#05 2020

Digital screens become window to global deep-sea research

By Grant van der Heever, Arno Botha, Lara Atkinson, Leila Nefdt, Jordan van Stavel, Silke Brandt and Donia Wozniak, SAEON Egagasini Node

Bringing together researchers from across the globe has never been easy. This became an even more challenging task this year following the rapid escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent shutdown of national and international travel.

This unprecedented crisis has resulted in the cancellation and postponement of numerous traditional face-to-face conferences and has forced a shift towards the digital arena, where webinars and virtual conferences have become the norm.

SAEON Egagasini biodiversity staff and students experienced this shift towards the digital arena as we were offered a special opportunity to attend the first-ever online Deep-Sea Biology Society (eDSBS) conference which took place from 19 to 21 August. A fee waiver for attendees from developing countries made it a truly inclusive experience that welcomed researchers from all around the globe, many of which would not have been able to attend if it were a traditional in-person conference.

The event focused on highlighting the talent of the next generation through a series of virtual talks and posters presented by the next cohort of deep-sea biologists.

The ‘virtual venue’ was in the form of an easy-to-navigate dashboard that allowed access to the conference lobby, talk sessions and poster sessions. Virtual rooms were made available for questions and conversations, which allowed participants to engage and interact directly with the authors and the deep-sea community.

The organisers left no stone unturned and successfully used this virtual space to bring ground-breaking science and breathtaking footage of rarely seen deep-sea animals to the comfort of our homes.

Egagasini experiences

For many Egagasini participants this was our first international conference, and we were not disappointed. Jordan van Stavel (MSc student) said that, “the eDSBS conference was a great example of how technology can benefit us during a time of crisis”.

Her thoughts were echoed by Leila Nefdt (MSc student) who stated that, “the conference was brilliant – I not only got the opportunity to attend the virtual conference but to present my current research as well”. Master’s student Donia Wozniak said that, “having the opportunity to join conferences remotely (and cheaply) not only makes it more inclusive, but further empowers those researchers with the knowledge, information and contacts to increase capacity in their own institutions and countries. It would be great to see conference meetings retaining this option in the future!”

The conference was probably summed up best by master’s student Silke Brandt who stated, “through the conference, my laptop became a window to the deep-sea research being done around the world. eDSBS broadened my sense of belonging to a global community of researchers.”

Final thoughts on eDSBS

The organisers of the eDSBS successfully leveraged technology to blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds. In doing so, they created an accessible and inclusive space that brought together students, young researchers and established scientists from all around the world. This certainly forged new relationships and encouraged collaborations between different nationalities, labs and even disciplines, ensuring the growth and advancement of deep-sea biological research.

Whether Covid-19 has changed the future of conferences forever remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, nothing compares with the introductory handshakes, impromptu hallway chats, social get-togethers and in-person connections experienced at traditional conferences.

SAEON contributions

Watch Leila Nefdt’s presentation on epifaunal community patterns in the Agulhas ecoregion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC_99ZD_Tek&feature=youtu.be-

Poster presented by SAEON’s Silke Brandt

Donia Wozniak’s presentation