Meet the EMBL Events Team: Tim

The EMBL Events team has been working harder than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, figuring out new ways to bring our scientific programme online and trying out new technologies to make our virtual events a valuable experience for all.

Tim Nürnberger was the first event organiser to lead the EMBL transition into the digital world, organising the EMBO | EMBL Symposium: The Four-Dimensional Genome. Tim did an outstanding job (as always!) in a very short amount of time, gained a great deal of experience and is now helping the rest of team with the upcoming virtual events. So, in this Meet the EMBL Events Team edition, we are more than happy to introduce you to him.

Tim Nürnberger PHOTO: Nicola Vegiopoulos

At EMBL since: 2010
Number of organised conferences/courses: 73 (!)

Favourite place in Heidelberg:

Königstuhl for its great view and hiking routes.

First thing you do before a conference/course starts and first thing you do after it finishes:

Before: Take a deep breath, have a cup of coffee and expect the unexpected!
After: Just relax!

If you weren’t a conference officer, what would you be doing?

Travelling around the world.

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in a course/conference?

A coach with a large group of registered conference participants drove up just outside the ATC main entrance, all of them taking pictures in front of and inside the ATC like being on a sightseeing trip, and left just a few minutes later without taking part or being interested in the conference at all.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

Time travel would be kind of cool to witness some historic moments, or to travel to the future!

Favourite TV show:

Dark / Babylon Berlin / Fleabag

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How to turn your conference into a virtual event

The current pandemic has forced many event organisers to freeze all ongoing projects with no end date in sight. The impact on the events industry has been dramatic, but it has also provided the opportunity to rethink how we do events and explore other avenues such as virtual conferencing. 

The EMBL Course and Conference Office has just successfully completed its first virtual conferencewhich we managed to put together within a couple of weeks with the tireless work of the scientific organisers, the EMBL IT and AV teams. It has been an interesting experience, not without hiccups of course, but we have learned a lot and are looking forward to applying those learnings to our next online event in May. 

We are happy to share with you some of the steps we followed to quickly turn an onsite conference into a virtual format and how we dealt with the challenges we were faced with.

Commit all your speakers

Once it was clear we were going to try to go virtual with this event, we had to make sure we had all the invited speakers on board to be able to pull together a high-quality programme. Of course, not all of them could join, but if you manage to get the majority of the originally planned speakers, you are good to go!

Explore the technical limitations

One critical thing of course is the technical setup that needs to be tested and working properly during the conference. If you have a dedicated IT and AV team, you are in a good position, as they will be the supporting pillars of your virtual conference. Involve them early on, as they can best advise on and set up the streaming platform. Also, should there be any unexpected technical problems, they will be able to fix those quickly or come up with a working alternative.

Behind the Scenes: The AV team getting ready for the virtual conference.

For instance, in our recent virtual conference, the server crashed due to an automatically scheduled password change on the EMBL media site (talk about bad timing!), and it was only thanks to our great AV team that we managed to migrate the conference to a new platform (Zoom) within the hour.  The programme was adjusted accordingly to accommodate the break and things ran smoothly from then on.

Define the programme

Now that you have the speakers and the software established, it is time to consider the programme. Originally, you would have had 2 or 3 days full of talks with the occasional coffee break and meals in between. However, in a virtual event, it is just not possible to do that. When you define your programme, ask yourself “How long would you sit and listen to online talks?”. Probably not longer than 3-4 hours, so consider this when assigning the speaker slots.

Make it widely accessible

Ideally, your choice of timing of the programme would cover at least 2 time zones so that more participants can join in (e.g. start in the afternoon for CET, which would be morning for ET). For participants in other time zones, you could consider recording and streaming the talks on-demand.

Cover all presentation formats

Live streaming of all talks (invited, short talks and poster presentations) may be what you would expect in an ideal world, but for the reasons we described in the previous two points, it is just not possible. Therefore, in our case, we decided to live stream only the invited talks, while giving the participants the chance to access the pre-recorded short talks and digital posters in a dedicated time slot in the main programme as well as on-demand. Q & A were then taken to the main discussion platform. 

Provide a discussion platform

One of the great benefits of in-person conferences are the peer discussions and networking opportunities which can result in great collaborations and career advancement. 

In a virtual event, these are of course a bit limited, but a dedicated discussion platform outside of the main streaming software can help foster collaborations and knowledge exchange. We chose Slack as the main discussion platform for Q & A which worked very well, but there are many other applications out there that can offer a similar experience.

Involve your sponsors

If you have committed sponsors to support your event, you would want to provide them with opportunities to reach out to the community. Depending on what package they have booked, you can replace the onsite services with online benefits, such as a pre-recorded short talk, a discussion channel, online banners, logo placements or adverts. 

Test, test, test!

Most importantly, before you launch the online conference, make sure to test everything. Schedule test sessions with each of your speakers and chairs to make sure that all works well on their end as well before going live.

Behind the Scenes: The AV team getting ready for the virtual conference.

But remember that even if you follow all the steps and make sure that every tiny detail is thought of, you may still end up having some unexpected problems during the live stream, just as you may encounter difficulties at an onsite event. The truth is that for all of us (both event organisers and participants) this is a new experience from which we can only …

…Learn and improve

For our first virtual conference we are extremely grateful to have received so much constructive feedback that we are currently working on implementing in the future.  Our participants have been amazingly understanding and willing to help us improve. At the end of the day, despite some technical difficulties during this test run, looking at the feedback we realise that we have managed to achieve our goal to connect the community and get the science across.

“Congratulations for organising this very first virtual meeting. It was really great despite some technical issues. It was really good and thus too short.”

“Science and technology help people in good and bad times. This conference was for me a fresh breeze of exciting science and a taste of life normality during forced social distancing. Thanks!”

“The Four-Dimensional Genome EMBL Symposium was great! Many inspiring talks on chromatin & nuclear organization with partially unpublished data. I couldn’t have participated hadn’t it been VIRTUAL: thanks to @EMBLEvents team & all organizers for making it possible!”

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Storytelling in science: How to (remotely) wow an audience

By Adam Gristwood, EMBL and EMBO alumnus, now freelance science writer and communications trainer

When I was 10 years old, I landed the role of Romeo in my school’s play. We had a fantastic cast, rehearsals ran smoothly, and the auditorium was a complete sellout. In my mind, we were not kids in an assembly hall, but an all-star cast at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. An amazing rush of adrenalin pulsed through my body as I walked out on stage.

Romeo and Juliet is a gripping story, full of battles, romance, deception, persistence, and tragedy. After being banished from Verona, Romeo sneaks to Juliet’s apartment in the middle of the night to declare his love. Onstage, as I waited impatiently beneath Juliet’s balcony, I caught a glimpse of my proud parents in the crowd. I felt ecstatic.

In our version of the play, however, Romeo never got to reveal his true feelings for Juliet. Suddenly, the lights in the auditorium went out. I panicked and searched for my mum and dad, but their faces were ablur. I looked across to my classmates, but they too had faded away. As the room was enveloped by darkness, I heard an intense ringing. I tried to call out for help, but my words were silent, as if I were shouting them in deep space.

Before I could get my head around what was happening, the light came flooding back. As objects slowly came back into focus, I saw blue sky and billowing clouds. Oak trees swayed gently in the breeze. I could feel the warmth of the sun on the palms of my hands. Someone was standing over me clutching a wet towel. Blood was trickling down my face. My sense of panic came roaring back. I had fainted. There were no understudies. The show had not carried on.

Maybe I would forever be remembered as ‘that kid who ruined the play’. Our teachers destroyed the recording that the children were meant to take home as a keepsake. I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame. I no longer wanted to become a West End superstar. Instead, I pursued a role that would keep me as far from public view as possible – a writer tucked away in a garden shed, perhaps. Or a scientist hidden behind a lab bench. Why not combine them somehow for maximum effect?

Serendipitously, the cowardice of my younger self paved a way back into the spotlight. Science communication is, in reality, an immensely interactive and rewarding field. My work involves writing about issues that lie on the intersect of science and society. I have also been thrust back on stage as a science communication trainer. I help researchers to communicate with audiences though storytelling.

The aim is to improve connections with public, media, policymakers, managers, colleagues, editors, funders, and many others. And the way you tell stories really matters.

In-person training is very rightly on hold as the world deals with the coronavirus crisis. But the downtime got me thinking about how my storytelling workshop activities could be taken on remotely, without direct supervision. So here is a little experiment of my own. Below are five exercises that I hope will boost your storytelling skills. Feel free to pick and choose depending on their relevance. And please let me know how you get on!

Personal stories

Activity length: 45 minutes 

Personal stories matter because you are invested in them. Therefore, when you tell them, your audience is more likely to feel they matter as well. Write a personal story (around 300 words) related to your life as a scientist for a non-specialist public audience.

