by Yemeen Ayub
“But you can’t do that, … , Mr. President?“
We were tasked with roleplaying as scientists who were having a stern conversation with policy-makers. Everyone is grinning at the humor of calling each other Sir, Ma’m, or Mr. President. Up next on the schedule is Tai Chi, where over sixty participants back away from their webcams to begin the ancient Chinese practice dating back to the 12th century. Although it’s only the first week, the Dynamics and Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic summer school is already shaping up to be how most workshops will be run in the future.
Organized by the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) in San Jose, CA, and the Mathematics and Climate Research Network (MCRN), with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), this workshop is aimed at teaching students about mathematical epidemiology and how it can be applied to the disease COVID-19. About forty students meet online every day for several hours in a variety of settings from video meetings via Zoom and group messaging through Slack to watching videos together simultaneously on Watch2Gether. Tablets were even provided to allow collaborative whiteboard spaces like one would expect when meeting in an academic environment.
When schools such as this go online, the results tend to be more inclusive. Barriers such as distance, health, and personal obligations tend to disappear. This was the case when one student joined our school from the hospital. Going online also allows for the possibility of supporting more participants, instead of spending funds on travel. This helps, as previous goals of fitting as many participants in a program tended to favor students inside the country due to international travel fees and paperwork. With a greater population of students, any online program will flourish as the many different backgrounds synergize and provide new insights.
Research workshops taking to the internet isn’t all positive. Just because e-participants can see, hear, and write on whiteboards together doesn’t mean the internet experience perfectly mirrors the in-person experience. A work day requires staying in one room almost all day as some students have lamented. This room is often even the room that many people have spent most of the quarantine in. Some attendees have resorted to taking their meetings outside, where vibrant trees and sunlight make up most of their backgrounds. Others have done so in spirit by using Zoom’s virtual background feature in order to be transported to mountain ranges, Utah’s natural arches, or even the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit. Unfortunately virtual backgrounds don’t do much to help members who don’t have a consistent internet connection or a silent space to take video calls in. Future conferences can aid in these troubles by providing support for cellular usb modems, rental offices, and caregivers. Doing so would help erase the inherent inequalities in being able to attend an online seminar.
As modeling COVID-19 and its impact will be a tough task, these participants will have to overcome many new challenges never experienced before. Thankfully, there will be many lessons to best prepare them for anything, even talking to the president.
Yemeen Ayub, graduate student, George Mason University, firstname.lastname@example.org