important gatherings to a brand new all-virtual format, many challenges were faced, but also new opportunities to re-invent the conference experience have sprouted. In my personal perspective, I continued to see rapid evolution and advancement of the virtual format setting of such meetings, from the early days of the pandemic in the spring to the most recent conference I participated in, which just happens to be the biggest meeting in the cardiovascular field, the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions. Earlier, I wrote a couple of blogs describing my experience at #AHA20 (you can read them here: “The Year #Virtual became #Reality”, and “Lurking: The Art of Passive Learning in Meetings”)

Today though, instead of my thoughts, I wanted to interview someone that has even more insight and know-how with AHA meetings, and therefore can really speak to the differences (and opportunities) that make this year a unique conference experience. My guest for this post-conference interview is Dr. Sean Wu, MD. PhD., a physician-scientist at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, and the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. He is also the current Chair of the Basic Cardiovascular Sciences (BCVS) Early Career Committee, and a long time active member of the AHA and BCVS council. Sean and I work together within the BCVS community, and we’re both big fans of using social media to communicate science, and promote networking (you can follow Sean on Twitter here, and the BCVS Early Career Committee here).

This transcript is a lightly edited version of the interview we conducted on webcam, shortly after the end of #AHA20.

Mo: Let’s start with a big-picture view of the meeting. Could you tell us how the overall experience was like in your viewpoint, given that this year’s #AHA20 was a virtual conference?

Sean: The AHA meeting has given us a taste for what’s to come in the future. Clearly many have seen positives from this format: easy tracking and joining of sessions; rewatch or catch-up of missed sessions; ease of asking questions using chat boxes instead of physically asking questions on the mic in a room. However, certainly, there is a reduction in the networking potential, but continued innovation and offering of social networking sessions, such as BCVS Early Career Social at #AHA20, can replace some of those missed opportunities.

Mo: Share with us one of the sessions that most interest you at #AHA20, and tell us a little bit about why it was a highlight for you?

Sean: There were so many great sessions, it is hard to pick just one of course. Certainly, a session that garnered attention and featured a lot of the up-and-coming areas of science was called “Cardio-Oncology, Meet Your New Neighbour: Immunology”. This session was a highlight for many reasons, such as the ability to combine multiple disciplines such as cancer disease and therapy, cardiovascular disease and research, as well as the fundamental mechanisms of immunology that tie these diseases and require novel research approaches and future therapy options.

Mo: Considering the format change in 2020, conference planning and attending has gone through a lot of innovative changes. What role do you see social media playing in complementing the experiences of a virtual setting meeting?

Sean: Definitely social media has changed multiple aspects within our scientific community. On social media, the democratic stage allows voices from all levels of the community to interact and discuss openly just published research being shared online. Discussions spark and propel future research avenues. When it comes to the virtual format of conferences presently, social media chats, specific hashtags, and the resulting impressions and other metrics have increased significantly compared to previous years, continuing the upward slope of gain that social media involvement has in the scientific communities that populate it.

Mo: Some of the advantages of virtual meetings include ease of access, lower financial commitments, and increased diversity of participants. Would you say these advantages are enough for you to recommend this experience to trainees and early career professionals?

Sean: At the present moment, and in a future where virtual conferences are the only options, the recommendation is for sure to join in and participate, because the knowledge gained and evolving networking avenues are still very relevant and important to have, This is especially vital at the trainee and early career level in science, which typically has limited potential for interaction outside the requirements of pushing research forward. Additionally the ability to have more global participation in meetings that can bring scientists that otherwise would have been too geographically far, and/or face financial difficulty to make it to the meeting, for them to be part of the gathering is a definite advantage of virtual meeting formats.

Mo: In your viewpoint, what are some of the high-value components to add when a conference planning committee is set to organize a future science meeting?

