The Great Virtual Exchange and a post-conference interview with Program Chair Mary Kate Donais

SciX 2020 Program Chair 
Prof. Mary Kate Donais
The Great Scientific Exchange, or SciX, is the flagship annual conference of the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies (FACSS).  There has been a continuous archaeological science presence at SciX since at least 2008, when SocArchSci member Prof. Mary Kate Donais began organizing an invited speaker symposium there.  Members and officers of The Society for Archaeological Sciences have long been recruited by Mary Kate to present at the event, some multiple times.  Despite the recurring symposium and record of members as invited speakers, it was not until 2018 that SocArchSci became a formal sponsor of the session, before joining FACSS as a full member society in 2019.  For the 2020 meeting, Mary Kate was slated to serve as SciX Program Chair, responsible for the technical content of the entire conference. 

To signify the latest addition to the FACSS family, and reflecting Mary Kate’s ongoing efforts to bridge the physical and social sciences at the conference, SciX 2020 was planned to have an art and archaeology special theme.  Rather than a symposium or two, art and archaeology would be elevated to its own multi-session conference section chaired by SocArchSci delegate to the FACSS Governing Board Dr. Andrew Zipkin.  Student Ambassador Jayde Hirniak was slated to chair the all-student invited speaker symposium; one of four sessions planned.  SocArchSci Past President Prof. Rachel Popelka-Filcoff would deliver the keynote address for the entire conference.  The stage was set to make archaeological and art conservation chemistry a high-profile and much anticipated facet of SciX, this year and in years to come.  The conference was scheduled to be held at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada beginning on October 11th.  New evidence has recently suggested that a full year before the planned conference, while SciX 2019 was underway at the Palm Springs Convention Center in California, the novel coronavirus that would eventually be named SARS-CoV-2 was already loose in Italy.

By April 2020 it was clear that continuing to plan for an in-person meeting in the fall would be inadvisable, if not impossible, due to both public health regulations and registration numbers expected to sink below sea level if the conference was announced as going forward at the high desert casino.  Between April and September the conference committee, the section chairs, and the individual symposium chairs overhauled SciX into a virtual meeting - combining sections into new topic areas, researching, acquiring and learning to use the digital infrastructure for a virtual event, and finding corporate partners willing to sponsor a channel rather than buy an exhibit hall booth.  The art & archaeology theme survived, including the keynote address and half of the original invited speakers who ultimately delivered featured webinars with live Q&A sessions.  The conference actually gained a handful of new heritage science poster submissions after re-opening registration in August.   Virtual SciX 2020 was held October 13th – 15th.  After giving Mary Kate two weeks to not think about anything conference related, the following interview was conducted via Zoom.  It has been lightly edited for clarity. 


AMZ: Welcome Mary Kate.  This year you were the Program Chair for The Great Scientific Exchange conference, which turned virtual on fairly short notice after the onset of the pandemic.  From my perspective, you had a very heavy lift on your hands to make this a great virtual meeting.  That is the main topic I would like to focus on today but first, can you tell me a little about how you originally became involved in SciX?

MKD: I would love to.  Initially, I started attending the conference, like many attendees, as a graduate student.  So, I started then, transitioned into a job and continued attending, transitioned into a faculty position and still attended – and truthfully it has been my high priority conference.  If I am only going to go to one conference per year, SciX is the one I choose to go to.  Fairly early on as a junior faculty member, I was introduced to some of the leadership at FACSS and SciX, and I went out on a limb and volunteered to organize a session.  At this point that was over 10 years ago, when I chaired that first session with a few invited speakers.  That went on to subsequent sessions with more speakers and I was elected to a position, and eventually ended up volunteering to be part of conference leadership.  This year I arrived as Program Chair for the conference.

AMZ: Thanks for that background on how you got involved in the conference.  Before this area was a major part of the conference, before there was an art & archaeology section, you were planning that one or those two themed sessions year after year on your own.  What motivated you to keep doing that, given that archaeology really seems like a topical anomaly at this physical science conference?

MKD: A lot of what drove me is that, for me personally, it was a new area of research.  I stumbled onto it; I am an analytical chemist by training and started collaborating with a Classical field archaeologist at my college.  I was intrigued by this great, small community of researchers who did really interesting and diverse things even though they all fell under this cultural heritage analysis field.  I figured that if I was fascinated by all the great work that these researchers did, maybe attendees at my favorite conference would also be intrigued.  Truthfully, it was a great way for me to meet other people who were part of this new area that I was trying to get involved with.

AMZ: I am certainly glad that you persisted all those years.  You invited me about four years ago as a speaker and I’ve been involved ever since.  It’s a great meeting and a really distinct environment for an archaeologist to be in, compared to the big national archaeology meetings.  Moving on to this year in particular, as Program Chair you made art and archaeology a special theme for the entire conference and you recruited Past SAS President Rachel Popelka-Filcoff to give a keynote address.  Now, before the conference went virtual, before the pandemic, when you were just talking about what the themes for this year would be, did you face any skepticism or pushback from the FACSS Governing Board or the other SciX 2020 officers about making heritage science a major part of this year’s meeting?

