The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?
This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.
The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.
From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.
By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.
How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?
That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.
We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.
Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.Feeding the Future was organised by:
My research aims to help farmers in the tropics whilst discovering how plants, pests and microbes interact. Brambles, biological control organisms, bananas and now, sweet potatoes.
I joined SCI after receiving the David Miller Travel Bursary to attend the International Banana Congress in Miami in 2019. Now, I am the new Secretary of the Horticulture committee and I am part of the Agri-Food Early Careers Committee.
I started my undergraduate studies in Marine Biology as a bit of rebellion against my plant pathologist father. After living with Nepalese farmers in 2017, I switched universities to study Plant Biology. Last year, I started an PhD to work with a banana disease in Costa Rica, but I decided to exit the Doctoral Training Program with an MRes due to concerns about the lab environment. Next week, I will (re)start my PhD at the University of Southampton which will involve working with subsistence farmers in Papua New Guinea.
It sounds like my life is a bit of a roller-coaster. It is. I love it.
In 2017, another scholarship took Juniper to Nepal to visit plant clinics and live with farmers.
Whilst I received “Top Student” awards for graduating with a high average – I never really studied from textbooks. I worked as a technician in labs and attended as many conferences as I could with scholarships. Often, I was the only undergraduate at international conferences or symposiums but that is where I learnt the behind-the-scenes stories of how scientists question how the world works.
Moments of random kindness, spare-of-the-moment dancing at conferences, and ridiculous situations I put myself in are the highlights of my scientific career – so far.
PhD Tips and Reflections
Personally, the workload of a PhD is not that scary, and I find it exciting to lead my own project. The biggest challenge of my PhD last year was to put my foot down and say that I did not feel comfortable around some colleagues. My pre-PhD advice would be to choose people over projects, be honest with yourself why you would like to do a PhD to begin with, and what skills you need to gain for post-PhD jobs.
“The workload of a PhD isn’t that scary”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on my rotation project at the Eden Project (Cornwall) in March and it is hard to predict when I will be able to travel to Papua New Guinea. I have been attending online events, panel discussions and conferences every week spring lockdown which have been a fantastic way to keep feeling engaged with the scientific community.
Whilst starting a PhD in a pandemic is strange – I am very excited about my project. I will be exploring options for working with local technicians remotely. I am planning on studying nutritional and social aspects of food security which has been inspired by an interview with an ethnobotanist and virtual conferences.
If there is one opportunity in this pandemic, it is to reflect on our behaviour, choices, and responsibility to live in harmony with nature and bring each other along.Juniper Kiss is a NERC INSPIRE DTP student at the University of Southampton, and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Horticulture Group