Sean: One of the most important aspects of science meetings is promoting networking opportunities, especially for the early-career scientists attending those meetings. These types of networking sessions can be designed as mixers/socials, or more structured mentoring/advice panel discussions. These sessions are extremely valuable components of a scientific meeting. Another type of session that would be very beneficial to have is something designed to illustrate or highlight “New Frontiers” or new advances in the field. This is one of the most anticipated aspects of a meeting, where scientists get exposed to novel tools, new scientific approaches, and integration of the latest technology into one’s area of research.

I’d like to thank Dr. Sean Wu for sharing his memories (reflections) and future thoughts (projections), stemming from the recent conclusion of #AHA20. In science and medicine, as is with so many other fields, we continue to adapt to the changing landscape of our professional careers. Virtual meetings were new to us in 2020, but with continued innovation and trial, we will integrate this novel approach and utilize it to continue advancing our fields.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Lurking: The Art of Passive Learning in Meetings

The types of annual society meetings are as diverse as there are professional societies worldwide. Some medical, scientific, and academic societies are made up of extremely specialized sub-subfields. While other professional societies cast a wide net, bringing in members from different specialties that share some but not a lot of similarities. And of course, there are some associations that have evolved over the years to provide the best of both worlds, acting like a big umbrella for a very diverse membership, and providing space for the subspecialties to find their own niches within the structure of the whole organization. The American Heart Association is exactly this type of professional partner organization. Medical doctors from numerous specialties belong to the AHA, but so do nurses, and many other healthcare professionals, biomedical scientists, and non-medical researchers and professionals involved in fields that still contribute and promote better cardiovascular health for the public.

As an early-career biomedical researcher, I am involved in a number of these types of professional societies and organizations, each of which provides me with different and valuable experiences and opportunities to expand and develop my career path forward. Within the AHA, I slot into the council on Basic Cardiovascular Sciences (BCVS), one of sixteen different councils that make up the whole association. One of the best attributes of the AHA general structure is the fact that there are specialty annual meetings organized by the different councils (check out my blog about #BCVS20 from a few months back!), as well as a general annual meeting for the whole AHA community (just like the present ongoing #AHA20). This provides someone like myself the chance to network and builds professional connections on multiple levels. It also provides everyone a chance to expand and learn from other fields, bringing in a true sense of multi-disciplinary potential.

This year, unlike any other year before, Scientific Sessions have converted into a fully virtual setting, an appropriate response to the current Covid-19 pandemic. This has promoted all of us to become much savvier (or at least in a constant state of ‘figuring it all out’) with webcam video conferencing, seminar presenting or attending, and online learning. I’m glad that Sessions this year provided an unparalleled On-Demand package, allowing everyone registered to have access extending into early 2021, giving us plenty of time to rewatch or catch up on missed sessions. This is a very welcome outcome for having a virtual meeting, one that is worth taking full advantage of.

 

Source: Collage from CC-0 images at www.pixabay.com

Another fun new wrinkle I’ve been fully exploiting these past few days has been the use of a very online strategy called Lurking, a term that describes (in this specific context) joining a presentation session, and passively observing the action happening without actively participating in it. What a perfect way to describe and contextualize something that almost all conference attendees have done in-person before. In a #Virtual meeting, one can employ the lurking ‘maneuver’ even more brazenly! Lurking is a perfect strategy to jump into a session midway, or switch quickly from session to session, picking up some new information, and seamlessly moving on to the next item on the schedule, without ever disturbing any other attendees or presenters. I have definitely done a lot of lurking at #AHA20, especially in sessions that are not geared towards my area of expertise in experimental lab biology. Lurking has given me the ability to try out sessions, and learn something completely unrelated to my everyday science. Lurking also gave me the ability to quickly and discreetly bailout of sessions that I couldn’t find my way into, allowing me to pivot into other sessions that better fit my train of thought. Having the chance to attend a highly multi-disciplinary professional meeting, coupled with the ability to sample and view, in a discreet and un-disturbing fashion, many types of presentations is truly a valuable and welcome learning experience.

When possible, I highly encourage the adoption and wide use of online lurking strategies, especially in virtual setting conferences that may be on your calendars in the near future!

