Emily Whiting on Virtual Conference Planning

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

Conferences 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. Putting one of these conferences together is always a challenging task, but the COVID-19 pandemic escalated those challenges to new heights. To learn more about the process of planning a conference, particularly in light of a global pandemic, we sat down with Professor Emily Whiting, who has served as one of the General Chairs for both virtual editions of the Symposium on Computational Fabrication (SCF 2020 and SCF 2021).

Meet Emily

Emily is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Boston University, Director and Founder of the BU Shape Lab, and Co-Director of the BU Computer Vision & Graphics Group. She is the recipient of the NSF CAREER Award (2021), Sloan Research Fellowship (2019), BU Innovation Career Development Professorship (2017), NSF CRII Award (2015), and Marie Curie/ETH Zurich Postdoctoral Fellowship (2012). Before joining BU she was an Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College where she co-founded the Visual Computing Lab. From 2011-2014 she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at ETH Zurich in the Interactive Geometry Lab with Olga Sorkine-Hornung. She received her PhD (2012) from MIT in Computer Graphics and Building Technology, advised by Frédo Durand and John Ochsendorf. She obtained her SM (2006) in Computational Design from the MIT Department of Architecture, and BASc (2004) in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto. She has interned in R&D at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic, structural design with Halcrow Yolles engineering firm, and the National Research Council of Canada.

Q & A with WiGRAPH

What is your current area of research and what drew you to it? How did it evolve during your PhD and since then?

My current area of research is computational fabrication, combining techniques in geometric modeling, shape optimization, and mechanics. What appeals to me is how computational tools can enable a coupling between geometry and physics in the design process. For example, creating custom musical instruments with prescribed acoustic properties, models that spin like a top due to their moment of inertia properties, or orthopedic casts that are sufficiently rigid while also providing ventilation.

My PhD was on analysis and design of masonry architecture. It was a very multidisciplinary pursuit supported by co-advisors in the Architecture Department and EECS at MIT (Profs. John Ochsendorf and Fredo Durand). What I find fascinating about masonry is that you may think of stone as a massive and bulky building material, but it’s possible to design thin, elegant forms by aligning the geometry with the flow of forces (King’s College Chapel is a personal favorite). During my postdoc at ETH Zurich I first began working in fabrication, and was drawn to it because it involved the same interrelation of geometry and mechanics for supporting creative design.

How did your own experiences attending conferences for many years shape the way you organize the Symposium on Computational Fabrication? Were there any features you wanted to implement that you haven’t seen before?

2020 was such a crazy year our focus was just to make SCF happen. The pandemic hit about 1 month before the paper deadline when we were already knee deep in coordinating speaker travel, venues, catering, accommodations, etc. We decided to push back the entire timeline by 4 months. We delayed the paper deadline since everyone had suddenly lost access to their labs, which is critical for fabrication research. We had hoped 4 months would be enough for the lockdown restrictions to pass over (not even close), and otherwise to have time to collect best practices on virtual event hosting.

Computational Fabrication is an interdisciplinary field, encompassing research in computer graphics, materials science, architecture, etc. How do you merge all those different disciplines and “languages” into one cohesive conference?

Great question. The symposium takes an immersion approach, the focus is on creating an environment that exposes attendees to other fields and allows them to discover the commonalities. We stick to a single-track program so everyone is in the same room together, there’s no temptation to attend only the most familiar sessions. Our program committee also has a huge span of disciplines which helps draw attendees from a range of backgrounds and guides our speaker invitations. Cohesiveness often happens on its own with similar areas of interest. In last year’s keynotes several speakers worked in the textiles domain, and earlier years have emphasized foldable and deployable structures.

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

In some ways the virtual setting has been an improvement. Discord, Slack, and Youtube Live have all been successful in enabling real-time interactions between attendees during talks. A bonus is that the speaker can go back and see exactly what moments in their talk sparked a question or inspired the most excitement.

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

Accessibility is a huge benefit for virtual conferences. Lots of people are unable to travel regularly, e.g., flights are prohibitively long, working parents who have small kids at home, and many other reasons. I had a baby 8 months ago and in normal circumstances I wouldn’t travel because of the extra load it puts on my partner and the complications of pumping milk on the road. Being able to Zoom in to events from home has been so convenient. It’s also much cheaper to run virtual events. In 2020 we were able to offer free registration and remove financial barriers.

A creative use of the virtual format at CHI 2021 was remote cooking demos by professional chefs. It was great as a social and cultural component of the conference experience, but also relevant with most of us working from home and doing a lot more of our own meal prep.

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

My family has been my source of joy. I have a 4-year-old daughter and I had a baby 6 months into the pandemic, it’s been an active year!