Special guest blog by the organizers of the Paleontological Research Institution’s 14th Annual Summer Symposium, which was virtual and had the theme of: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Paleontology. The event was recorded and links to the YouTube channel can be found at the end of the post!
Who organized this event and what are your backgrounds?
Caren: My name is Caren Shin, and I’m a PhD student at Cornell University in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, advised by Dr. Warren Allmon.
Corey: My name is Corey Hensen and I am a PhD student at Cornell University. I completed an undergraduate degree in geology at the State University of New York at Geneseo and now study stratigraphy and paleobiology under Dr. Warren Allmon.
Dana: I’m Dana Friend and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY. I received a B.A. from Cornell College (Mt. Vernon, IA) and a PhD in Paleobiology from Cornell University. Broadly speaking, my research field is phylogenetic systematics and macroevolution. I’ve planned PRI symposiums for years as a graduate student but this year I served primarily as an informal advisor of sorts and #1 cheerleader for the new cohort of graduate students and the symposium planning committee.
Jaleigh: My name is Jaleigh Pier and I have worked at PRI the last two years on a variety of projects in both the Science Communication and Collections Departments. This fall, I will be starting my PhD at Cornell under Dr. Greg Dietl, which is how I joined the PRI Summer Symposium Planning Committee since graduate students normally plan this event.
Matthew: My name is Matthew Pruden; I am a PhD student at Cornell University in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department. I completed my undergraduate degree in paleontology at the University of Alberta, and now I am studying Conservation Paleobiology under Dr. Greg Dietl.
Vicky: My name is Vicky Wang and I am the Collections Assistant at PRI. My undergraduate degree is in biology from Brown University and later I took classes in paleontology and geology. At PRI I’ve worked mostly on specimen digitization projects (including EPICC) and also helped with a major revision of the collections policies. I don’t have formal training in collections work, so I’ve been supplementing what I learn through work with books, articles, and free resources. From everything I’ve seen so far, the collections stewardship and digitization communities are incredibly generous and collaborative.
How did you come upon this theme? What inspired you all?
In early May, our weekly discussion group read an article that discussed gender parity among palaeontology authors and discussed gender, race, and lack of general diversity in our field. A few weeks after that was George Floyd’s death and the beginnings of widespread protests in the US. In the following week, as emotions and difficult conversations surfaced on social media, we found it particularly hard to focus on work. These events coincided with the beginning stages of planning for Summer Symposium, and we felt very strongly the need to do what we could to change the way things were in our field, and elsewhere.
Changing the way Summer Symposium was run seemed like a good way to translate those feelings into action. Originally we were going to have three short sessions, each with a different topic, including one on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in paleontology. But when we reached out to presenters, so many people wanted to contribute to the DEI session that we quickly decided to expand it and make DEI the focus of our entire event. We wanted to create a space to continue these difficult but necessary conversations, especially for one of the least diverse STEM fields. We wanted to bring together a wide swathe of the paleo community to share information and ideas for solutions, to affirm the importance of addressing DEI issues in our field, and to encourage others to begin or continue to make change where they are. Of course we understand that one event can only do so much, and we see our symposium as a link in a chain of many sustained efforts by many different people.
What were the biggest challenges of organizing the symposium?
The biggest challenge was navigating the virtual conference world, since none of us had experience in planning or running a virtual conference. The organizers of the recent Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) virtual conference were kind enough to meet with us and impart valuable advice. They shared numerous materials with us and patiently answered all of our questions to where we began to feel comfortable with our abilities to run a successful virtual symposium.
Another challenge was managing speakers across several time zones and coming up with a schedule that allowed enough time for an extended Q&A while also striking the right balance between ample breaks, time to manage potential technical difficulties, and not making the event too long for people in different time zones. Lastly, we collectively put in over 300 hours for this event, and with some of us working full-time jobs and others teaching summer courses or doing their own research, it took a coordinated effort for all of this to come together.
We think it’s also important to point out that, although our event relied on volunteer labor, we don’t think that’s the necessarily ideal model. We would like to have offered speaker honorariums if we had the funding to do so. We also want to acknowledge the hard work of many other organizers of virtual conferences who are doing this work as volunteers.
How many attendees were there? How does this compare to last year’s in person event?
More than 200 people attended the event, with participants tuning in globally. We had just under 300 registered for the event. Many of the registrants were interested, but unable to attend on the day of the event and expressed interest in watching the recordings at a later time.
What are the benefits of having online conferences and symposia, in regards to both invited speakers and attendees?
The virtual format allowed us to address the field broadly and gave us more options in terms of who we could invite as speakers (they didn’t have to be in driving distance!). Attendees were able to join from all over the world (North and South America, Asia, Europe, etc.) and across many time zones. In the past, the PRI Summer Symposium has been a highly local event of around ~50 attendees. This virtual format clearly allowed us to reach a much larger (4x larger!) and a more diverse audience. Many people wrote in the feedback survey that not having to pay for travel or an expensive registration fee is what allowed them to participate. We would not also have been able to invite all the speakers we did. We are very grateful to all our speakers, who volunteered their time and effort to support us in this difficult time.
What do you all see as the greatest success of this symposium?
One success is reaching such a broad audience, it was thrilling to see people from literally all over the world attend our symposium! Another was being able to do something to continue the conversation on DEI in paleontology, and hopefully invoke change. It was very gratifying to hear from attendees at different career stages that they wanted to make the field more diverse and inclusive and that they learned a lot from the speakers. A lot of attendees also praised us for sticking to the posted schedule and really appreciated how well-organized the event was. Lastly, to see all of our hard work come to fruition and being received so well was truly amazing! We kept anticipating something to go wrong, but it turned out to be a huge success and was worth all of the effort to make it happen.
One of our attendees, Dr. Kristina Barclay (a collaborator with Time Scavengers) said:
“As someone who has been working to increase accessibility and diversity in geoscience, this symposium was incredibly valuable! I learned so much, and it was great to learn where I was on the right track, and what other things I can do in the future. It was great to hear from experts and see all of these resources in one place for a highly targeted palaeo/geo audience. Thanks for hosting such an important, successful event!”
What advice do you have for future online event organizers?
- Plan ahead! Especially if you will have time constraints due to other commitments, planning ahead will give you time to learn about transitioning to a virtual format, from researching other similar events and how they were run, to defining your own event logistics and making a plan for advertising the event. Include cushion in your schedule for transitions and in case some speakers need a little extra time, and to make a plan for how to handle things if something goes wrong. If your event is long, it’s also important to include substantial breaks. Have a thoughtful code of conduct and enforce it.
- Ask for help! Being able to ask the SPNHC and iDigBio organizers for advice helped tremendously and gave us a starting point for developing our own materials (which you can find and use here: Moderator Guide, Presenter Guide, Code of Conduct). Our own organization team grew as the event planning picked up momentum!
- Seek support! Although this was an all-volunteer effort from both the organizing team and speakers, if you are organizing an event and you are aware of the types of resources required (e.g. financial, technical), see if a nominal registration fee, or other ways to support your event are available. In our case, we opted for speaker-nominated organizations that attendees could check out and support, if they were able.
Check out recordings of the events: https://priweb.org/videos/summersymposium
Event details: https://www.priweb.org/event/summer-symposium
For any inquiries or comments on the event, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org