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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The Year #Virtual became #Reality

As we inch closer to the end of 2020 (with still a LOT left on the horizon), I’ve tried to take time here and there, to note the type of changes one calendar year has brought on to our greater science community. From my own personal, early career scientist, point of view (keeping in mind not to generalize or overextend my experiences onto others), I see a lot of lessons that scientists and healthcare professionals quickly learned and adopted. In a year where the biggest story worldwide was in fact a medical and scientific topic, it makes sense that we had to accept and innovate as much as we can, to match the needs of the moment we find ourselves in.

The annual conference meetings that our shared professional academic, medical and scientific societies have, are known to be the best conduits for a  concentrated infusion of the latest information in our fields. Meetings such as the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions have the added value of connecting colleagues and creating bigger networks of potential collaborators. This has always been an essential element of early career advancement in the fields of science and medicine. Networking sessions in conferences are always the highlight events, more so than the “Current advances in ____ biology” or “Late-breaking outcomes of ___ trial” sessions (or at least as important as those really cool sessions!).

This is why at every conference I virtually attended this year, I looked with great anticipation beforehand to know if networking events are still scheduled? And if so, then how is this essential element of connecting participants and attendees getting the attention it needs? In 2020, not all annual meetings for professional societies were able to be held, it’s not easy to switch gears from a tried and true in-person gathering to a completely #Virtual experience. Some meetings managed to make the switch to the online-based delivery, but had an understandably much-reduced networking and connection elements involved. But as the seasons progressed from spring to summer to fall, I was happy to see continued innovation and application of everything possible, to deliver information and promote interaction, in increasingly impressive state-of-the-art platforms for presenting conferences.

(Collage from CC-0 images at www.pixabay.com)

Another important element now of conference attendance is the increased integration of Social Media as part of the immersive conference experience. Online presence and connection, using platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, between various conference participants and attendees, has been a welcome additional element over the past few years. It’s very useful for someone who wants to catch the talk of a conference presenter when that presenter would tweet where and when the talk is starting, prompting all their “followers” to know exactly where to go, or in a virtual setting, when and which links to click!

Conference organizers have utilized social media accounts to provide vital data such as agendas, video highlights, links, and ways to tag and spotlight the various individuals who are active and participating in these conferences. I would personally recommend Twitter as the best online tool for adding to a conference attendance! Conference “ambassadors”, like myself and many others, as well as representatives from different institutions and committees, are all actively Live-tweeting sessions, providing quick-takes and summary recaps, and initiating discussions on the topics presented in conferences. This virtual way of connecting and interacting in meetings has added an exciting dimension to conference attendance, both in-person and probably even more so this year for virtual meetings, allowing for an extra level of networking, which has always been a core element of attending conferences.

Adaptation and innovation have a lot to say in 2020 – and we’ll see where we go in 2021. But it’s good to know that, even in a virtual setting, we can still learn novel science, connect with one another, and advance the role that our shared community has – Delivering better health to the world.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Interviewing a first-time conference attendee

Conference attendance is a core component of the journey graduate students go on, seeking to advance their knowledge and expand their network within the field of their academic pursuit. This year, unlike any other year before it, some students and early career professionals are experiencing their very first major conference participation and attendance in a virtual setting. The current global pandemic and response to it has forced many major conferences to cancel their planned in-real-life settings, and many have opted to switch these important annual gatherings to a brand new all-virtual format. This of course is a valiant effort to continue providing a platform for networking and sharing knowledge within the community.

While many of us have had the chance in previous years to attend and participate in classic conference formats, I continued to think recently while attending #BCVS20 about how is this unique virtual experience being perceived by the first time major conference attendees? The all-new format and change in typical factors that come into play when one is attending a conference, normally in an unfamiliar location in a city or country, all add up to a very novel introduction to this core component of career advancement. It would be quite illuminating to engage and discuss with a first-time attendee about this experience, and there at #BCVS20, I was lucky to know and have a chance to interview a first-timer to major conference attendance, one who also happens to be my friend and soon-to-be Master’s in Science degree holder, Ms. Supriya Hota (Twitter: @supriyahota28).

