“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” These words coined by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu thousands of years ago are particularly true in today’s difficult times. Ever since COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, started spreading from China to virtually every corner of the world, our way of living as human beings, and as scientists, changed dramatically. When academic and public life as we knew it came to a sudden halt, we all needed to adjust to the new reality.
As pandemic essentials such as toilet paper, sanitation wipes and canned goods vanished from supermarket shelves, so did people from previously crowded public places, offices spaces and airport terminals. With schools and daycare facilities closed, new challenges arose for parents and their homeschooled children. The virus also turned life in academia upside down: as more and more universities significantly reduced their research activities or shut down completely, scientists around the globe were forced to abandon their laboratories and transition to a strict work from home schedule. Abolishing in-person meetings for digital-only interactions brought along its own challenges, and many a Webex conference, Zoom call or Google Hangouts meeting left participants more frustrated than fulfilled. For some, work from home quickly turned into work from hell, as evidenced in a variety of social media commentary (#WorkFromHell). In an effort to minimize public gatherings and #FlattenTheCurve, much-anticipated conferences including the Annual Meetings of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles (ISEV) and the American Society for Exosomes and Microvesicles (ASEMV), as well as the 2020 Gordon Research Conference on Extracellular Vesicles, were postponed or canceled.
Where, then, one might wonder, lies the opportunity? One of the best ways to find it is to get creative and devise solutions that make the best of a situation given the respective restrictions. For scientific meetings such as ISEV2020, this meant going digital: Virtual conferences have the potential to reach a broader audience by taking away the cost and hassle of traveling while also lowering the carbon footprint of scientific exchange. Forfeiting the option of tried and true in-person meetings opens up avenues for new and innovative formats such as pre-recorded lectures, virtual coffee breaks and poster walks from the comfort of our own home.
The extracellular vesicle (EV) community represents a prominent example of finding opportunities in seeming misfortune. Within mere weeks of universities shutting down and conference cancellations piling up, several initiatives to foster scientific exchange and keep researchers around the globe connected from home were launched.
For Kenneth Witwer, Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (USA), this meant moving discussions about the EV literature from the conference room into the digital space. “I hosted a monthly EV journal club starting in 2016. It grew out of a journal club on microRNAs that Marc Halushka and I started several years earlier. The EV journal club mailing list grew to almost 150 recipients by 2020, almost all at Johns Hopkins and a few at the neighboring University of Maryland and National Institute of Aging”, he explains. “When COVID-19 forced us to abandon in-person meetings, it made sense to take the journal club online via Zoom. Everyone I talked with was enthusiastic. Around 100 attended our first session. For the second session, more than 100 joined”.
But despite the initial success, it would not all be smooth sailing from there. When so-called "Zoombombers” launched a coordinated attack and disrupted a presentation with pornographic images, racial epithets, and crude drawings, Witwer had to tighten security and abandon openly distributing access links. Setting up a survey to gather participants’ email addresses not only eliminated unwanted guests but also became a barometer of the community’s enthusiasm: “Within two weeks, more than 350 people had signed up to receive the weekly links, and our fourth session had more than 140 participants”, says Witwer. Featuring presenters from various institutions including and beyond Johns Hopkins, the weekly EV Club provides an opportunity to present relevant papers, original research or overview talks to a truly international audience. To accommodate researchers in time zones that make attending inconvenient, presentations are recorded and posted on YouTube, quickly racking up hundreds of views. Despite being born out of unfortunate circumstances, feedback for the EV Club has been overwhelmingly positive, and it might just be here to stay: “We're hoping to continue this international outreach even after COVID-19 issues resolve, as a means to bring the community together regularly across borders”, Witwer shares his vision for the EV Club’s future. “Whether this is done weekly or moves back to a lower frequency remains to be seen”.
Another major initiative comes in the form of the WebEVTalk lecture series, brainchild of Carolina Soekmadji (QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Australia). “The idea for a virtual platform to accommodate scientific interaction and networking has been there for a while. Attending a meeting is expensive and time-consuming. It is a lovely adventure for young investigators, and nothing can really replace face-to-face interactions. But in reality, as a young scientist, I was only able to afford one meeting every year. Additionally, as a mother of a 2-year-old, the decision to attend each overseas travel for conferences and meetings is not easily made”, explains Soekmadji, who previously spearheaded the Massive Open Online Course on Extracellular Vesicles in Health and Disease (https://www.coursera.org/learn/extracellular-vesicles-health-disease). As COVID-19 continued to spread around the globe, she quickly grasped both the problem and the opportunity inherent to the pandemic: “Having the experience to live in different countries as grad students and postdocs, I know that it can be a lonely life, and those are the time when there was no pandemic. It is clear that many people, including EV scientists, will have to face a lot of alone time that can easily affect mental health. We have bright individuals who are working in the EV field, and we do not want to lose those brilliant minds”. After successfully pitching the idea of a virtual lecture platform to the ISEV Board, Soekmadji went to work and created WebEVTalk in record time. With her co-hosts Jan Lötvall (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Dolores Di Vizio (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, USA), she managed to set up a two-per-week schedule of lectures that accommodate different time zones and cater to participants in Europe and the Asia Pacific region as well as in the United States. Complemented by a Facebook group and YouTube channel to which presentations can be uploaded, WebEVTalk took the EV community by storm, reaching hundreds of followers within a few weeks. While the first few installments of WebEVTalk featured a strong line-up of well-known EV scientists, early career researchers are also encouraged to contribute: “I am hoping that eventually, everyone will become accustomed to present in WebEVTalk, and more young scientists will come forward to use the platform as it was initially intended. WebEVTalk exists to help the development of EV fields and for training and cultivating young minds, not just in the current situation when they are not physically active in the labs but also in the future”, Soekmadji replies when asked about how this novel platform might evolve.
