Friday, November 13, 2020

A Fall Conference Year Like No Other

A staple in my life each fall, dating back to 1986, is my annual attendance of what is now called the AMIA Annual Symposium. This year marks my 35th consecutive year of participation. I first attended this meeting when it was still called the Symposium on Computer Applications in Medicine Care (SCAMC).  I was a third-year internal medicine resident at the time, seeking to learn more about the field and how to pursue training in it. Since 1986, I have never missed this meeting each fall.

Of course, the 2020 version of the AMIA Annual Symposium will be like no other. We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so like most scientific meetings in 2020, this year's meeting will be virtual. That won't keep me from attending all the meeting's usual events, including the opening session, the induction of fellows (of both ACMI and AMIA), the leadership gala dinner, the association business meeting, numerous scientific sessions, and the closing session. I will also conduct another staple AMIA activity of mine I have been doing since 2005, which is the in-person session that culminates the 10x10 course and will take place virtually this year. Finally, I will be making an appearance at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) virtual booth in the Career Expo portion of the Exhibit Hall (see image below)

Although many activities will be recast in virtual format, there will be others not taking place that I will miss. My colleagues in AMIA are among my best friends in the world. Although my academic work interdigitates with a number of scientific fields, in the end, my primary field is informatics and the AMIA symposium is where the field all comes together. The social aspects of the meeting, from formal activities to hallway conversations, are what makes this meeting most special. I have often joked that walking across the hotel lobby at the meeting usually takes as much as an hour, stopping to say hello to so many friends and colleagues, one after another. And waving hello to so any others riding in opposite directions on the hotel escalators. AMIA also has among the greatest staff for professional organizations, with great longevity and institutional knowledge for putting on great meetings.

Another meeting I have attended almost every fall that typically occurs in proximity to AMIA is the Text Retrieval Conference (TREC). I attended the first TREC meeting in 1992 and have missed a few over the years, but otherwise have attended almost all of them. It has been gratifying to contribute to the leadership of the series of biomedically-oriented information retrieval challenge evaluations. At the 25th anniversary of TREC in 2016, I enjoyed giving an overview talk on all of the biomedical tracks up to that time (starting at just past 50 minutes into the Part 3 of the recorded Webcast). As with AMIA, the social aspects and hallway conversations are also what makes attending the meeting so enjoyable.

Some years I have had to made compromises with AMIA or TREC when they have been the same week but in different cities. Like AMIA, the TREC meeting will be virtual this year as well, and actually spread out over the entire week that also includes AMIA. But one upside to both conferences being virtual is that I can jump back and forth between the meetings.

These virtual conferences come on the heels of some of the early results of COVID-19 vaccines being released in the news media. I do hope that next year at this time, I will have immunity to SARS-CoV-2 as I attend in person both the AMIA and TREC meetings. We will see in retrospect that turns out to be wishful thinking.

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