By Elizabeth DuPre
The OHBM 2020 Annual Meeting was a year of many firsts. The move to an all-online event reflected the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, with work, travel and schooling routines already in disarray for researchers across the globe. As many of us had been out-of-office or away from our university campuses for months before the Annual Meeting, the chance to connect with the broader human brain mapping community became especially important.
Traditionally, the Annual Meeting offers a chance to interact formally and informally with other researchers to make both scientific as well as interpersonal connections. Replicating these spontaneous conversations was perhaps the biggest challenge for this year’s meeting. First, there were the issues of timing. With OHBM members participating from their home countries, one member’s afternoon in North America would be the middle of the night for another member in Asia. The meeting was therefore set on a rotating schedule, with day-blocks favoring Asia-Pacific, European and African, or North and South American working hours.
Once the timing was set, the second hurdle was developing a virtual space for interactions. Large online platforms—like those necessary to run a conference for thousands of members—often lean towards structured, lecture-style environments rather than organic interactions and impromptu discussions. From the available infrastructure options, OHBM Council decided in April to adopt the 6connex platform. Council’s intention was to allow time for all presenters, committees, and special interest groups (SIG) members to adapt their content; however, the time pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many were still unclear how this new platform would work in practice in June.
Expectations were thus high for the 6connex platform—possibly higher than could be reasonably met. The platform did well in delivering pre-recorded content, such as the excellent selection of keynotes lectures, symposia and oral sessions, but the space for spontaneous interaction was woefully lacking. As one example, many members noted the challenges of using the chat feature, such as when 1000+ attendees simultaneously participated in a single-threaded chat room. This lack of functionality created particular frustration in poster presentations and interactions, where presenters and attendees were unclear how to contact one another or how to provide on-the-spot poster walk-throughs.
OHBM members enjoying one of the poster sessions on the GallOP platform.
Although the official platform did not provide an outlet for interaction, it did create a galvanizing effect for the community to create such a space. Attendees, such as Yaroslav Halchenko, Soichi Hayashi, and many others, came together to openly develop the OHBM 2020 GallOP (Gallery of Open Presentations) platform. GallOP provided an easy interface to search for poster authors, titles, or keywords, creating more chances for researchers to find relevant work. But perhaps most importantly, it created individual video conferencing rooms for each poster, allowing attendees and presenters to directly interact during presentation time slots or to leave one another notes outside of official meeting times. Although GallOP was only created after the first poster presentation time, the community response was enthusiastic, and it was quickly accepted and shared by the OHBM leadership and incorporated into the official platform.
Interactions in the Open Science Room (OSR) Gather.Town, a virtual space where OHBM members could gather throughout the conference.
This spirit of creativity and connection swept through OHBM2020 and was perhaps the defining feature of the conference. Other important community-driven initiatives that arose included the BrainWeb poster viewer and the first-ever virtual OHBM Club Night, both of which created online spaces that mimicked many of the social features of an in-person meeting, albeit with fewer spilled drinks. All of these community-driven initiatives were linked together by emergent discussions in the Open Science Room (OSR); this central hub seemed to catalyse interaction across the conference. The OSR hosted emergent discussions on everything from software containerization, to correcting for confounding, to even the structure of the virtual conference itself. In a year in which our idea of community has been redefined by political, social, and cultural reckonings, this space to have conversation with other brain mappers about the important issues of our science—both in terms of research topics and lived experience—proved a highlight of the conference for many attendees.
Alongside these experiences, the official OHBM program also provided attendees the chance to consider the direction of our field. As always, the OHBM Talraich, Glass Brain awardee, keynote, and symposium speakers provided an inspiring vision of the future of our society and the work we can do together. The OHBM 2020 Hall of Fame celebrated individuals that uphold many of the values important to the membership (e.g. education, replication, open science, mentoring), as well as this year’s award-winning abstracts. Uniquely, the community-driven efforts of this year’s event also provided a glimpse into just how important more grassroots efforts are to the structure and functioning of our academic society. As a result of this work, the SIG chairs were invited to sit in on Council meetings and increase interaction between official and grassroots initiatives. This is an exciting next chapter for OHBM leadership, and it suggests that we will continue to see more innovation in the years to come.
Although the 2020 Annual Meeting was our first all-virtual event, it is clear that its lessons will shape the structure of OHBM moving forward. We now know that the OHBM 2021 annual meeting will also happen virtually; this decision was made in advance such that all community members have more time to prepare. These preparations include creating a dedicated ‘Technology Task Force’ to translate the lessons learned in the 2020 meeting into next year’s experience. Altogether, it’s clear from the 2020 meeting that the OHBM community is vibrant, responsive and collaborative. We look forward to seeing how these attributes can be further advanced in coming years, starting with the 2021 Annual Meeting!