At the start of the 2010s, researchers from Turku decided to apply for the symposium in order to increase awareness of Finnish bat research and create new networks and cooperation opportunities.
Academy Research Fellow and Curator of the Finnish Museum of Natural History LUOMUS Thomas Lilley and Adjunct Professor Eero Vesterinen from the University of Turku were granted the right to organise the EBRS already back in 2014 in Croatia. In 2017, the congress was held in the Basque Country, but then the pandemic forced all plans to change. The EBRS was moved forward from 2020 to May 2021. At the same time, the symposium became completely virtual. Right from the start, the project was extensive and ambitious. The Finnish organisers were specialists from the University of Turku and the Finnish Museum of Natural History LUOMUS in Helsinki, but the Scientific Committee contained as many as 29 leading bat researchers from different institutes around the world. The keynote speakers came from the USA, Germany, Poland and Brazil, i.e. from different time zones. The symposium received registrations from 231 delegates, of whom 21 were Finnish. The rest were from several continents, meaning that the conference of a European organisation attracted a worldwide community of bat researchers, from places such as Arizona and Japan at the same time.
Implementing a virtual scientific conference is an extensive whole
The bat researchers began planning the symposium in close cooperation with Aboa Congress and Event Services, with which the long project ran smoothly by finding novel and effective solutions. The organisers had gathered experience and vision of conference arrangements, e.g. from the ESEB2019 evolutionary biology congress of more than 1,000 delegates organised in Turku, but especially as participants in virtual conferences during the pandemic. For the scientific programme, the bat researchers chose a laborious but secure implementation method in which all keynote speakers and the 80 researchers presenting their work would record their presentations in advance.
“The American keynote speaker went so far as to record his presentation against a virtual green screen studio wall, which elevated the presentation to TV standards,” Lilley explains. The pre-recording ensured that the key content of the symposium, i.e. the scientific presentations, were of uniform quality: every presentation was a success, since none of them suffered e.g. from network issues at the speaker’s remote office. As an extra bonus, the specialists were able to be present in the chat discussions and answer questions throughout their presentations. Furthermore, the participants had the opportunity of viewing all the presentations again, since they were made available on the platform for several weeks after the conference.
Thomas Lilley, Eero Vesterinen and their colleagues focused on hosting the virtual conference and moderating the discussions. Lilley and Veronika Laine were the symposium hosts responsible for the progress, atmosphere and accurate schedules of the conference. Vesterinen and researcher Anna Blomberg, a postgraduate student at the University of Turku, actively moderated the chat discussions.
According to Gunilla Sjöberg and Tina Ahonen from Aboa Congress and Event Services, the virtual realisation of the poster sessions and exhibition received special praise from the participants. The posters, i.e. summaries of research topics, were made available in PDF format in themed virtual rooms where short pitches were followed by shared discussion.
In the virtual conference, the visibility available for exhibitors was divided into three payment classes. Exhibitors were able to participate in all discussions throughout the conference. They also had their own virtual presentation stands on the conference platform and an opportunity for showing videos and having a separate live chat.
Exercise breaks and culinary experiments
In coming up with the social programme and breaks for the virtual conference, Lilley and his colleagues were not afraid to turn to local and humorous solutions full of personality. The participants were activated to get up from their seats e.g. for highly entertaining yoga, Tribal Dance and Burlesque exercise breaks. Many participants also found their way to the virtual pub in the evenings. It is an EBRS tradition that participants bring with them delicacies from their own countries that are then sampled alongside delicious beverages. This time, the culinary evening happened to take place on a Thursday, the traditional day for eating pea soup, so the Finnish organisers decided to carry out a virtual pea soup cooking session. “And that actually was the only part of the congress arrangements I was anxious about,” Thomas Lilley laughs.
The delegates were of course instructed to buy the ingredients and soak the peas in advance, and the organisers had to recruit somewhat reluctant students to lead the cooking. In the end, the evening was a roaring success: the humorous cooperation of the Finnish and French cooks nearly turned into stand-up comedy, and the discussion board was filled with colourful pea soups from different parts of the world, not forgetting vegan versions and pancakes, of course.
Inspiration for the coming years
Thomas Lilley believes that the study of bats and zoonotic diseases transmissible from animals to humans, in particular, is an emerging field whose success will also be evident in the number of conference participants in the area.
“As the human population grows and the habitats of animals are diminished, it is more important than ever to understand and study these unique animals,” Lilley states. “While, in the past, bat research has mainly been covered by ecology, the pandemic has introduced more and more medical and e.g. environmental psychology specialists to the field,” Lilley explains.
But how will bat research conferences be arranged in the coming years based on this experience?
“We still have many good ideas to realise and field trips to arrange,” Lilley says. “Many participants have already asked us to arrange the same conference in Turku once travelling is again possible, meaning that we were able to generate interest in Turku and Finland as well.”
15th European Bat Research Symposium EBRS2021
Date of conference: 4–7 May 2021
Location: Turku, RajuLive studio (Leaf Center)
Organiser: University of Turku
Chairperson: Thomas Lilley, Finnish Museum of Natural History LUOMUS, Helsinki
Cooperation partners: Aboa Congress and Event Services and RajuLive Oy
Event platform: HowSpace
Abstract management system: Oxford Abstract
Keynote speakers: 4 (USA, Germany, Poland, Brazil)
Oral presentations: 80
Social programme: yoga, cooking, burlesque, Escape Bat Cave and virtual congress pub
Text: Sari Ruusumo
Photos: Mika Okko