Innovation, Growth, and Global Impact:

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences

Innovation, Growth, and Global Impact:

How AAPM and COMP Adapted to COVID-19


Michelle de Oliveira, SPS Member, Wheaton College

A map showing the locations from which AAPM|COMP attendees participated in the virtual meeting.  Image courtesy of AAPM|COMP. The bustling conference hall is temporarily extinct. In the wake of COVID-19, the joint meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) and the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists (COMP) went from being in Vancouver to being completely virtual. The clicking of a mouse replaced the rhythmic clacking of a suitcase on airport tile, while the confused turning of an exhibition hall map became the navigation of unfamiliar online platforms. For four days last July, 3,677 registrants participated in online lectures, a multimedia exhibition hall, discussion panels, chat rooms, competitions, and social events.

Michelle de Oliveira, SPS reporter. Photo courtesy of the author.As an undergraduate student in applied physics whose experience with professional physics conferences was limited, I was worried that the AAPM|COMP experience would be just another blue screen. However, AAPM took charge of the online meeting and went above and beyond my expectation, creating a fully interactive website designed for and by medical physicists to ensure the best possible online conference experience.

In his message, AAPM’s then president, M. Saiful Huq, acutely stated that the pandemic has affirmed “Global health is local health and local health is global health. As one of the largest organizations of medical physics, the AAPM|COMP participants are tasked with the herculean level of innovation necessary to combat any disease for the betterment of all of humanity. In a time such as 2020, this call is even more relevant.” This call for the drastic improvement of global health and eliminating global disparities reverberated throughout the event. Topics ranged from hard skills such as those used in diagnostic, imaging, and therapy physics, to softer skills like residency mentor-mentee relationships, social media, and alternative educational tracks. However, all these topics resonated with the same note, described by Huq as developing “strategies to close the gap in standard imaging and cancer therapy procedures” for increased global impact.

Conferences were primarily prerecorded, with the presenters in the audience for a live question-and-answer session. Throughout the week, there was also a live chat box that allowed attendees to pose new questions to presenters. One of the many benefits of the online platform was that sessions were recorded and posted on the meeting website until six weeks after the conference, removing the stress of picking the right sessions to attend. It was easy to hop out of meetings if necessary, as well as catch the recordings of sessions that happened simultaneously.

And while live sessions can fill up due to platform performance capacity, anyone can revisit recorded sessions. This feature is valuable for popular topics such as FLASH radiation therapy, which first gained steam at the 2019 AAPM meeting. This year’s sessions also included a presentation on ionizing radiation with ultrahigh dose rates (coined FLASH radiotherapy or FLASH-RT) and its link to drastically reducing side effects while maintaining tumor control. A session on the clinical translation of FLASH radiation therapy filled up quickly after opening, but thanks to its virtual format, those who didn't get in were able to view the recorded session later.

I found especially refreshing the social hour discussion, “Pushing the Envelope of MRI in Radiation Therapy.” This Zoom call, dedicated to unwrapping current efforts to enhance the integration of MRI in radiation therapy, included discussion of treatment planning as well as MR-guided deliveries. After a brief introduction of state-of-the-art national and international standardization efforts, followed by a description of novel ongoing clinical trials, a facilitated open-board discussion and crowd-sourced survey led to a review of the perceived areas of unmet need. During this discussion, the raw innovation, excellence, and open-minded framework of medical physics was highlighted. It was clear that the medical physics community's focus was on meeting global needs, adapting to the ever-evolving technology, and growing expertise in upcoming areas.

Of course, conferences shouldn’t be all work and no play. AAPM took full advantage of its online platform to engage with attendees. Instead of abandoning its annual fitness challenge and scavenger hunt, the organization turned to fitness-tracking apps and Twitter to catalog points and fundraiser amounts, giving away YETI merchandise to winners announced on Twitter using #AAPMCOMP2020. Recognizing that many participants were quarantined with their families, organizers also held a physics storybook reading hour to encourage the minds of young and veteran physicists alike.

As previously mentioned, many users took to Twitter, a platform with growing popularity among medical physicists, to engage with fellow AAPM members, set up alternative events, and even give IT advice, tagging #AAPMCOMP2020. Conveniently, physicists less acquainted with the social media site could attend an early-Monday-morning panel discussion hosted by several prominent medical physicists on Twitter, including AAPM’s current treasurer Mahadevappa Mahesh. Here they tackled getting started on social media and its benefits while providing prime examples of medical physicists and radiation oncologists who have successfully used Twitter around the globe. They even broke down ways to find catchy and clever Twitter handles, such as that of AAPM’s current president, @HuqedOnPhysics.

Twitter was also where many attendees expressed how they felt about the online shift. Although many expressed disappointment at missing out on travel, the reception was overwhelmingly positive, with many photos of dogs, cats, and kids crowding around medical physics presentations. It was funny to see an official conference page littered with memes and Bill Nye. Some users expressed their happiness at being able to jog while listening in on lectures, while one user left a session early to sing “Happy Birthday” to their son. Numerous parents expressed how they were thrilled to be able to attend without worrying about childcare.

Accessibility was significantly increased with the virtual format, as noted by the attendance of participants from all over the world (see map) and several Tweets. Lisa Glass, a radiation therapy physicist from Saskatchewan and regular attendee of COMP meetings, was able to take advantage of AAPM|COMP’s programming exclusively because it was online. Like many other attendees, Glass enjoyed the in-person interaction during Zoom meetings, stating that “breakout groups were so randomly selected you met people you probably would not have interacted with otherwise,” gaining a plethora of different perspectives. It may not have been the same as in-person networking, but as one individual pointed out on Twitter, at least it meant they didn’t have to wear shoes.

All and all, I had a fantastic first AAPM|COMP experience that encouraged a greater understanding of what it means to be a medical physicist, specifically in response to growing need. If nothing else, AAPM|COMP’s adaptation to the online platform proves that medical physicists do what they claim they do: acknowledge the changing technological climate and adapt to better suit the needs of the world around them. I’m excited to see what creative things AAPM can think up for its 2021 meeting in Cleveland, Ohio.

 “Improving Health Quality, Increasing Global Impact.” Photo courtesy of Michelle de Oliveira.

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences