From an online interview to running my first virtual course

Iva Gavran joined the EMBL Course and Conference Office in December 2020.

We asked Iva Gavran, who recently joined the team as a Course and Conference Officer, to give us her newcomer’s insights about the very first virtual course she organised (EMBO Practical Course: Drosophila Genetics and Genomics, 11 – 15 January 2021), held in the EMBL virtual learning platform – eCampus.

It was December 2020 and after a 5-day quarantine and a PCR test I had started working at EMBL. It was just one month before the EMBO Practical Course: Drosophila Genetics and Genomic was scheduled to take place. A virtual course, of course.

In fact, my job interview at EMBL was held virtually as well and I had seen the EMBL ATC building and the city itself only in pictures prior to relocating to Heidelberg (and oh, both are stunning).

A lot of things for the course were pretty much arranged by then, but I was still baffled about how one could organise a virtual practical course. The answer may well lie in the EMBL Advanced Training Centre building’s architecture that resembles the DNA’s double helix and reminds us that adaptation is the key. We have fully adapted the face-to-face training’s structure and interaction to a new, online format.

Virtual platform

What really helps is that there is a whole learning platform dedicated to our courses, called eCampus. A clean slate at first, it was soon populated with all kinds of learning materials, videos, articles and other input sent by the speakers and trainers.

The EMBL virtual learning management platform eCampus was launched in 2020 and is used as a collaboration and networking tool by the virtual course participants.

Course materials and programme

I would say there are three main pillars of eCampus: the pre-course materials, the interaction options and the daily programme. The pre-course materials are a proper little treasure trove of knowledge with pre-recorded videos, quizzes, articles and assignments. If you have any questions, just go straight to the Forum and ask away, or chat with another participant or trainer. The programme is always up-to-date with all the links you need and it also has a nice feature where you can adapt it to your time zone. If a live session has some pre-course materials that need to be watched or read, it will be hyperlinked in the programme or the material will be added below, which is pretty cool and very convenient.

Networking

Networking is a crucial part of every event, whether it’s a conference or a course, but it is hard to replicate in a virtual environment. I remember how it was for me to virtually meet my colleagues, and trust me, it’s definitely odd, but somehow at the same time it also felt normal. After all, we share the same work experience and it’s the same when attending a course. Well, not exactly the same if you are a work-from-home parent, but EMBL has amazing childcare grants to help you with that.

The Drosophila course started off on a Monday with an ice breaker event, where all participants shared a few slides to introduce themselves, their hobbies and their career path. It was a full display of lockdown life with cooking, baking and Netflix all over the slides (mine included). There were also networking activities like speed networking, student presentations, a discussion panel and a quiz which fostered interactions between participants and trainers and helped create a really nice group dynamic.

Course modules and learning process

The course was designed in a way that required some pre-course work.  The platform contained a lot of pre-course materials, papers and videos which the participants needed to go through before attending the full 5-day course with about 4-5 course hours per day.

I remember some participants were a bit unsure if they needed to watch them before the course. The idea (and I really liked this) was that participants watch the pre-recorded videos in advance, so that when the speakers and trainers joined live during the course, participants could ask as many questions as possible and thus learned even more from the discussion. This was actually the true benefit of the virtual course – a more thorough discussion and full understanding of the topic compared to the standard format of live lectures followed by 5 min of Q&As. And judging by the participants’ feedback, this format was quite a success.

Some of the interactive sessions of the course were designed in a similar way. For example, participants were assigned tasks that they had to complete before the course. During the course, they received feedback, could ask questions and go over the rest of the tasks with the trainers. To let this all sink in properly and to give them a chance to reflect on what they had learned, participants were able to access all the materials and live recordings for two weeks after the course. As some pointed out, this was amazing for a virtual event and I agree completely.

For me, the best part of the Drosophila course was watching the lively interactions and discussions between participants and trainers, and especially among participants during their presentations of their current research. I found it inspiring and rewarding to see their curiosity and ideas. There it was, 20 people sitting in their homes in different parts of the world, talking about one tiny fly with top experts in the field. How amazing is that!

Events Iva is organising or co-organising:

EMBL Course: Advanced Fluorescence Imaging Techniques, 23 – 27 August 2021

EMBL Course: Gene Expression at Spatial Resolution, 30 Aug – 2 Sep 2021.

EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Seeing is Believing – Imaging the Molecular Processes of Life, 5 – 8 Oct 2021.

EMBL Science and Society Conference: One Health: Integrating Human, Animal and Environmental Health, 3 Dec 2021.

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Michelle

Meet Michelle, the Digital Strategy Officer in the EMBL-EBI Training team. She works with our European Commission funded projects such as BioExcel and CINECA. She is responsible for the social media and content for these projects along with organising scientific courses and conferences. Michelle has just returned back to the UK after spending 6 months with her family in Qatar due to the pandemic.