Here is a lightly edited version of the interview we conducted on webcam (Zoom meeting!), shortly after the end of the #BCVS20 meeting:

Mo: To start with a big-picture view of the experience, could you tell us how the overall experience was like, after many hours of content, over 4 days of back-to-back sessions, full of novel basic science research?

SH: If I were to summarize my overall experience in three words, it would be: thrilling, fascinating, and inspirational! My colleagues and mentors, including yourself (Blogger note: Happy to be part of the team!) have always told me great things about the AHA conferences, and I must say #BCVS20 was truly one-of-a-kind, even when it was a virtual one this year. Every day of the conference, I was able to feel the energy and enthusiasm right from my small computer screen! #BCVS20 was also a life-changing experience for me because it truly encouraged me to pursue higher education in the field of cardiovascular sciences. So here I am, looking forward to attending more conferences like #BCVS20 and networking with potential supervisors in the near future!

Mo: Focusing on the virtual format for the event, as a first-time attendee for a major international meeting, do you think the setting was adequate and sufficient in meeting your expectations and intentions for attending a meeting like this?

SH: Primarily, my expectation was to get an update of the basic science research that is happening in the field, especially in the area that I study, which focuses on the role of inflammation in heart failure. I also intended to interact with the presenters by asking questions. The virtual format was more than sufficient to meet those intentions. For example, I was able to jump from one concurrent session to the other, so that I didn’t miss a presentation I was interested in. Therefore, I leave #BCVS20 with a substantial amount of information, not only in my research area, but also other areas in the field of cardiovascular science. On top of that, accessing materials and on-line sessions was very convenient via the BCVS Heart Hub. Moreover, I was able to focus on the presentations and take note of the specific details on images or graphs via the virtual format more so than I would’ve been if I had attended the real-life conference, because either I would have been sitting too far from the screen or distracted by attendees leaving or entering the room. Also, the virtual format gave me the courage to ask questions to the presenters, because as a graduate student who is very early in her career, I would have been hesitant to ask a question in a big room full of well-known scientists. Lastly, most of the sessions were on-time, giving everyone the opportunity to discuss the scientific data and personally encourage the presenters via supportive messages in the chat window, like “Looking forward to your presentation”, “Good Luck” and appreciate the presenters’ work by saying “Fascinating work”, “thank-you for sharing your research”, which I don’t think would have been as possible in a real-life conference.

Mo: Conferences usually serve two main advances to folks that attend them, (1) acquire the newest and most cutting-edge knowledge of what’s happening in the field, and (2) expand one’s network of professional connections within the field. Do you think those two components of conference attendance were served well in a virtual format?

SH: I think the program planning committee has done an outstanding job with displaying the newest and most cutting-edge research. The virtual format has fully served this purpose. As for networking, I do not think the virtual format can ever be equal to in-person meetings. Communicating via message chat is not as engaging as face-to-face communication, which, in the virtual format, might also be a limitation to some people for various reasons, (e.g. they might not have a working camera, they don’t feel comfortable engaging with other attendees from home, etc.). Despite these drawbacks of the virtual format, I think the planning committee and the early career committee have made a significant effort in providing networking opportunities to the attendees. At the same time, most attendees have made good use of those opportunities.

Mo: Follow up – Do you think paring and amplifying social media engagement between conference attendees (and organizers) can help with filling-in some of the networking gaps that precipitate by the virtual format compared to in-person meetings?

SH: I am in full support of amplifying social media engagement because it does assist with networking in a convenient way. For example, I saw that many presenters are actively recruiting talented individuals for open positions in their research programs. What would be a faster way to advertise for this position in the scientific community other than social media? I was disappointed every time some principal investigators were not on social media (Twitter). Even though I could tweet exciting facts about their research, I am still unable to engage with them one-on-one and it will not benefit them in return because others cannot follow their research. Therefore, social media, especially Twitter, assists in promoting one’s research to those who were not able to attend the conference and to the rest of the scientific community. I think social media and its ability to privately message individuals fills in a gap as well, because it gives the attendee the comfort and privacy to have a conversation with another attendee, which is not possible in the chat window of a virtual format where hundred others are listening or using the same message chat box.

