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How the 2020 MBTP Symposium Was Made Virtual

When I say, “Club Penguin, but for adults to talk about fancy science things,” what do you think of? If it’s an online campus filled with almost surprisingly customizable avatars, then you’d be, strangely enough, correct. On November 12, 2020, the Biotechnology Program hosted its annual MBTP Symposium on VirBELA’s virtual campus, which is a software designed to mimic the feel of an in-person gathering. The schedule contained nearly a full day of presentations and posters, but left plenty of time to explore.

The day started bright and early at 8:30. I had downloaded the software the day before, so everything was ready to go. With one small hiccup.

VirBELA has one free open campus, which you can sign onto at any time, but private events use their own version of the software, which produces an identical campus that only invited members can access. But, if you don’t know this, and you only scan the email, you may just log on to the free software, which is very confusing.

I finally signed on to the correct place with only a few minutes to spare, but then I couldn’t figure out how to get to the hall where the presentations were happening. Given how much time I’d spent in games with similar setups as a child, one would have thought that I could have found the menu of places to jump to much more quickly. After wandering around some of the buildings, I made it to the opening event.

The virtual room was set up with round tables, where listeners could take a seat to watch the presentations, with a stage where the speakers’ avatars sat, waiting their turn to speak. After I managed to navigate my way through the crowd to sit down, I realized that, upon taking a seat, avatars’ heads turned toward the speaker. Though this looked mostly natural, it was strange to watch my neighbors’ heads face one direction unwaveringly and know that my own neck must be positioned nearly as strangely.

After each presentation, there was a short question and answer session, during which you could raise your hand to ask your question. A menu on the left allowed you to raise your hand, clap, or even dance. Though I didn’t ask any questions, I did take a moment during the break to figure out that the dance button caused your avatar to start dancing while music played for those around you to hear.

In total, eight students gave oral presentations discussing their work. Though the overall schedule got pushed back a bit, each student talked for about ten minutes and then took three questions from the audience. The presentations overall presented a picture of just how diverse the work supported by the MBTP is. One that stood out to me was Melodi Charles’ talk, in which she discussed making semi-transparent photovoltaic greenhouses. Her project centers around observing their effects on the growth of plants in order to develop these greenhouses for commercial use.

After the presentations ended, there was a lunch break before the poster sessions started. These were held in a large exhibition hall which had been outfitted with NC State-themed decor, which was a nice touch. Each poster existed in its own “room,” so people could ask the presenter questions about their work without interrupting nearby conversations. In the main space, people could talk to other avatars within a certain “hearing distance” (about ten feet).

An information kiosk at the front of the room told newcomers where to go for each presenter’s poster, and entering the “room” (defined by blue lines on the floor) for the poster allowed you to talk privately to the presenter and Zoom in on the poster for closer inspection. There was also a button to call back the presenter if you had any questions about what you saw.

The posters themselves looked very similar to what I’ve seen before at in person events, but being able to click around at my own speed was relieving. Because I’m still completing my undergraduate degree, I often feel out of my depth at poster sessions, but removing the pressure of the presenter watching me read their work allowed me to take the time to truly understand what was being presented. The MBTP program itself contains students from many different fields, making this poster session particularly impressive. There were engineering students talking about nanoparticles and display platforms, while chemistry students were talking about DNA and proteins.

Removing the pressure of the presenter watching me read their work allowed me to take the time to truly understand what was being presented

At the end of the day, the attendees and presenters gathered one last time on the beach to hear the announcement of the top three posters. Seeing some of the event’s organizers show up on a motorboat from across the campus was definitely unforgettable. After each winner was announced, they did a little dance, which was backed by music that would have sounded more at home in a club than a scientific conference. And at the end of it all, so many avatars broke out into dance that it almost seemed like a rave.

Despite my own rocky start and the unconventional format, I ended up really enjoying the MBTP symposium. After all, where else am I going to get to see a bunch of world-class scientists dancing what looked suspiciously like the dance to Gangnam Style?