Most of us got the same email in August. For the first time in its 62-year history, the ASH annual meeting will be conducted virtually. For those of us who cherish the opportunity to step away from the day-to-day clinical obligations and spend some dedicated time on professional education, scientific exploration, and networking, this may seem like a blow. But after a conversation I had with ASH Chief Event Strategy Officer Bill Reed, I’ve come away with a different, more optimistic perspective.

“I’m excited for ASH to create something entirely new,” Mr. Reed said. “What’s been running through my mind is, how do we do this in a way that 1 + 1 = 3?”

Mr. Reed spent about an hour with me in September discussing some of the unique aspects of this year’s meeting. While the core emphasis on science and discovery remains front and center, Mr. Reed and his colleagues have been trying to develop ways to replicate and expand the networking that normally happens at the meeting. “Everyone is hungry for the interactivity, the networking aspect, the rich dialogue. We don’t want to lose that. For example, we’re trying to figure out how you can have sidebar conversations while watching a presentation,” he continued. “However it takes shape, the goal will be for you and a colleague or two to watch the same presentation together and also chat about it via the platform.”

“Additionally, we will give attendees the opportunities to meet one-on-one for hallway conversations, and we will empower smaller meetings so that you can form on-the-fly a gathering of 10 scientists, just like you might in a Collaboration Room.”

Normally, ASH is attended by roughly 30,000 individuals. Mr. Reed thinks that without the barriers of travel (time, expense, distance), the meeting may attract as many as twice that. Making sure that tens of thousands of people from around the globe have a valuable experience is quite an undertaking.

“I have huge admiration for those societies who had to do this quickly in the spring, without any warning, without any time to think things through. While we’ve had more time to plan, it’s also increased the expectations of the audience. We have to create a different, better experience,” he said. The organizers chose to keep the San Diego time zone as the baseline timeframe for the meeting, and they have also put a lot of energy into making sure that the technology works well. “We can design a great experience, but if everyone is watching the bouncing ball or the little wheel turn, that’s no good.” Mr. Reed noted that attendees can help ensure a positive experience for all by registering in advance (no later than November 5) to help ASH secure an accurate headcount, and by extension, anticipate the required bandwidth and server capacity.

Like previous annual meetings, the event will have some fun built in. The ASH Foundation Run/Walk will be a two-week home exercise contest with a leaderboard to follow who is raising the most money for ASH’s Research Restart Award, which supports hematologists whose research careers have been impacted negatively by the pandemic. There will be opportunities to share your photos and videos from the meeting and see what your colleagues around the world are up to. And don’t be surprised to see some of the things developed this year make appearances in future meetings. Mr. Reed postulates that in the future, it’s likely that some form of virtual attendance, in addition to the in-person meeting, will become the norm. He believes that this is how we will reach more and more hematologists and specialists from around the globe — people who may not have been able to attend in the past.

“Many people have looked upon the virtual aspect as a threat,” Mr. Reed explained, “but time and time again, we see examples that it helps build an audience.”

In an effort to ensure that attendees have flexibility in how they take in the science, the subscription plans vary, allowing purchasers to see everything in real time, or pick subscriptions that allow on-demand viewing for 30 or up to 90 days after the meeting has ended. But that flexibility doesn’t mean attendees should unblock their time in December.

“Protecting those core days is really important,” he says. “I think everyone will get the most value out of the ASH annual meeting if they protect the time that they likely put on their calendar to begin with. This has been a tough year. We think of the ASH annual meeting as an investment in your future. Why not protect that time?”

It is not just the annual meetings of major societies that have had to adjust to a new virtual format. Smaller, more specialized meetings have also moved away from in-person events, something that has both pluses and minuses. Dr. Lev Silberstein, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and Dr. Eric Pietras, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, are two early-career scientists who have put together an annual meeting with other bench investigators for collaboration and mutual support. Their effort is called the G-20. For a full link to their story, please see The Hematologist website.

Dr. Lev Silberstein

Dr. Eric Pietras