You might reflect on adversities, adversaries, inspirations, friendships, hardships, or simply share what is on your mind. The story might be a commentary (like mine above), blog, script, comic, poem, or piece of creative writing.

The piece should be informative and entertaining. Send your story to friends or family for feedback. Integrate constructive criticism and publish on social media, a blog, or just keep in mind for future use.

Tips

  • Find three articles that you particularly enjoyed reading. Take a close look at how paragraphs are linked, characters introduced, and situations described.
  • Use a narrative arc: start high and end low, or vice versa.
  • If you are short of ideas, take a conceptual theme and use it to develop a story. I was reminded of my experience, above, when reflection on failure. Other examples of themes: failure, love, curiosity, systems, deep, the unknown, black and white, codes.
  • Avoid jargon but maintain detail. Provide enough description for the audience to follow, but do not overwhelm. Be clear, accurate, and succinct.
  • Edit your work at least three times. If a sentence is not part of the story cut it. Listen to feedback, but also trust your gut. Trim at least 10% in the final draft.

Interviews

Time: 1 hour

Telling someone else’s story can also bring new perspective to how you tell your own. Arrange a 15-minute video call with a colleague, friend, or family member. Conduct a friendly interview (you could ask them to interview you as well, in return). Briefly report five unique facts you learned about your interviewee.

Examples:

Kath is one of the world’s leading data scientists, despite growing up in an era where girls were discouraged from becoming researchers.   

Kath plays card games to relax and has won a national bridge championship.  

Kath wants to cycle from Lisbon to Istanbul to raise money for research into a rare disease her sister suffers from. 

Now choose one of the facts you have written and expand it into a 200-word story. Write it in the first person from the interviewee’s perspective – like an extended quote. You may need to do a follow up interview. For inspiration, see here. With your interviewee’s permission, share your story on social media.

Tips

  • Do some background research and write out your questions. If you’re stuck, some good generic questions are: what’s on your mind? What are your hobbies? Can you recall a time that you’ve failed? Where do you do your most creative thinking? What’s your greatest achievement? If you could go to dinner with anyone who would it be? What do you feel most grateful for? What’s your most treasured memory?
  • Put your interviewee at ease. Tell them what you want from the interview. Suggest they make themselves a brew before you start. Make yourself one, too.
  • If recording the interview, check the person is OK with it before pressing the button. Recording can help you to be fully engaged in the interview. Do a test as recorders and computer speakers don’t always mix well.
  • Try to allow the interview to flow but be prepared to guide the interviewee back to the point if they go off track. If it gets technical, try to repeat back to them what you heard in your own words to ensure that you understood what they said.
  • Edit your write up carefully – aim to be concise without losing meaning. Send the piece to your interviewee and ask them for feedback.

Analogies

Time: 30 minutes

Analogies and metaphors play a crucial role in aspects such as memory, perception, argumentation, emotion, creativity, and communication – as detailed in this wonderful book. When talking about research, they can also act as a bridge for people to better understand complex ideas and concepts. Develop an analogy that could be used to describe your work or an aspect of your work.

An Example:

“Think of gravity like a magnet, and everything in space has it. The bigger the object, the stronger the magnet. The sun is really big – big enough to attract the Earth, and the Earth attracts the moon, and because of gravity, they’re all attracted to each other. It’s like they all want to hug and be close. But they can’t, so they send out little waves instead.” – Fulvio Melia, University of Arizona

Create a social media group and invite some colleagues. Share analogies and give critical feedback. Ask: Does it improve my understanding? Is it accurate? Do I want to know more? Vote on your favourite analogue – the winner should then explain the thinking behind their analogy.

Tips

  • For more inspiration check our Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, a great analogy that gives context to the history of life on our planet.
  • Take a couple of long-form science features and highlight every sentence where you spot an analogy or metaphor being used.
  • Scribe your favourite analogies in a notebook.
  • If it is outside your field of expertise, send the analogy to an expert. If they reply with more than one exclamation mark, then ask them politely how it could be improved.
  • Heed the warning of journalist Jacob Aron: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks – when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”

Speaking to school kids  

Time: 45 minutes

Write a 3-minute presentation about your life as a scientist. Your target audience is a 15-year old student who is debating whether to take up science in her ‘A’ levels. You might consider: your research; the bigger picture; a typical day/week; why you became a scientist; and advice for becoming a researcher. Build in as many analogies as possible. The more colourful, the better.

Get feedback from friends or family. When you are satisfied with your presentation, offer to chat science over a video chat with children of friends. Share your offer on social media. Join an initiative such as Skype-a-scientist. Or film your presentation and share wherever you can.

