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Denise Montell is Duggan Professor and Distinguished Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and the 2020 President of the Genetics Society of America.

Last week, the GSA Board of Directors cancelled The Allied Genetics Conference (TAGC), an event we had all been eagerly anticipating. It was a heartbreaking end to four years of work and planning by many people across our community. 

Although painful, the decision was clearly the socially responsible thing to do. The Board voted unanimously to cancel because there was a clear health risk, not only to our attendees but to the broader public. Last Thursday—just four days ago—there were more than 1,600 cases reported in the US and more than 128,000 worldwide. Today, there are more than 3,600 cases reported in the US and more than 175,000 worldwide.

Right now we are focused on working with the community organizing committees to rescue at least some portion of the program using virtual platforms. It will not be the same as holding TAGC in person, but it is our best option under the circumstances.

We are mindful that cancelling a meeting imposes burdens. We took time to evaluate the incoming information and make a considered choice. Many early career scientists were counting on this opportunity to present their work. The huge potential for TAGC to accelerate science and foster new collaborations was at stake. We knew that without TAGC, some of our communities would have to wait 1-2 years for their next community meeting. Some of us had already secured visas, made travel plans, organized childcare, scheduled lab reunions, and planned meetups with friends and colleagues. 

We initially planned to make a decision one month before the meeting was to be held. Unfortunately, the pandemic evolved so rapidly that cancelling the meeting became urgent. The risks vs benefits changed in a flash, so on Friday, we announced the decision to cancel TAGC to our communities and attendees.

Now, just a few days later, many of us are in the difficult position of figuring out how to shut down our research labs. We are suddenly tasked with designing online lab courses. We are trying to work from home while simultaneously caring for children unable to go to school or daycare. We are worrying about setbacks in tenure, grant, and job applications. Not to mention that we’re all worried about the health of colleagues, students, family members and friends—as well as our own health. 

Thoughts about conferences we may or may not have been able to attend are, this week, the least of all our concerns.

We’re fortunate that the GSA community is strong and connected. We can and will help each other. As challenging as the situation is, it is also an opportunity to get creative as we help each other muddle through. We’ve already had a member suggest that we share online genetics teaching strategies on the GSA website. Please get in touch with GSA (society@genetics-gsa.org) if you want to reach our members. Maybe you have a question to ask the community, maybe you have a resource to share, maybe you have a message or some advice. I’d also like to remind those with children now at home that the Conference Childcare Committee has created a “Parents in Science” Slack channel where you can share your ideas. You can join it here.

As we face this uncharted territory together, we urge you to follow the advice of public health authorities to keep yourself and those around you safe. As scientists, we’re in a position to really understand the scope of the situation facing us—and to help the public understand it better, too. Reducing disease spread and the associated burden on our healthcare systems requires us all to be safety- and community-minded. Think of it like pulling off to the side of the road to let the ambulance and fire truck go by. It’s inspiring when everyone pulls together to do the right thing for the community as a whole.

We hope to see you at future conferences when it is once again safe to hold them.


Update, March 25: Stay tuned for an announcement this week about the new virtual format of TAGC 2020 Online!

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  1. Thom Kaufman says:

    Denise
    Thank you for all that you and the GSA board are doing for the society. You made the right decision. The BDSC has made hunker down plans and we will survive.
    Best — TK