issue Summer 2021

Student Organizers Make All School Research Consortium a Virtual Reality

By Sara Skoog
PhD students Matthew Stratton, Babita Thadari and Nikki Barrington were among the organizers of the virtual ASRC 2021.
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

The annual All School Research Consortium (ASRC) provides a showcase for RFU students, postdocs and residents from all five schools and colleges to share their research projects with the larger university community.

Organized by a dedicated committee of student volunteers — with support from RFU’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) and administrators and departments throughout the university — ASRC is truly an interprofessional endeavor. What began in 2006 as a half-day program with 40 research posters and a handful of oral presentations is now a daylong event featuring more than 100 posters, 20 research talks, a keynote address, an awards ceremony and the opening of the annual “Art From the Benchtop” art exhibit.

Seeing so many people come together virtually to share their work, collaborate and network speaks to the resilience and character of the RFU community — traits we seem to have in common with our institutional namesake.

ASRC is typically presented in the format of a scientific conference, with participants stationed next to their posters in a large central location where judges and attendees browse the posters and ask students about their research projects. The event is held in March each year, which placed it directly in the path of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The university’s move to remote operations last March for the safety of students, faculty and staff meant ASRC 2020 was cancelled. With COVID-19 still a threat in 2021, student organizers were determined to make ASRC happen virtually this year on March 17.

“In an unprecedented year marked by adversity and division, it was nothing short of extraordinary to see the breadth and volume of original research produced by Rosalind Franklin students, postdocs, residents and staff at ASRC 2021,” said Nikki Barrington, an MD/PhD student and co-chair of the ASRC organizing committee.

“Seeing so many people come together virtually to share their work, collaborate and network speaks to the resilience and character of the RFU community — traits we seem to have in common with our institutional namesake,” she added. “As Dr. Rosalind Franklin herself once said, ‘Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.’ ASRC 2021 demonstrated that science is everyday life at RFU, and even a pandemic couldn’t stop us from sharing that.”

One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to connect poster presentations from 120-plus students with the 40 or so judges who would be evaluating the research posters and symposia talks, as well as allowing program attendees to view the posters and talk to the student researchers about their work. Maintaining the interactive nature of the event was key, as proficiency in communicating about research is an essential part of professional development for the students and postdocs. Consortium organizers worked with RFU’s Information Technology Services to move all ASRC programming to a virtual platform. But how do you present dozens of posters simultaneously when everyone needs to be talking at the same time? The solution was virtual breakout rooms. Lots of breakout rooms.

“In the end, we individualized a personal breakout room for each poster at the conference — that way, any judge, colleague or interested party could go directly to the research that intrigued them and find the presenter ready and waiting to discuss their work,” said Aubrey Penney, academic program coordinator for RFU’s School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. “For the symposia, we kept a piece of the in-person event, organizing three breakout rooms based on discipline and subject matter with a programmed schedule of speakers.”

In addition to coordinating the setup of so many virtual locations, student and staff volunteers also stood at the ready to assist with technical issues and point participants and guests in the right digital direction. Organizers acted as air traffic controllers of sorts, deftly navigating judges in and out of breakout rooms and helping participants get exactly where they needed to go. There may have been a few digital hiccups along the way, but that didn’t deter those committed to making sure knowledge was shared and the participants celebrated for their dedication to advancing scientific discovery.

Sara Skoog is a staff writer with the RFU Division of Marketing and Brand Management. In addition to writing for Helix and other university publications, she also produces Pulse, RFU’s monthly e-newsletter.