One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been to further work on the community building that typically happens through in-person live interactions in conferences, invited talks, workshops, lab visits, etc, and fuels research progress.
Most conferences quickly transformed to an online-only endeavor, which entailed a tremendous technical and organizational effort for which, I believe, everyone is thankful for the tireless work of the leadership of all our conferences (e.g., SIGMOD, VLDB, EDBT, ICDE, KDD). While here I refer to data management conferences, I am confident that the same sentiment is shared in other communities.
In the online-only version of the conferences, however, there was one aspect that was left behind. Any research community is indeed called a community because its members know each other and once a young researcher has started becoming a member of this community, she or he can seek advice or help from the human network that she or he has started cultivating. However, this community building is something very hard to achieve without direct communication (ideally in-person). In conferences, typically, a seasoned advisor often serves as the link between young students and other researchers that might help with some feedback on a project or some interesting discussion which may lead to a collaboration or even to a lifelong friendship. How are young graduate students expected to start cultivating these types of relationships in the pandemic era?
While I certainly do not have a final answer in mind, I have a proposal that I am experimenting with since Fall 2020. It is really a simple idea. For as long as traveling is virtually impossible, I am trying to have 3-4 virtual visitors in my lab per semester, and enable direct interaction between our visitor and all the lab members. I have been experimenting with a combination of Zoom and Gather (which was also used by SIGMOD and VLDB among other conferences). The latter not for its (not) superior video quality, but for its casual look-and-feel, which allows both my students and our visitors to relax and connect on a personal level. Typically, our visitors give a talk and spend 1-2+ hours at a virtual round table with me and the whole lab.
One could ask, do we really need such a virtual round table? Why not have conference talks and Q & A? I think that most young students that only know people as authors of papers and textbooks, do not really know where to start building their network without having a physical presence (e.g., in a conference). So, it is crucial that we create this platform! Essentially, I propose that each advisor invites other researchers and organize a few such virtual lab-visits per semester to ensure that our community continues to foster interaction between its existing and its younger members despite the current circumstances.
Another question one could ask is, isn’t this really just a seminar talk? Well, my answer is yes and no. Giving talks virtually is an amazing opportunity to present and advertise one’s research, and almost all data management labs I know, already host virtual seminars. However, I am arguing for something more than virtual talks. I want to highlight that we — as a community — should have virtual lab-visits, which would primarily focus on fostering direct personal relationships in addition to presenting recent results! We can also take this a step further and have virtual cross-lab visits, with visits back and forth between the two labs, which can end with a large round-table discussion between all lab members of both labs.