The Status Right Now

Research, teaching and learning, and service are the three components in the portfolio of the budding scientist. How have these been affected during the pandemic? Due to shift work in research labs, we have lost the coffee-time chats, troubleshooting protocols over lunch, in-person lab meetings and conferences, and impromptu mentorship in technique demonstration or scientific discussion. Teaching, learning, service, and extracurricular activities such as networking functions, outreach, career development, and interviews have all moved online. From our own or colleagues’ experiences, we outline some tips and tools in optimizing the virtual world for everyone involved with training the next generation of scientists.


Research Labs

Continuing a sense of team community through virtual lab meetings and one-on-one conversations are vital right now. If the lab is not too large, an outdoor excursion such as a walk or hike, can do wonders for everyone. Encourage lab members to virtually meet regularly without the supervisor, perhaps to talk about something not science-related, such as tools on wellness. Encourage lab members to meet for one-on-one walks, if they live close to each other  Create technical videos to help train the new recruits. Inviting an international researcher for a virtual lab discussion could also be helpful and rejuvenating.

Teaching and Learning

Engaging students in a virtual platform requires the incorporation of active learning and facilitating discussion. Tools that can be incorporated into classrooms include polls, interactive boards, breakout rooms and chat functions, with many helpful resources available online on how to integrate these tools. Polls are an excellent means to provide instant student feedback, which can be strategically placed at regular five to ten-minute intervals to break up the lecturing segments. An online platform can also be less intimidating and offers the students a feeling of anonymity to ask questions, making them more willing to participate in chats, which builds a student ‘community’ that would not have occurred with in-person classes. Through these chats, an instructor can be more connected as the students do not have to talk in front of the entire class and could initiate more casual conversations such as students’ wellbeing and career paths which leads to a strong sense of an online community.

In smaller classrooms, breakout rooms are an excellent way to facilitate discussion in larger groups, with the instructor able to monitor and interact with multiple sessions. The interactive “white board” provides a mean for attendees to still participate in ideation and collaborative methods with the ability to organize their ideas and bring them back to the group as you would in any group setting.

Service and Outreach

Community outreach programs have worked to cultivate both scientific literacy and curiosity in our youth. These programs have been limited in large part to the pandemic and the difficulty in suddenly having to adopt virtual platforms to engage students. Challenges include the lack of physical interaction, hands-on experience in STEM-related experiments and the lack of intimacy that you would normally get from hosting fun workshops. While schools continue to provide formal STEM classes over online platforms, extra-curricular outreach programs are still needed to provide unique real world contexts to stimulate the interest of these students. Additionally, with an increased focus on engaging underrepresented minorities (URM) and students from low socioeconomic status (SES), it has been especially challenging for schools that may not have the resources to quickly adopt these essential programs. However, this can also provide a unique opportunity. Normally, it is difficult to get speakers from diverse backgrounds to come to a classroom and speak to young students. However, as everything is transitioning online and with essentially the lack of geographical barriers, it makes it far easier for youth to be exposed to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and professors. Also, several outreach organizations like Visions of Science Network for Learning and Let’s Talk Science, have designed specific online programs for these marginalized communities. Beyond Sciences Initiative is actively engaged in partnering and has their online scientific conference, where they provide scholars worldwide with the opportunity to present their research and network with a broad scientific audience.

Career Development 

Professional and career development programs such as the annual CIHR Trainee Workshop for the national 2020 Canadian Student Health Research Forum Conference opened its virtual platform to all graduate students across the country resulting in over 200 attendees and its recorded event is now available to any student who missed it. The national Life Science Career Expo 2021 will also be a virtual platform, allowing increased access to students. Virtual tools being considered are those which mimic a space where participants can “move” across conference rooms and meet people who are “standing” in specific locations. Networking events planned by universities can now have more students accessing from their homes. Career discussions organized by Science to Business Network and Dr. Lee’s Special Guest Career Chats, and others, have opened up their events to any global student who has internet access. 

Virtual tools as equalizers

One major welcomed surprise from virtual meetings is that proper tools can equalize the voices in the room brainstorming for new ideas. Usually a large number of participants results in the “louder” person to be heard. Using tools such as google sheets, each participant can write their ideas anonymously, which masks any “power” imbalances. Ideas can then also be voted on anonymously, with the most voted idea to be used as a foundation for next steps. This powerful method of making sure all voices are heard represents a truly “flat” organizational process.

The training of our current generation into scientific thought leaders is being challenged by our health crisis. However, with effective tools, the community can still be built, the global scientific community is more accessible, and an organizational meeting can collect more ideas and be more inclusive than an in-person one. The benefits of these new approaches have great potential to be used even after we overcome these times. Also, as a valuable result of less conference travel, our planet Earth is a greener home.

Chloe Mitchell and Ashton Trotman-Grant are PhD students, Nana Lee is Director of Graduate Professional Development & Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, all from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto.