When the world was turned upside down by COVID-19, so was virtually every aspect of university life around the world.
For one group of researchers, though, what could have been a negative has turned into a positive.
Loren Hayes, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor in biology, geology and environmental sciences, collaborated on the creation of a remote seminar series with a pair of colleagues, Carsten Schradin at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique de Strasbourg in France and Eduardo Fernandez-Duque at Yale University.
Called the International Remote Seminar on Frontiers in Social Evolution (FINE), researchers and students meet via Zoom every Tuesday during the academic year to discuss topics from invertebrates to primates. The group’s central focus is how and why animals exist in various societies.
You could think of the seminar series as the evolution of social evolution.
“Typically, we would get invited to an annual seminar somewhere around the world but, without travel, we couldn’t do that. So we started the FINE seminar in the fall of 2020 and it was a big success,” Hayes said. “The idea was to have people come together during the pandemic to hear each other’s research and to build the community that was disrupted and rebuild it.
“Some of the things people have told us (are) that this was a lifesaver for them to have that community of people who study social evolution and animals getting together once a week.”
The seminars give researchers an excellent opportunity to learn about what others in the field are doing, Hayes explained. They read each other’s papers and hold discussions where “you can get a deeper understanding of someone’s research question,” he said.
“Everyone gets to hear talks by preeminent biologists, which is really amazing, and then we have some slots for what we call rising stars. These are more junior people that we’re giving an opportunity to expose their research to a broader audience and showcase their work.”
The weekly live seminars are regularly drawing audiences of 75 to 100 researchers and students worldwide, Hayes said, and there are plenty of others streaming the recordings on the group’s YouTube channel.
“Just to give you a sense from one of our recent talks, there were 240 views on that already,” Hayes said.
The seminar’s email list has more than 525 registered participants from 32 countries and six continents.
No two seminars are alike, and recent Tuesday discussions have included topics such as “Dominance Hierarchy Formation and Brain Changes in a Socially Flexible Ant,” “Coevolutionary Arms Race Between a Specialist Avian Brood Parasite and its Host” and “Insights into Social Evolution from Baboon Studies.”
“We want to talk on birds, mammals, insects, fish, and we’re also trying to diverse supply in terms of human diversity,” Hayes said. “We’re trying to get a good balance of men and women and underrepresented minority groups.
“These seminars have allowed me to make personal connections with researchers from around the world, which can lead to potential collaboration,” he said.
One of those collaborations is a paper co-authored by Hayes, Schradin, Fernandez-Duque and several others, including UTC graduate student Miles Matchinske, titled “Using Remote Seminars to Teach Animal Behavior.”
“I benefit from learning more about what other people are doing that informs my teaching. Since these seminars are recorded on YouTube, I can use them in my class, and I plan to continue doing that going forward.
“I also really enjoy learning different perspectives on the world and how science is done. This has helped give me a broader understanding and broader philosophy of science and how I should be doing things.”
Plans are for the FINE series to continue indefinitely.
“We want to keep the momentum going, and we’re working really hard to try and get more representation from Asia and Australia. You can imagine that’s quite tricky because of the time difference,” he said.