Building a Science Community in the Time of COVID


In this year of social distancing, the professional world has seemed anything but social. However, thanks to technology and a lot of creative planning, scientists are finding opportunities to work together in ways that may not have seemed possible before.

This year, Bigelow Laboratory researchers Nick Record and Catherine Mitchell organized a novel collaborative education experience, which they said was not only a scientific success, but a powerful community-building tool.

OceanHackWeek is a 5-day intensive workshop for interdisciplinary ocean scientists that began in 2018 to tap into the potential of modern research methods. Computer modeling and big data have opened up a world of opportunities for oceanographic science, for those who know how to harness their potential. With this in mind, the workshop’s main goal was to promote data and software proficiency.

It was also designed to promote collaboration. Ocean science is made up of a wide array of interdisciplinary researchers in different career stages, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. The organizers wanted to tap into this to foster a diverse research community.

“Everyone was working together. You learned something and applied it immediately to the projects,” Record said. “And that really builds the OceanHackWeek community that carries on.”

The term “hack” may summon images of a questionable character clicking away in a dimly lit basement but, in this case, it refers to using programming to solve real-world problems.

The intensive and interactive event is co-hosted annually by the University of Washington, typically in person. This year, the workshop’s in-depth classes, peer-learning, and collaborative work were entirely online. Projects and tutorials focused on ocean color, species distribution, and “omics” techniques, which allow scientists to characterize and quantify pools of genetic data.

Around 60 people participated, including teachers and students. Even though the event is free for participants, there are normally travel challenges that limit participants from outside of the United States. This year’s online format provided a silver lining.

“We were able to engage people that wouldn't normally have been able to attend OceanHackWeek,” Mitchell said. “Hosting it as a virtual event meant it was open to everyone around the world.”

In total, participants from six continents and more than 20 countries attended, which made for a rich experience.

“By having a diverse group of participants and giving them the time and space to work together, the workshop created a collaborative, networking environment where participants can brainstorm future research ideas and opportunities,” Mitchell said. “Even if these collaborations don't continue past OceanHackWeek, the participants come away with the tools of how to collaborate on scientific problems.”

The format also provided some unexpected perks. For example, because of the time zone differences, students were able to complete work during their day and pass it off to another participant when they went to bed.

“Then by the time the next day rolled around, there had been all this progress that had been made” Record said. “It was really cool.”

While the workshop involved a substantial amount of planning and reorganization, it resulted in a roaring success. Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and the organizers left with a new perspective on the format.

“The ocean doesn’t know international boundaries, and solving problems in ocean science should cross those boundaries,” Record said. “There’s so much potential brilliance out there that’s not being tapped because of people who don’t have access via the traditional workshop models. Hopefully this is a step toward changing that.”

Photo by NASA.