Michelle Mendonca, Digital Strategy Officer at EMBL-EBI

EMBL-EBI start date: August 2018
Number of organised events at EMBL-EBI: 12

What is your favourite place in Hinxton area?
The little nature walks spread across campus are my favourite. It is always refreshing to be able to take a break from work and be surrounded by greenery and beautiful flowers.

What is the first thing you do before a course starts and the first thing you do after a course finishes? 
The first thing I do before I start a course is making sure I am well organised and I have everything I need to get started. The first thing I do after a course is finished, is to congratulate everyone on the team and have a long nap.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual course? 
I think one of the big differences for me is not to physically see if the delegates are finding everything alright. However, I do think virtual courses have opened up a whole new avenue for inclusivity and accessibility which means we get to reach a lot more people and that is always great.

You’ve been working from home for 13 months now; how have you adapted your role during this time? 
Adapting to the new role was challenging at first and it took a while to find a new routine and way of working. I am working on developing better ways of communication to maintain my interactions with colleagues.

PHOTO: Michelle in Qatar

If you weren’t a Digital Strategy Officer what would you be? 
I would be doing something in the creative or entrepreneurship field. So probably a YouTuber or a cafe owner in an alternate universe.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have? 
I love the Marvel series and recently watched WandaVision. So my superpower would be moving objects with the mind like Scarlet Witch from the show.

What is your favourite movie? 
I don’t have a favourite movie but I am a big Bollywood fan, especially all the movies from the 90s and early 2000s.

Upcoming events that Michelle is organising:
EMBO Workshop: Advances and Challenges in Biomolecular Simulations , 18 – 21 October 2021, virtual.

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Diah

You’ve just got to meet Diah. She is one bright star whose sparkle shines when she speaks, and you’ll end up smiling every time you talk to her. She joined the Course and Conference Office in 2012, then moved to her home country of Indonesia in 2018 before re-joining EMBL in 2020 (yes, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic!). We are very happy she is back and can’t wait for you to meet her.

Diah Yulianti, Course and Conference Officer

At EMBL since: 2012 — 2018 and re-joined in 2020.
Number of organised conferences/courses: 29 conferences and 22 courses.

Favourite place in Heidelberg:
Königstuhl. The view of Heidelberg especially during sunset is so beautiful. And EMBL. It is not because I work there but the place itself and the forest and farm around it are so pretty in all seasons.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual conference or course?
The learning curve in mastering different platforms and software as well as a different workflow was pretty steep. It is a challenging but also very exciting process — both rewarding and humbling at the same time.

How have you adapted your role during the pandemic?
I  try to stay connected with people as much as possible. I like to keep an open mind, be mindful and creative — even more than before!

What do you miss most about life before the pandemic?
Like everyone else, I miss meeting and talking to people in person. I am a very extroverted person so it was very difficult for me when we had to start working from home. I am used to it now. I also miss playing badminton with the team!

What have you been up to during these difficult times? 
I walk a lot. Also trying new recipes — I love cooking!

If you weren’t a Course and Conference Officer, what would you be?
I was a high school teacher for quite some time. If I were not in Europe, working for a high-level international research institute, interacting with people from all over the world, I would probably be back teaching. It is a very different world but the teaching gene runs in the family. In an alternative world, I would own a small shop selling vegetables, flowers or candy😊.

What is the strangest thing that has ever happened in a conference?
Oh one time at a conference, the keynote speaker had just started her talk when the fire alarm went off. We had to herd 300 participants out of the building to the meeting point near the woods!

If you were a superhero, what power would you like to have?
I’d like to have the power to fly, to lift off the ground by myself freely and ride the air currents — it must be so cool.

Which series have you been binge-watching that we should also definitely watch?
I just finished The Queen’s Gambit and Dark. Really good!

Which are your favourite books?
My all-time favourite books are The Glass Palace, Shantaram and of course Harry Potter!

Upcoming events Diah is organising or co-organising:

EMBO Practical Course: Measuring Translational Dynamics by Ribosome Profiling, 17 – 25 May 2021, virtual.

EMBO Workshop: Predicting Evolution, 14 – 16 Jun 2021, virtual.

EMBO Workshop: The Mobile Genome: Genetic and Physiological Impacts of Transposable Elements, 29 Aug – 1 Sep 2021, virtual

 

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Jane

PHOTO: Jane Reynolds

Today’s interview is with EMBL-EBI’s Jane Reynolds. Jane is one of the event organisers in the team, and joined in December 2020. Jane’s focus is on the on-site and virtual training courses.