Mo: Some of the advantages of virtual meetings include ease of access, lower financial commitments, increased diversity of participants and content being shared at those meetings. Would you say these advantages are persuasive enough for you to recommend this experience to another potential first-timer attending a major conference?

SH: I would definitely recommend BCVS to other potential attendees. As mentioned earlier, the two main purposes of conferences are to acquire the newest and most cutting-edge knowledge in the field, and expand one’s network of professional connections, which the #BCVS20 provided to its attendees. In addition, for sure the lower financial commitments and ease of access due to virtual format are persuasive enough for international graduate students like me to attend.

Mo: Any other comments or advice to give to future conference attendees that have a virtual meeting coming up on their calendars?

SH: I would recommend the following to future virtual conference attendees:

Before the start of the conference:

  • Create your own schedule for the conference, outlining the sessions you will be attending and when you will have breaks (very important! virtual conferences, like in-person meetings, can still be tiring.)
  • Make sure that your computer is connected to a working camera and microphone and has all the necessary plug-ins and applications installed for you to watch and participate in the online sessions.
  • Take the time to explore the Home Page from where you will access all the materials, on-line sessions, and on-demand options.

On the days of the conference:

  • Actively take notes – this prevents you from getting distracted!
  • Ask questions and/or provide a supportive or appreciative comment on the presenter’s work (that’s the least you can do)
  • Tweet about the presentation that fascinates you (Don’t forget to mention and follow the presenter!). Try to make your tweet intriguing by stating takeaways and attaching eye-catching scientific diagrams and results from the presenter’s talk, when allowed.

After the conference:

  • Organize your notes and create a recap or summary to share the valuable knowledge with your team.

Mo: Thank you so much for this illuminating discussion! And I look forward to attending more conferences where we get a chance to chat and share how those experiences translate to our common goal of advancing our professional career journeys.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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A New Way To Participate

One of the characteristics of attending medium to large scientific sessions is the time-honored act of… running from room to room trying to catch glimpses of talks that interested you, but have of course ended up in different rooms, minutes apart. Many of us have done this, and to an extent, I don’t mind it! I can always count on being able to reach my daily step count targets whenever I’m attending a conference, without needing to set aside 30mins dedicated to a walk or morning run.

The current global health crisis has ushered in new and accelerated inevitable changes in the way science research is conducted, disseminated, and discussed within the community. Each one of these aspects has shown the malleable and highly valued ability for science, and society, to adapt to new paradigms of work. There have been many challenges and losses in the way research has been affected (a partial or total work-from-home status doesn’t translate to equal productivity for lab based work). But at the same time, this ongoing pandemic response has also provided a launching pad for some very innovative and future friendly adjustments.

Today I’ll focus on one of those changes, related specifically to conference attendance. This is by no means a novel idea, but I find myself thinking a lot about it, and I’d like to share some of those thoughts. Online based conferences have existed before Covid-19 became a house-hold idea and reality. Even more novel are Social Media “conferences”, an example being the Royal Society of Chemistry putting on the #RSCPoster Twitter Conference earlier this year (planned in early 2019, before covid).

The fact of the matter is, the movement to have scientific meetings and conferences be better adjusted within the online space has been gathering momentum for years. I for one, have served as “Twitter Ambassador” for a handful of conferences over the past couple of years, because conference organizers, participants, and various communities, have found tangible and positive effects of having conferences be more open, interactive, and far-reaching, beyond the walls of the hotel or center that brings together the in-real-life attendees.

