The innovation lab held its second annual research meeting in a digital format in June, incorporating many of the lessons learned over the past year about how to make the most out of technology for long-distance meetings.
Last year, the lab pivoted to Zoom a few weeks after the global Covid-19 pandemic made travel impossible, presenting a traditional agenda in a digital format. That meeting, which brought together 100 people each day of the three-day meeting, had been planned to take place in Malawi.
Post-meeting surveys showed that participants overwhelmingly approve of the digital format (at least when travel is restricted), but they do miss out on some interaction and suffer screen fatigue.
To make the most of the ability to meet online, the management entity and many project teams in the Peanut Innovation Lab have shifted the way they get together.
“We are starting to see travel opening up again and are looking forward to in-person meetings, but at the same time, we have learned a lot about digital communication. Some of those tools will stay with us for the long term,” said Innovation Lab Director Dave Hoisington.
For this year’s Annual Research Meeting, for example, the lab invited outside speakers to address timely topics of interest to researchers in a variety of peanut-related disciplines. Expert speakers addressed burgeoning areas of research in peanut nutrition, how remote sensing is making weather data richer, and how partnerships with development projects can help to scale interventions in partner countries. (This last item was particularly timely as USAID encourages researchers to plan product life cycles for the interventions that come from their work.)
In addition to a panel discussion about how different genders may approach technology differently, the meeting included breakout sessions that allowed participants to dive deeper into topics of particular interest to them.
Those topics included bottlenecks in groundnut seed systems; applications of remote sensing in groundnut; priorities for nutrition research; forging partnerships between USAID in-country programs and Innovation Labs; rethinking research priorities for youth in agriculture; adding gender-responsiveness to research; and technology pipelines for social science projects.
Recordings of all three days meetings are available at the lab’s YouTube Channel:
The Peanut Innovation Lab recognizes that graduate students benefit from working with mentors and presenting their research to professional audiences. While the pandemic has meant less contact with students – because students are unable to study or attend conferences abroad and U.S. scientists are unable to travel to partner countries, the innovation lab used technology over the past year to increase contact with students.
The lab supports more than 60 students from 10 countries who are working on graduate and post-graduate degrees. In exchange for funds and mentorship, students contribute to the overall research of the lab by investigating specific questions related to innovation lab projects.
Though the pandemic brought long periods when public transport was discontinued due to pandemic, most of the graduate students in Africa (with the support of their professors and mentors) found ways to travel by personal car, share field responsibilities to save on everyone traveling, or find accommodations close to research locations.
The pandemic also limited the number of international students who could come to the U.S. to study. Instead, several stayed in Africa, conducting research and building up capacity at their home institutions. Similarly, while students could not travel to the U.S. or Europe to present at conferences, they ambitiously took advantage of opportunities to present their research through digital conferences that normally would require travel.
To respond to the growing opportunity to connect with students and give them opportunities to work on professional development, Peanut Innovation Lab launched a monthly Scholarly Exchange which brings professionals to a monthly gathering online (one session in English and one in French) for students to network, hear about some aspect of career development, ask questions and just get to know one another better.
Unable to travel to meet in-person with project teams, U.S. and African scientists met with project teams over digital meeting platforms weekly or every other week to review progress. In some ways, this reliance on regular meetings helped teams to focus on incremental progress, rather than larger, but less frequent in-person updates.
“We substantially increased the amount of time we were meeting on Zoom during the pandemic; sometimes we met twice a month, but at least once a month,” said Maria Balota, a Virginia Tech professor who leads a project in Ghana, Senegal and Uganda to evaluate the use of handheld devices for high throughput phenotyping. The habit of keeping in regular communication is paying off now that graduate students are finishing up their research, writing their theses and publishing their results, Balota said.
“I think that regular meetings increased the focus and I plan on continuing these meetings even after we will resume to the in-person visits,” she said.
The management entity enacted a similar change, launching quarterly updates with all PIs, giving scientists a chance to share accomplishments and concerns in a more timely way, while continuously honing the direction of the work and gathering ideas and energy from the discussion.
“We started quarterly meetings with each project individually because we couldn’t travel to physically meet together, but we found that these quick updates were great for all of us to follow the work more closely,” said Hoisington. “It’s not possible to physically meet with 20 projects in half a dozen countries every 12 weeks, but we can do that in an hour on Zoom. It’s been a good thing.”