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Silvia Sellán on Virtual Colloquium Planning

Colloquia are an integral part of academia, as they offer an opportunity to learn about the newest advances in our field, expose us to new areas or approaches, and -- perhaps most importantly -- allow us to connect with other researchers. It is always challenging to organize an engaging, informative colloquium series, but the COVID-19 pandemic escalated those challenges to new heights. To learn more about the process of planning a colloquium, particularly in light of a global pandemic, we sat down with PhD student Silvia Sellán (UofT), who serves as an organizer for the Toronto Geometry Colloquium.

Meet Silvia

Silvia is a second-year PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, advised by Prof. Alec Jacobson. Previously, she completed her B.Sc. degrees in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Oviedo. She has interned once at the Fields Institute of Mathematics and twice at Adobe Research, under the mentorship of Noam Aigerman. Her research in Geometry Processing focuses on bridging the gap between real-world and virtual geometries and seamlessly integrating the two.

Q & A with WiGRAPH

What is your current area of research and what drew you to it?

I currently work on Geometry Processing within Computer Graphics. As I was finishing my maths degree back in Spain, the general understanding within my cohort was that once you graduated you could go to one of two possibilities: “applied” math, where you would not encounter many interesting theoretical challenges but would at least have the satisfaction of having some effect in the world; and “pure” math, where you would have a lot of fun with the challenges but would never know if your work will ever have any real-world impact.

What drew me to Geometry Processing is how it apparently broke with this dichotomy: there are really fascinating theoretical problems but also really clear applications. One day, you are working on a proof involving differential operators on manifold and, the next day, you are testing that it works with a commercial VR headset. Best of both worlds!

How did your own experiences attending conferences and colloquia shape the way your team organized the Toronto Geometry Colloquium? Were there any features you wanted to implement that you hadn't seen before?

I think many of us were a little disappointed with our online conference experience in the 2020 summer, so our initial intention was to fill the interaction gap that was left by these conferences in our specific area. On the other hand, we were really positively surprised by other smaller conferences like SGP, which managed to create an interactive fun experience even when forced to transition online. The main lesson we took from the summer’s experience was not to reinvent the wheel: online interaction between people is not something that came out of nowhere this year, there were already many tools and formats that have been proven to be successful. Why make your attendees download a piece of new software they don’t know and join an event-specific platform if you can have your conference take place on Youtube and Twitter, which many people are already used to using?

I am also really lucky to be working together with an amazing, hard-working team on this colloquium: Seungbae Bang, Hsueh-Ti Derek Liu and Jiayi Eris Zhang, with professor Alec Jacobson’s advising. One of the most important things I learned in this past year is that, when collaborating on something remotely, it is important to have clearly delineated jobs and complete trust in one another to carry them out, and I am very fortunate to be working in a team that takes this to heart.

What inspired your team's decision to commission unique pieces of artwork for each colloquium?

Our opener-headliner format was inspired by the typical way live music and comedy shows work, so we figured we would take this inspiration a step further and commission a different poster per session, much like musical or stand-up venues do. In our case, these amazing pieces of art serve many purposes: we use them advertise each individual talk in a unique way that strays away from the traditional “newsletter with links” format (which we also do), it is our way of honouring and thanking the speakers while still being a remote conference (we cannot take them out to dinner in our favourite Toronto restaurant after the talk, but we can send them a piece of art inspired by their research) and it serves to help amazing artists who have had their income slashed by the pandemic. Surprisingly, our posters are the most universally acclaimed element of our series, so I guess they also serve to make us stand out and reach a larger audience. Win-win-win-win!

How do you facilitate engagement between speakers and attendees (and among attendees)?

This is a tough question, and one we probably have not found the perfect answer for yet. Personally, I have found that what is considered a satisfying level of engagement is varies heavily from person to person. To me, a “Twitch-style” engagement level where there’s an event and a live chat where attendees can talk amongst themselves and direct questions to the speakers is ideal: in fact, I wish conferences could be more like this and not require standing up in front of 200 people to ask a question. For others, the ability to whisper things at your colleague sitting next to you, or to ask a question out loud for everyone to hear, or to go up to the speaker after the talk and ask them to elaborate on points are very fundamental parts of attending a talk, and would like to see that replicated in an online format.

This is all to say that there probably is not a single easy way of facilitating engagement, because the concept of engagement is usually poorly defined. Importantly, one must strongly account for the possibility of bad actors: especially for a series like ours dedicated to highlighting research by the underrepresented communities that are most at risk of online harassment, we want to make sure we can guarantee the speakers the friendly and welcoming environment they deserve by not allowing un-moderated forms of live communication, even if it is at the cost of engagement.

In our series, we tried to do a little bit of everything: we have a live YouTube chat where viewers can both talk amongst themselves and ask questions that are then relayed to the speakers by us, and then we also have a Discord channel where one may ask questions of the speakers directly or discuss in more detail. We do not claim to have found the perfect solution, and we are still trying things out!

Do you think the virtual setting has any benefits over in-person conferences or colloquia? Have you seen any creative uses of the virtual format that you would like to see more of in the future?

Absolutely, yes, the most important being the lifting of many of the barriers that keep a lot of people from attending conferences and becoming researchers. I started working in Computer Graphics because I was inspired by attending research talks at SIGGRAPH 2018. But to attend a SIGGRAPH talk in person, you need to be able to pay hundreds of dollars in registration costs and travel to North America. This effectively means we are keeping out a vast majority of the world’s population and preventing them from being inspired and joining our research community. To attend our colloquium, you only need to be able to open Youtube; admittedly, still a barrier, but a significantly lower one. One of the most gratifying experiences I have had in the past year has been hearing from many people from all over the world who learned about our field by watching our colloquium and are now about to start graduate school or their first undergraduate research projects in the topic.

It also bears mentioning the enormous carbon footprint of a large in-person conference. As scientists, we should know better than to fly thousand of people from all over the world to the same few cities if the experience can be satisfyingly replicated online. I sincerely hope the experience of the last two years makes us reconsider the need for massive international conferences.

What activities or discoveries outside of work have brought you joy during the past year?

My husband and I had the epic foresight of gifting ourselves our first video-game console as a Christmas present in 2019. When I was a teenager, I really enjoyed playing but I had to stop doing so as I moved around the world and was forced to spend most of my time studying for my undergraduate degree. So, as a way to wind down after a day of working from home, we have been trying to get up to speed with some great releases from the past ten years: Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us, Celeste, The Witcher 3, X-COM 2, … It is amazing how the graphics have improved since the last time I owned a console! I am currently trying to understand Stellaris, not going great so far but I am not losing hope!

I have also taken up cooking as a nice evening activity to wind down and relax, and not just as something I need to do to not starve. I got a New York Times Cooking subscription early in the pandemic and have really been enjoying trying new flavours and spices from many different parts of the world. It has also made more more aware of the nutrient proportions we eat and more conscious about trying to stay physically healthy when leading very sedentary lives.

Based on an email interview with Kate Salesin
Posted June 24, 2021