|Initiative||What it is||Who is behind it||Where to find it|
|EV Journal Club||Journal club||Kenneth Witwer||https://www.youtube.com/c/ExtracellularVesicleClub|
|WebEVTalk Series||Lecture series||Carolina Soekmadji, Jan Lötvall, Dolores Di Vizio||https://www.youtube.com/user/MsOlinolin|
|EV Flow Series||Lecture series||André Görgens, Joshua Welsh, Estefanía Lozano-Andrés||http://www.evflowcytometry.org/education|
|WebEVTalk Podcast||Podcast||Jan Lötvall||https://www.youtube.com/user/janlot56|
|GSEV message board||Online forum||GSEV||https://gsev.proboards.com/|
While the EV Club and WebEVTalk series cover various aspects of EV science, similar initiatives were also launched for more specific sections of the community. Prompted by conference cancellations and scientific interaction going virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, André Görgens (Karolinska Institutet, Sweden) came up with the idea of starting an online talk series to address the need for EV flow cytometry education in a more specific section of the community represented by a joint task force of experts from ISEV, the International Society for the Advancement of Science, and the International Society on Thrombosis and Hemostasis (ISEV-ISAC-ISTH EV Flow Cytometry Working Group). Together with Working Group members Joshua Welsh (National Institutes of Health, USA) and Estefanía Lozano-Andrés (Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands), he quickly developed a concept for the novel series that was launched in April. At the same time, the Working Group set up a platform for everyone to share their data and thoughts about EV experiments based on flow cytometry and related methods, and to get feedback on their ideas.
Initial worries about how well the talk series would be received were clearly unfounded: “At first, we were wondering if enough people would be interested in such a format. Shortly after announcing the first EV Flow Series talk, we saw many people registering, and an unexpectedly high interest. I volunteered to give the first talk in mid-April about our lab’s ongoing efforts to understand EV heterogeneity by combining different EV flow cytometry methods”, comments Görgens. Indeed, the EV community enthusiastically leapt at the chance to learn about flow cytometry while sheltering in place: with 330 attendees for the inaugural live webinar and more than 250 researchers joining the accompanying Slack chat , the lectures were off to a great start.
The launch of the EV Flow Series clearly sparked the community’s interest, concludes Görgens: “More than thirty questions were asked during the first webinar, some of which are still actively discussed in the Slack chat days after the talk. It is great to see so much interest and interaction, and we were able to set up a bi-weekly schedule with alternating research updates and educational talks for May and June”. Confirmed speakers for the next installments include EV flow cytometry heavyweights such as John Nolan (Scintillon Institute, USA) and Edwin van der Pol (Amsterdam University Medical Center, The Netherlands), and talks will be recorded and made available online for anyone unable join the live events. More information and resources can be found on the EV Flow Cytometry Working Group website.
In addition to journal clubs and lecture series, moving EV science into the digital space left room for more conversational formats. In early April, Jan Lötvall, Professor of Allergy at the University of Gothenburg and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Extracellular Vesicles launched an EV-centric podcast series. In each episode, Lötvall chats with well-known EV scientists to explore everything from vesicle biology to experimental reproducibility and reporting, but also delves deep into how guests came to work in the EV field, and where they think it might be headed. “This podcast is aiming to talk about EV science informally”, he explains. “Sometimes formal presentations can lose that personal touch, which I try to recapture in the podcast. And of course, some of the quirks and features of research are best addressed in an informal discussion”. The first few installments, featuring conversations with EV luminaries such as An Hendrix (Ghent University, Belgium), Dave Carter (Oxford Brooks University, UK), and Graça Raposo (Institut Curie, France), racked up views quickly and make for a refreshing addition to more structured lectures.
All these initiatives underline the strength and agility of the EV community. When COVID-19 upended most established routines in research and education, individual researchers and consortia took on the challenge of making the very best of a difficult situation. Looking back, this can-do mentality and the enthusiasm with which it was greeted might not come as a surprise. EV research has always been driven by vigorous community participation, as evidenced in milestones such as EV-TRACK or the MISEV guidelines. In addition to emphasizing the importance of standardization, reproducibility and rigorous methods, fostering continued learning has been a cornerstone of the impressive progress the EV field has witnessed in the past decade. Despite the undeniable challenges that COVID-19 brought about, this spirit has been conserved while most researchers begrudgingly transitioned from the lab to the home office and cancelled long-awaited business trips. Between meeting colleagues at virtual conferences and learning from webinars and lectures, the way we experience and communicate EV science certainly took a turn that nobody had anticipated. But given the success of initiatives such as those described above, initially developed to keep the community connected and moving forward in times of hardship, they might just persist beyond the pandemic.