At EMBL since: December 2020
Number of organised courses: 1

 Favourite place in Hinxton area? Having joined EMBL-EBI just before Christmas, I haven’t been able to explore Hinxton yet. I did enjoy a virtual tour of the conference centre though, which gave me an insight of where the course dinners take place.

What is the first thing you do before a course starts and the first thing you do after a course finishes? Before an event starts, I remind myself of the hard work and preparation that’s already been done and that the best thing I can do from here on in is be present and ready to deal with anything that might arise. After an event finished? Well, it sounds a bit dull but I usually make a quick list of things that could be improved (as well as those that went really well). Particularly working in new formats, it’s often only by running an event that you notice the small changes that can be made to improve the experiences of delegates or speakers. I like to capture these while they are fresh in my mind.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual course? One of the major changes has been how big chunks of work have shifted closer to the start date of an event; for example, delegates tend to sign up later to online events than in-person events, even if they are advertised for the same length of time as usual, so the timeframe for dealing with the administration related to this is shorter.  The work definitely has a different rhythm to it and the tools and systems have changed but the reason we’re doing it is the same.  Remembering this has helped me to adapt.  Although I have to say I am really looking forward to meeting delegates (and my new colleagues!) in person when the time comes.

You’ve been working from home since you started your role at EMBL-EBI; how has this been for you? As well as working from home, I’ve been lucky enough to start a new role in the past year, and it’s been an interesting (hopefully once-in-a-lifetime!) experience.  Luckily the Training Team at EMBL-EBI have been wonderful in sharing their knowledge with me and given me a very warm virtual welcome.

If you weren’t a EMBL-EBI events organisers what would you be? Probably a teacher of some kind.  Before I started working in events and engagement, I worked as an English Language Assistant, which I really enjoyed, so ideally I’d combine teaching and travel.

PHOTO: weekend city break in Copenhagen May 2020

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in a course? My birthday is in July and in my past jobs this has been the busiest time – either at Graduation events or summer events – so I have often spent it working, but never in an office!  I’ve been organising table plans in Liverpool Cathedral, at a Massive Attack concert in a disused train depot or hosting tours of new exhibitions…one of my favourite things about working in events is that there is rarely a dull moment!

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?  I love learning languages but it’s hard to find the time…so definitely the ability to speak and understand different languages without having to learn verb tables!

What is your favourite TV show? Like everyone I’ve watched a lot more TV than usual over the past year, but The Sopranos – which has stood up to a rewatch or two – remains my favourite.

Upcoming events that Jane is organising: Cancer genomics 2021 – virtual 

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Raili Pall

In the middle of 2020, Raili Pall joined the Course and Conference Office (CCO) team. She was the first member to start working with us remotely and it was quite a journey to get everything in place. Despite all this, she was a total hero, learned everything so quickly and started talking the CCO “language” (yeah, we kind of talk in codes for our events) within a few weeks!

Check out her interview to the end, you might want to read her favourite book🙂.

Railli Pall PHOTO: Railli Pall

At EMBL since: June 2020
Number of organised conferences/courses: 4

Favourite place in Heidelberg: 
Altstadt (Old Town). I find it really cute, full of nice cafés and restaurants.

Old Town Heidelberg Marktplatz (2017). PHOTO Achim Mende/Heidelberg Marketing GmbH

First thing you do before a conference/course starts and first thing you do after it finishes:
Before the conference/course starts I’ll go through my checklist to be sure I didn’t forget anything. After a conference/course finishes I say a big thank you to the scientific organisers, speakers and the participants for making it all possible.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual conference or course?
The most challenging is probably the social aspect – working out how to increase the audience interaction and keep them engaged during the virtual event.

What do you miss most about life before the pandemic?
Travelling. I love travelling and discovering new cultures, food and people. I can’t wait to start planning some trips & travel as soon as it’s safe again.

If you weren’t an event organiser, what would you be?
I’d love to be an interior designer. I can spend hours in design shops and reading design & décor magazines. I find it incredible how simple elements can change the look and feel of a space.

If you were a superhero, what power would you like to have?
I would like my superpower to be able to speak all the languages in the world. I find languages fascinating and it would be amazing to be able to communicate with anyone in their language.

Favourite:
Recipe: I love Indian food, so I’d probably choose butter chicken. I recently learned how to cook it myself and am very proud of it😊 .

Book: „On nagu pole“ (“It is like it isn’t”) by Estonian author Alan Adojaan. I read it quite long time ago, but it’s one of the most funny and inspiring travel-books I’ve ever read.

Film: I love to watch movies, so it’s difficult to choose one. I like Paolo Sorrentino (‘La Grande Bellezza’, ‘Youth’, ‘Loro’) and Quentin Tarantino movies. One of the recent highlights was ‘Parasite’ by Bong Joon-ho that I finally managed to watch.

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