MKD: Actually, it was absolutely the opposite.  I was highly encouraged to pursue that as a theme for the conference.  Everyone had a lot of confidence in me being able to do that because I had been organizing, spearheading, those sessions for many years within the conference.  They felt that I had the connections within the research community to be able to pull this off successfully.  And just the fact that it provides diversity to the conference; it’s something new, it’s something different.  As well, the original location of the conference in the southwest, where a lot of indigenous culture research goes on in the United States, was also an advantage because there are a lot of relevant researchers based in that general geographic area. 

AMZ: It’s great to hear that the support for this went so deep among the organizers and the board.  You were Program Chair in a year of profound crisis that made it impossible to hold a traditional in-person meeting.  And SciX is a very personal meeting; it’s like a homecoming for a lot of people.  They come back every year and see their colleagues from grad school and from former jobs and maintain those connections, as well as forge new ones.  It’s not the sort of event that translates easily into a virtual format.  So, my question is what was the greatest challenge that you faced over the past several months to transforming SciX into a viable virtual conference?

MKD: The biggest challenge is that there was no roadmap to how to do this.  That we were creating things as we went; we had to figure out new timelines which was especially difficult given that we started out with already having plans for an in-person meeting.  We had to take all of those existing parts and rearrange them, reimagine them, into a something that our attendees would recognize as SciX while also making the changes needed for a successful virtual meeting.  We did it with a lot of polling of members and previous attendees, getting feedback at multiple stages of planning to make sure that what we ended up with as the final product addressed as many of the high priority aspects of the conference that our attendees value as possible.  But also, not being intimidated to step out on a limb and come up with some new things to try because if this was a year to experiment with new things, there really was nothing to lose.  We put in some new {features} for the social aspects, the networking, that our attendees want to have and that are such a vital part of our conference.  That was the hardest thing to adapt to a virtual meeting.  Some of those ideas, when things get closer to normal, or actually back to normal, we may keep as part of the conference.  I believe the final statistic is that about a third of our attendees this year had never attended SciX before.

AMZ: Wow; I had not heard that number from you or anyone else on the conference committee before today.

MKD: A lot of them are people for whom travel is more challenging, I think.  This was a great low-cost opportunity to try out the conference, but they may not have the budget to attend the conference in-person in the future.  So, if we can somehow provide enough virtual content that could keep them interested in the future…this is going to be a decision for our next leadership team for 2021 and onward.  It will be really exciting to see how things change over the next couple of years because of what we have experienced this year and see what new things SciX will be able to do as a result.

AMZ: Speaking as one of the organizers myself, for the art & archaeology section, it was really fascinating to see how things changed over the course of the summer.  We went from dealing just with heritage science subjects to being combined with forensics in a new topic area.  Suddenly, I was working with {Security and Forensics chair} Rob Lascola and looking at these nuclear forensics abstracts and having to work out where these talks made sense in our program now that we’re all part of the same topic area.  It ended up being a really valuable experience; Rob and I would not have worked that closely together otherwise.  In addition, as you mentioned, there were these virtual events that were entirely new.  For example, the student and early career researcher virtual happy hour that The Society for Archaeological Sciences co-sponsored with the Archaeological Science Group at Cornell.  We had people join the happy from all over the world who were unlikely to attend, or even be aware of, SciX otherwise.  Even outside of SciX, we’re doing more of those now as an ongoing partnership between SocArchSci and the Cornell student group.  I really think there is potential for adding value by keeping a virtual component to in-person meetings in the future.  Do you think that sounds viable?

MKD: I hope so.  I hope that we’re going to be able to include more of that global community in SciX generally and within the art and archaeology section because so many exciting things are going on in so many parts of the world that traditionally are not well-represented at SciX, even though we’re an international meeting.  We can run with that and build momentum going into 2021.

AMZ: One final question.  If you could give a single piece of advice to someone organizing a virtual conference or workshop for the first time, right now, what would you tell them?

MKD: Have a really, really, good team to work with.  I think that made the difference for me – being able to rely on the others and not try to tackle too much of it myself.  Don’t be discouraged or intimidated by trying new things.  Some of them worked really well, much to our surprise.  We had no idea how it would go.  So, be bold and confident in trying to experiment.

AMZ: Thank you Mary Kate.  I appreciate you taking the time; it was great seeing you.

MKD: Thank you Andrew.


Andrew M. Zipkin is the Vice President for Intersociety Relations at The Society for Archaeological Sciences and an Assistant Research Scientist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

Mary Kate Donais was the Program Chair for The Great Scientific Exchange (SciX) 2020 and is a Professor of Chemistry at Saint Anselm College.