Can you hold a successful international scientific conference amid a global pandemic? Yes! Establishing a new tradition of collaboration and research excellence, the Virtual SynCell2020 Symposium was held online in late-May with 715 registered virtual attendees. The symposium, made possible by The University of New Mexico and the Max Planck School Matter to Life, was convened in place of the in-person International Conference on Engineering Synthetic Cells and Organelles, with the in-person conference now postponed to 2021.

Other conference partners include the National Science Foundation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the New Mexico Consortium.

The three-day symposium provided a glimpse into the cutting-edge research on bottom-up synthetic cell biology currently underway in laboratories worldwide and highlighted broad program initiatives in the US and Europe, including Matter to Life, Build-a-Cell and BaSyC.  Speakers covered topics in assembly and study of cell-like compartments, artificial cytoskeleton formation, and cell-free protein synthesis methods.

Leading researchers presented student-centered tutorials in areas such as biological membranes, the use of optical microscopy for studying biological structures and dynamics, the use of materials to promote tissue development, DNA nanotechnology, and the properties of complex protein and nucleic acid solutions. The symposium closed with a thought-provoking panel discussion of the beneficial role of synthetic cell technology in society, including the mitigation of viral pathogens. 

Symposium feedback was enthusiastically positive, with attendees praising the quality of the speakers, the content, and the hard work and dedication of organizers to make this event possible despite the ever-changing pandemic situation.

Dr. Joachim Spatz, Director of the Max Planck School Matter-to-Life presented a keynote lecture and noted the very high quality and great opportunity to communicate science to such a large audience—over 700 participants. As co-Chair of the Conference, he also noted the benefits of the virtual conference over in-person conferences and suggests the future model will be a combination of physical and digital meetings.

“It will allow many more scientists to follow conferences without investing large travel budgets,” he said. “In particular, this format invites scientists from all countries, postdocs, Ph.D. students, college students, and even high-school students that are interested in science. This would not be the case by physical meetings only.” 

Dr. Kate Adamala, Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota presented on the capabilities of the Build-a-Cell network, an international consortium of researchers dedicated to advancing synthetic cell technologies.

Of the virtual conference, she said that although she would have preferred to meet in person in picturesque and unique Santa Fé, “the meeting allowed us to connect with researchers at all career stages, and to spread the word about different Build-a-Cell activities. It was an excellent opportunity to reach out to the international community and solicit feedback about working groups, seminars and outreach Build-a-Cell is coordinating.”

Adamala also appreciated some of the virtual aspects of the conference. “We had lively Twitter exchanges and follow-up discussions on Slack and Discord channels,” she said. “The organizers did an excellent job in all capacities of virtual conference technology, including creative arrangements for our group photos at the end.” 

Virtual SynCell2020 Symposium by the numbers:

  • 715 Virtual attendees
  • Participants from 6 continents, 47 countries, and over 200 institutions
  • A peak of 348 livestream attendees
  • 1400+ views on YouTube
  • 9000+ engagements on Twitter

SynCell2020 would not have been possible without the time and efforts of its Organizing Committee and the generous support from its partner organizations. From UNM, conference speakers included Vice President for Research Gabriel López (conference Chair), Prof. Susan Atlas (Session Moderator), Prof. Darko Stefanovic (Presenter) and Prof. Nick Carroll (Presenter).

The full Virtual Symposium is available to watch on YouTube. SynCell2020 organizers and participants look forward to the planned in-person conference next year (SynCell2021) in Santa Fé, New Mexico.