Creating a Virtual Symposium

Tanya Vickers

Rising to the Challenge

Science is about preparing the next generation of innovators, explorers, and connoisseurs of curiosity. For the last 29 years the College of Science ACCESS program has been the “first step” on this journey of discovery. The ACCESS program runs from June to August and is open only to first-year students freshmen and transfers).

A cornerstone of the ACCESS experience is the opportunity for the student cohort to share their work with faculty and peers during a research poster symposium. The symposium is a powerful learning experience that mirrors professional science conferences and a career in the field, and plays a key role in the program.

When COVID-19 hit the U.S., the longstanding tradition of the Spring Research Symposium was in jeopardy. As the director of ACCESS , I was driven to find a way to continue the capstone symposium, and provide talented first-year student scientists the opportunity to showcase their research, in spite of social distancing.

With just six weeks until the event we decided to design, build, and launch a novel virtual research symposium platform. The sudden shift and short time-frame presented a real challenge, but it was also an opportunity to pursue and explore innovative approaches to current standards that, if not for CO VID-19, would have been stagnant.

It’s been six months since the Virtual Symposium, and we are still surprised by its success. The merits and results of the virtual platform challenged the notion that in-person is best. The in-person symposium normally saw about 200 guests. In contrast, the virtual symposium reeled in nearly 6,000-page views in three days and 260 guests attended the live zoom presentations.

Thinking Differently

COVID-19 upended and reshaped our everyday lives and challenged everyone to find new approaches to routine activities and novel fixes for nascent problems, much like scientists do on a regular basis.

When the on-campus student research experience was cut short in March, it didn’t mark the end of learning for the 2019-2020 ACCESS cohort. Research faculty agreed to continue mentoring remotely, which included helping the students report their research in a scientific poster they would present virtually. Unfortunately, the technology for a virtual research poster presentation did not exist.

That’s when I began the process of envisioning and creating the Virtual Symposium platform, as it’s now known. I started with identifying the critical elements of an in-person research symposium and considering how to transpose them to a virtual model. My experience teaching and using Canvas (used to deliver course content) shaped the content, and with the collaboration and support of Micah Murdock, Associate Director of Teaching and Learning Technologists (TLT ), a novel virtual research symposium was fully realized.

Embracing Technology

The platform was a lofty goal that required three defining features: a webpage for students to introduce their project, a message board for peers, guests, and mentors to pose questions, and a live Zoom presentation with question and answer.

Each student had a personal webpage that included their research poster, a 3-minute video summary of their research project, and a short personal bio. These elements provided guests with an introduction and interactions analogous to an in-person symposium.

In-person symposia can feel rushed, but the virtual platform offered the advantage of providing guests more time to preview projects on their own, before using one, or both, forum tools—the student scientist’s discussion board, or the 30-minute Zoom live session scheduled on the last day—to ask questions or comment.

Building For the Future

Throughout this process, we wanted to build a tool with the future, as well as other disciplines and applications, in mind. We are proud to announce that the platform has already seen use for the School of Biological Sciences Virtual Retreat, ACCESS Alumni Career Panel, and a number of campus-wide projects. Most recently, the Virtual Symposium was chosen to serve as the cornerstone of the new College of Science high school outreach platform SCIENCE NO W—engaging students, presenters, and elite scientists from across the U.S. and around the world.

As a species and as scientists, we always look forward to new ideas and what can be done. In our darkest hours, we find a space for new forms of unity and growth, and can challenge ourselves to create and expand. CO VID has been undeniably difficult, but the development of new platforms and technologies, like the Virtual Research Symposium, show that sometimes, when we are forced to make changes to long held traditions, the outcome goes beyond finding an equivalent, making what we thought was “best” even better.

Special thanks to Dean Peter Trapa, ACCESS Program Manager, Samantha Shaw, and to the ACCESS students and mentors for believing in the vision of a Virtual Research Symposium.

For more information on the Virtual Symposium platform contact:


by Tanya Vickers