The new look of the JSMF-SFI Postdocs in Complexity conference.

LeeAundra Keany pulls no punches when asked for her opinion on remote conferencing. “It’s become a skewed form of communication,” she says. “In part because we expect it to be the same as in-person, but the technology just isn’t there yet.”

An executive communications coach with more than 25 years of experience, Keany works annually with a group of SFI and James S. McDonnell Foundation postdocs, to help them better communicate their research in settings like job interviews and presentations. This year, she shared especially timely tips for minimizing some of the inherent irritations that come with remote conferencing technology, by reducing the perceived disconnect between participants, and being mindful of how speakers over-compensate when they don’t receive the nonverbal feedback they would get in-person.

Like many events in the COVID era, the bi-annual Postdocs in Complexity conference has moved online. Instead of three continuous days of professional development and networking in Santa Fe, the conference sessions have been broken up into hour-plus online segments, staggered over days and months.

“The shorter, more frequent sessions enable the postdocs to interact and keep up to date on research projects until they can meet in-person,” says Hilary Skolnik, SFI’s Postdoctoral Fellows Program Manager. In March, as campuses around the world announced their closures due to COVID-19, Skolnik made the difficult decision to cancel the postdocs’ seventh conference in Santa Fe, which was scheduled for late March. The only way to proceed safely was online, in one-to-two-hour sessions.

Since then, the postdocs have dialed in to video conferences to present flash talks about their current research projects; attended an online overview of grant-getting with SFI’s Director of Sponsored Research; joined the workshop with Keany on how to communicate more effectively with video conferencing technology; and worked through the first online iteration of the beloved “research jams,” in which small groups of postdocs convene informally to discuss topics as varied as how resources play into violence dynamics, and whether scaling laws can be detected in drug epidemics. 

"My hunch is that we think and say different things when we're connecting through the internet than when we're sitting or standing side by side, looking at a whiteboard together,” says SFI Omidyar Fellow Tyler Marghetis, a cognitive scientist who studies embodied aspects of learning. "It's actually an interesting research question to think about how the content and the structure of communication changes when people are in prolonged physical distance.” 

Like many SFI researchers, Marghetis has realized advantages to working from home. It’s been an opportune time to revisit long-term goals and wrap up lagging research projects, undistracted by "the [rush] of ideas that are always circulating within [SFI’s] glass walls."

But when it comes to in-the-moment collaboration, he says "nothing's ever going to replace the joy and inspiration of being together in a beautiful place for an extended period of time. There's something magical about the unplanned accidents that occur when you're all together."

Until it’s safe to open up to those chance, in-person encounters, the postdocs will be making the most of remote collaboration.