SIAM News Blog

SIAM Conferences, Reinvented

By Richard Moore

Like many of you, I am writing this article from a laptop perched on a kitchen island that is littered with the remains of my children’s breakfasts and a jar of sourdough starter, while mentally counting the number of Zoom meetings I have today. My kids are “in class” on their computers in the neighboring room and my wife is participating in a department meeting from our den. I occasionally check my phone to see if my COVID-19 test result has come in yet. And I still feel truly fortunate for all of these things. This is 2020.

We have all adapted to the new, inconvenient, and sometimes tragic circumstances brought on by the pandemic, which has also disrupted many of SIAM’s programs and services — none more so than its lineup of conferences. Meetings that took place in early 2020 through the end of February were all very successful. These included the ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms (SODA20), the SIAM Symposium on Algorithm Engineering and Experiments (ALENEX20), the SIAM Symposium on Simplicity in Algorithms (SOSA20), the SIAM Symposium on Algorithmic Principles of Computer Systems (APOCS20), the SIAM Workshop on Combinatorial Scientific Computing (CSC20), and the SIAM Conference on Parallel Processing for Scientific Computing (PP20), as well as SIAM programming at the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings. However, COVID-19’s spread throughout Asia, Europe, and North America led the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic on March 11, which had immediate consequences for domestic and international travel. Since that date, all SIAM conferences have been cancelled, postponed, rescheduled, or pivoted to a virtual platform.

Throughout this unprecedented time, we have prioritized communication with conference organizers and the SIAM community. In early March, we quickly set up a COVID-19 response page that summarizes the status of each conference and the measures that SIAM is taking to keep its attendees and presenters safe. SIAM senior staff and leadership engaged in several conversations with conference co-chairs and Activity Group officers to consider options and reassure them that we would work together to reach the right outcome for each conference while keeping everybody safe, addressing the community’s needs, honoring the hard work of the co-chairs and organizing committees, and respecting the wide range of challenges that members of the SIAM community face as a result of the pandemic. The 2020 conference calendar illustrates these varied outcomes.

Figure 1. Lobby space at the Second Joint SIAM/CAIMS Annual Meeting (AN20), which took place virtually this July.

The phrase “pivoting to virtual” is new for SIAM, and we used the period from May to August to experiment with different online formats. The co-chairs of the inaugural SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Data Science (MDS20), which was originally planned for early May in Cincinnati, Ohio, decided to offer the invited plenary talks and minitutorial sessions via Zoom webinars throughout both May and June. These sessions went very well, with a peak attendance of over 500 listeners. Minisymposium organizers were given the opportunity to schedule virtual sessions through their own institutional videoconferencing accounts and post these events on a spreadsheet that viewers could access from the conference website. 64 sets of organizers did so, with reported attendance as high as several hundred participants. SIAM used a similar model for the SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences (LS20) and the SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth (MPE20), both of which were originally scheduled for early June in Garden Grove, Calif., but instead deployed in virtual form. LS20 occurred over the month of June and MPE20 transpired in mid-August. SIAM staff once again ran the invited plenary talks and minitutorials on Zoom, while minisymposium organizers set up their own sessions. However, coding changes in SIAM’s conference management system allowed the minisymposium links to be displayed through SIAM’s familiar online program.

SIAM partnered with a virtual conference vendor (see Figure 1) to offer a more complete experience for the Second Joint SIAM/CAIMS Annual Meeting (AN20) and concurrent SIAM Conference on Imaging Science (IS20), both originally scheduled for early July in Toronto, Canada. The platform allowed us to feature 30 invited plenary, prize, and minitutorial talks; two career-related panel discussions; 154 minisymposia; and 75 posters, as well as student orientations, a student mixer, panel breakout sessions, and the Workshop Celebrating Diversity “luncheon.” Exhibitors occupied booths in the virtual exhibit hall (see Figure 2), and the annual SIAM Career Fair took place as a one-day virtual event, drawing strong international participation from job seekers and a solid list of recruiters despite an obviously difficult hiring season. In total, AN20 and IS20 attracted over 4,000 registrants and nearly 3,000 attendees — a record for SIAM conferences. In recognition of the challenging circumstances that many members of our community are currently facing, including reduced access to customary sources of travel funding, SIAM and its leadership decided to forgo registration fees for virtual conferences in 2020.

Figure 2. Exhibitors at the virtual Second Joint SIAM/CAIMS Annual Meeting (AN20), which took place this July, occupy space in the exhibit hall.

As we look towards an uncertain 2021, it has unfortunately become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to disrupt travel and gatherings well into the new year. As I write this, SODA21, SOSA21, ALENEX21, APOCS21, the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE21), the SIAM International Conference on Data Mining (SDM21), the rescheduled SIAM Conference on Mathematical Aspects of Materials Science (MS21), and the SIAM Conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems (DS21) have already pivoted to virtual formats. The SIAM Conference on Applied Linear Algebra (LA21) will be either virtual or hybrid. In anticipation of a long string of online conferences, SIAM has taken the lessons from its 2020 offerings and applied them in a new platform that will promote increased interactions and networking opportunities, along with fully-featured live sessions, poster forums, and exhibit halls. Virtual conferences will no longer be free in 2021, but SIAM will provide as much support as possible to allow students, early-career researchers, and others who are suffering hardship to apply for fee waivers. We encourage virtual conference attendees with children in need of care to apply for SIAM’s child care grants.

Despite its challenges, this year has once again reminded me of the wonderful and dedicated nature of the people who comprise the SIAM community. To the conference co-chairs, SIAM leadership, and heroic staff with whom I have the pleasure of working: you have made a year of uncertainty and difficult transitions feel like a time of growth and opportunity. Given these new modalities of conference participation, SIAM will emerge from the era of COVID-19 with an expanded global reach and a greater capacity to welcome new voices to the field of industrial and applied mathematics.

I look forward to seeing you, online for now, at the next SIAM conference!

  Richard Moore is the Director of Programs and Services at SIAM. 
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