Tips

  • Ditch jargon, but do not shy away from complicated topics. Break them down to their components. Look at how others do it.
  • Use analogies wherever possible.
  • Use props, share slides, provide links to relevant articles, draw diagrams, write out summaries of your work.
  • Make a point of getting feedback: ask your audience what they learned, thought interesting, or found difficult to understand.
  • Be engaging and enthusiastic!

Write an entertaining presentation

Time: 45 minutes

Write, rehearse, and record an entertaining 3-minute presentation for an online competition. Your target audience is a general public, who are interested in science. There are just two rules: stick to time and make it enjoyable! You could tell a story, recite a poem, sing, rap, dance, act, mime, run an experiment, or anything else you can think of. Balance your phone on a window ledge. Press record. Send your video to friends. Get feedback. Re-record if need be. If you get a good response share it on social media. Don’t forget to keep a look out for online competitions, where your hidden talents might finally be discovered!

Tips

  • Shows such as science slams or initiatives such as the Story Collider provide platforms to talk about your work in an inventive and memorable way. Study use of words, eye contact, humour, and body language. Be as creative as you can when writing your presentation.
  • Remove jargon, excavate the important details.
  • Write it out. Recite it in the shower, on the balcony, and in the kitchen. When you think you have it nailed, practice it thrice more.
  • When in front of the camera: smile, never turn your back, speak loudly and clearly.
  • Finally, have fun – and don`t faint whilst the camera’s on.

Requests, questions, suggestions: adamgristwood@gmail.com, @gristwood

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Emily Pomeroy

Meet Emily Pomeroy, who has recently joined the EMBL-EBI Events Team in the role of Events and Marketing Officer for the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme.

PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy

At EMBL since: February 2020

Number of organised conferences/courses:

I am looking forward to helping on my first event for the Industry Programme in May this year.

 The EMBL-EBI Industry Programme is a subscription-based programme for global companies that make significant use of the data and resources provided by EMBL-EBI as a core part of their R&D. The programme is unique, providing regular quarterly strategy meetings, expert-level workshops on topics prioritised by the members, webinars and other activities.

Favourite place in Hinxton area:

Royston Heath, not too far from Hinxton. A lovely place on a warm sunny afternoon for walking, exploring the woodland with the children and a glass of wine afterwards on the lawn outside the Heath Café Bar.

If you weren’t an events and marketing officer, what would you be?

A travel photographer

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in an event you have organised?

In a previous job, my colleagues and I all had to dress up as clowns for a circus themed dinner, then walk through Leeds city centre to add to the embarrassment.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

The power to make my children listen to me!

Favorite food/book/TV show/film.

Thai food is my favourite, I have watched Notting Hill more times than I can count and love reading a good travel journal.

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The EMBL ATC celebrates its 10th anniversary

The EMBL Advanced Training Centre (ATC) turned 10 on 9 March! This astonishing building has been an ideal venue to train scientists, foster networking events and has been the starting place for many fruitful collaborations.

The ATC’s architecture is inspired by the DNA’s double helix, and as soon as you step inside, you’ll want to snap a few shots (#EMBLatc #justsaying 😉). Finding your way around the building can be a bit tricky! — to be honest after two years I still get lost sometimes. The easiest way to get to your destination is to walk up and down the helices, where the poster sessions of our events are usually held.

Photo from a lower passage way facing upwards to the ceiling of the ATC. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
ATC’s double helix. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN
Poster Session at the EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Non-Coding Genome Symposium. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

If you feel like relaxing with a coffee and a great view, the ATC Rooftop Lounge is the answer with the beautiful scenery of the Rhine Valley. You may even get lucky and enjoy an evening up there with jazz and drinks— the night lights make for an incredibly chill atmosphere.

Rooftop lounge Biology and Art event at the EMBO Workshop: Visualizing Biological Data. PHOTO: EMBL Events
ATC at night. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN

We are happy to celebrate this 10th Anniversary with you and thought we’d share some cool facts from our events from 2010-2019.

52,003: The total number of attendees at EMBL courses and conferences

474: Number of EMBL courses and conferences

2,130: The number of Corporate Partnership Program Fellowships. These have been granted to delegates with 91 different nationalities and 82 countries attending 348 different conferences and courses

764: Additional fellowships provided through EMBO, Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and various societies. These were given to delegates from 73 nationalities and 64 countries to attend 185 courses and conferences.

In case you are feeling curious, here are a few more facts about the ATC.

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