(photo taken by Mo Al-Khalaf, 2020)

This year the Basic Cardiovascular Sciences headline annual meeting, better known this week as #BCVS20 is a fully virtual conference. As an early career molecular biologist researching mechanisms of heart disease, this is one of the “can’t miss” events on my calendar. My previous experiences for these type of conferences has been very rewarding, and advantageous in propelling my research and career. Before Covid-19, I was very much looking forward to this meeting scheduled to be in Chicago. When it was announced that the meeting will become fully virtual, I knew that there will be some experience that’ll get lost in the format change. But I also appreciated the diligent and effective leadership that made this call, because this was definitively the right call, for the safety of the attendees, and all the workers that would be involved in administering and pulling off a successful meeting (a meeting that brings 1000+ folks, in one building for a few days).

So far, I must say I find the #BCVS20 experience to be quite rewarding. It is different, and the limited and reformatted ways of networking and engagement takes a little bit of time to get used to. But overall, I believe there is great potential to make this format, or better yet, a hybrid format where both online and in-real-life parallel options available, a very appealing and appropriate next step in the evolution of how these types of meetings can be conducted. The ability to cater to a worldwide audience, and the convenience provided to allow attendees to participate and learn from field experts without the difficulty of planning a trip, is without a doubt an advantage to students and early career professionals, who do frequently face difficulties in attending such meetings.

One thing I note: Unlike past conference going experiences, I definitely need to put in the 30-minute daily jog before or after the day’s sessions… because there is no need to run from room to room to catch talks that you’re interested in… it’s all just a mouse click or head turn to a second screen away!

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Knowledge Advances Incrementally

Learning and advancing one’s personal and professional goals is a dynamic and active process. We never truly “finish” learning anything. We get better and better at tasks the more we practice them. We increase the accuracy of our data the more analysis on bigger and more relevant sets of samples we collect and measure. The scientific method is built on accepting the facts as they get unveiled, fully realizing that optimization and accuracy comes gradually with more work done and more information gathering.

One of the present global issues that I want to address here is the erroneous practice of some individuals that point out shifts in recommendations and gradual changes in the understanding of a scientific/medical phenomenon, and using these shifts and changes in the information shared as basis for doubt and denial for the whole process. Certainly when it comes to complex and novel discoveries/puzzles to solve, there will be a period of optimization and incremental advancement in understanding. These could lead to changes in conclusions from where things were first reported, to where they are now, and to where they will be in the future as more and more science is uncovered and facts are checked and replicated.

The act of refuting what we presently know and understand of a novel discovery or challenge to tackle, simply because the present understanding doesn’t match exactly what was previously reported and shared, is simply an act of refusing to accept that human beings are, by nature, dynamic learners. We gain more as we try, experience, and process information. Humans are not the kind of species that begin and end their lives with the same genetically programmed set of actions and behaviors inherited from the previous generation and are carried down to their progeny. Each one of us knows more now than we knew when we were younger. Experience matters. Time to perform more measurements and analysis brings us closer to accuracy and understanding. In other words, we get wiser as a whole, the more we experience and accumulate data.

Individuals that insist on focusing on the divergence of information coming from science and medicine, that’s separated by a non-trivial amount of time, are trying to sow doubt and nullify the value gained by executing the scientific method to its fullest potential. Accuracy, and a full understanding of anything complex, requires optimization, replication and diverse set of experts working separately and together, to incrementally achieve the most precise understanding of a challenge or novel discovery.

Our society benefits from scientifically assessed and understood information. Evidence-based decision making is far superior to other forms of societal choices, made by and for the public. And as mentioned here, the precision and accuracy of scientific information gathering advances the more time is allowed for investigation and understanding. We should celebrate and embrace changes accumulated with more data analysis and scientific rigor applied to test the facts uncovered along the way.

It is a self-correcting and enhancing mechanism, built into the scientific method and research process that we implement as scientists and healthcare researchers and providers. Sure this means that some data and knowledge will shift with time, but this should be seen as progress, and we should not let mis-informers and pseudoscience spreading behavior and individuals hijack the system of self-correction and improvement built into our method.

And as a last point to make: Scientists, medical researchers, and everyone involved in healthcare, research and academia should find ways to communicate and/or amplify voices of communicators that are on the front-lines of providing evidence-based information to the public. The best use of the scientific process is when the product of this process is shared with everyone.

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”