One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.

Truth, skepticism and opportunity in 4IR

by Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian,
Ph.D. Department of Communication. University of Johannesburg

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) with its emergence of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing or robotics and the general fusion of what we have traditionally thought of as the separate realms of the digital and organic is frequently met with awe and skepticism.

Central among concerns is the idea that ‘truth’ has never been more compromised. News of fake news and doubts around the legitimacy of sources or the underlying motives of those who manipulate information is a point of consternation. Yet was truth ever really more accessible to us than now or any less skewed? Whose truth were journalists telling during apartheid in South Africa? And by contrast, what social injustices are being exposed by cell phone recordings of police in the United States today? Maybe it is not so much the technologies we have at our disposal, then, but the way in which we engage and communicate that determines the reliability of truth and communication in this era.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-53239123

One way to engage is to draw on our individual capacity to evaluate information. By this is meant avoiding herd mentality or blind imitation and instead probing and questioning, challenging and researching everything from news to scientific data. But the search for truth is not only an individual endeavor. Lessons drawn from the global Covid19 response show that besides accuracy, two vital components of successful communication are meaning making and empathy, both of which depend on our ability to relate to others. There is a collective dimension to considering a diversity of perspectives and experiences. So, evaluating the vast amounts of sometimes paradoxical information available requires both independent thinking and collaborative faculties.

Collaboration, however, has not been systemically pronounced from one industrial revolution to the next. Influenced, in part, by a Hobbesian perspective, we still largely define how we relate to others in terms of competing interests and fundamental distrust. We think of our affairs as incompatible with those of others and we subsequently organize social life as a contest. This shapes not only every aspect of our democratic processes (particularly in the West) but also our academic debates, journalistic routines and our legal system. As a result, any possibility of a collective search for truth is sidelined by partisan posturing and the relentless pursuit of winning an argument or case at all costs. What this produces, at best, is a narrow, reductionist perception of reality.

Yet a different way of relating to others is conceivable. Since our views are shaped by the way we were raised, by our experiences and our social positions, access to the complete picture or to ‘Truth’ with a capital T can be seen as relative. In this light, collaborating with people who grew up to think differently from us becomes enriching and paramount because it completes our blind spots. By foregrounding our interconnectedness and by collaborating, exchanging and deliberating, we are better positioned to discover a wealth of nuances and complexities. However, this is only possible if we base ethical decision-making in non-partisan collaboration and in joint and participatory consultation.

Source: https://universityofjohannesburg.us/4ir/the-posting-truth-or-post-truth-episode/

Moving away from the premise that our relationships must be characterized by a “war of all against all” and towards the assumption that “I am because we are”, enables us to gain a fuller sense of reality and helps us to transcend false and limiting dichotomies. From within this vantage point, the digital and organic, science and religion and many other seemingly incompatible realms can be seen as complementary and as completing each other rather than separate or competing with each other. In this context and only through collective will, the tools and technologies of 4IR (can) become less of a threat for deception and individual gain and more of an opportunity to enhance quality of life for our planet and the entire human family.

Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, Ph.D., is a senior research associate with the University of Johannesburg, a leadership development consultant for UNSSC and an education specialist for UNODC. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at fora such as TEDx, the US State Department, and NATO Building Integrity. Her areas of expertise include communication, gender, ethics and governance. She is also a published writer with a particular interest in the normative moral theory of Ubuntu. She serves on the editorial board of two international journals and is a member of the International Association of Media and Communication Research as well as the South African Young Academy of Science. For the Austrian Baha’i Community, she manages the social discourse portfolio of its Office of Public Affairs. Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla