An office she could not visit, packed full of material for a conference that was not to be — this is one of the lingering memories Stefania Impellizzeri will have of the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring the virus brought an abrupt end to physical gatherings around the world, including an undergraduate conference that she and her colleague Marc Adler had been working on for the past year.

Both are assistant professors in the Department of Chemistry and Biology at Ryerson University, the host for the 48th edition of the Southern Ontario Undergraduate Student Chemistry Conference (SOUSCC). After being forced to cancel this event in mid-March, just days before it was supposed to take place, they immediately developed a virtual alternative, which just wrapped up at the beginning of July. And while the new digital arrangements had none of the direct personal contact of the past 47 conferences, Adler and Impellizzeri were pleased with the outcome and suggest that this approach could remain a part of the event, even after it returns to a traditional format

Known affectionately as “Soosk”, SOUSCC is one of the country’s largest events targeted at members of this post-secondary group within the chemical sciences. It has been held annually every spring since 1972, serving as a centrepiece of the academic year where hundreds of people showcase their work and lay the foundation for a scientific network. As beloved and venerable as SOUSCC has become, however, the event met its match with COVID-19.

“It was heartbreaking, because we had put together everything,” recalls Impellizzeri. Venues had long since been booked, meals planned, volunteers prepped and waiting for their cues; boxes full of flyers, signs, name tags, gadgets, books that were to be given out as prizes — all sitting in her office, ready to be distributed when SOUSCC kicked off on March 14th. None of it occurred, of course, because Ryerson and other universities across the country shut down their campuses earlier that week.

Adler cites a list of logistical challenges that had to be met at that point, such as cancelling reservations and returning fees to applicants. He was impressed by how efficiently this was handled by university administrators, who had originally carried out most of this work electronically and were able to reverse the process without having access to campus facilities. The same was also true for most of the conference content, such as poster presentations that already existed in digital form, which is why he and Impellizzeri almost immediately began looking at how they would revive SOUSCC in some kind of on-line form.

“It’s not just that we decided to make a virtual conference and invite everyone to it,” he says. “We had already gone so far in the preparations, and the students had gone so far in their presentations, that to create a virtual conference we weren’t starting from scratch.”

Even so, they had to find a way of re-creating the engaging atmosphere that makes SOUSCC so appealing, so they looked for effective ways of enabling attendees to contact and track one another, both at the event and afterward. The conference Web site and a smartphone app had already been created so these became the basis of an interactive platform that would anchor the conference.

“The real innovative tool that we used to pull this off was Twitter,” explains Adler. “We used our Twitter account to coordinate promotion and communication within the conference and disseminate information from faculty members.”

He admits to his own nostalgia for the physical conference, with all of its sights and smells and shaking of hands, but he notes that the digital format made it possible for even more students and faculty members from across the country to take part, completely for free.

“People who wouldn’t have been at the physical conference actually got to chime in and offer little tidbits of wisdom and feedback to students when they wouldn’t have otherwise got to do this,” Adler says. “We leaned heavily on Twitter and the idea that Twitter makes the world a much smaller place for people to interact with each other and also serves as a public forum.”

When the cancellation notice went out back in March, participants and sponsors were all promised that something virtual would be coming and they should look forward to that. All but one of the original sponsors simply left their donations in place and when the time came for the new event to be launched on-line, the original registrants did indeed return to the slightly renamed eSOUSCC48, which was launched on June 15th.

Instead of lasting a weekend, the virtual conference went for three weeks. And instead of papers being presented one at a time, they were all uploaded at once and Twitter prompts directed everyone to a different subset of individual papers each day. The equivalent of oral presentations were made, and prizes were still presented for the best work.

All told, eSOUSCC48 hosted participants from 15 different universities, including 37 posters and 50 oral presentations. The conference Twitter account averaged more than 3,900 impressions a day, with a total of more than 108,000 over the course of the entire conference.

And unlike a physical gathering, all of this activity left a digital footprint that enables everyone to go back and check what they saw and who they encountered. Adler suggests that capability is a powerful argument for including this digital dimension in future editions of SOUSCC, however they may happen.

In the meantime, he and Impellizzeri are pleased that SOUSCC48 did happen. In fact, skipping the conference was never an option.

“It’s too important for the undergraduate researchers who are graduating, for the opportunity for them to present their research,” Impellizzeri concludes. “We put too much into it already and there’s too much history with this conference for us to just say ‘sorry, in 2020 it’s not happening’.”