By Austin J. Sim, MD, JD
I am someone who thrives on networking and connecting people. Throughout my training, I have made it one of my primary goals to attend as many meetings as I can to connect with as many people as I can, from faculty to medical students.
Out of necessity, the proliferation of virtual meetings over the last two years have provided a serviceable, but inadequate substitute for live meetings. Although dropping into virtual sessions, while in clinic or at home, undeniably increases access, flexibility, and convenience, one loses the immersive experience of in-person attendance. Chance encounters in the hallways between sessions, serendipitous conversations sparking novel collaborations, and facilitation of connections between mutual friends and colleagues are all simply not practical in a virtual setting, but are instead keystones of any in-person meeting.
First and foremost, ASTRO staff and meeting organizers of the 2021 ASTRO Annual Meeting should receive the highest commendations for organizing a fantastic meeting in the face of all the uncertainty, while simultaneously ensuring the maximum degree of safety. Specifically, vaccination attestations were required for attendees, including exhibitors, or negative PCR results for people with valid medical or religious exemptions. Other measures included full masking indoors, distanced seating for sessions, extended times between sessions for cleaning, and HVAC filtration improvements at McCormick Center. Lastly, you could attend the meeting your way: color-coded lanyards indicated an attendee’s comfort level with interactions. Anecdotally, the vast majority of attendees were sporting green and yellow lanyards, indicating comfort with closer interactions.
It was exciting to meet virtual mentors and mentees in person for the first time, as well as colleagues with whom I had been working virtually for years without having ever met in person, including a significant portion of the Association of Residents in Radiation Oncology (ARRO) Executive Committee. I felt back in my element, reconnecting with old friends and forging new connections.
Putting on a different hat in my role on the ARRO Communications Subcommittee, I was also tasked to develop the resident programming for the meeting. In addition to curating relevant content for sessions, we had to balance the number and distribution of in-person versus virtual sessions amid all the uncertainty, starting in the spring of 2021. Despite these challenges, I was thrilled to see robust trainee and student attendance at the annual ARRO seminar and other related sessions. Out of an abundance of caution, we made the decision to cancel the food and beverage portion of our networking reception, and yet, still had a great showing. It was gratifying to see our vision become a reality.
From the perspective of someone on the verge of finishing residency and looking for an academic faculty position, I had dreaded the stress of running between continuous screening interviews that typically characterizes the PGY-5 ASTRO experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of these interviews had been shifted to virtual in the weeks preceding the meeting. This allowed me to experience the meeting to its fullest extent as intended without the added stress and complications of days full of interviews.
Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention the paradigm-breaking meeting content. From a renewed focus on patient-centered care to a dedicated diversity, equity, and inclusion track, to the deliberate integration of patient voices during the Presidential Symposium and throughout the meeting, the 2021 ASTRO Annual Meeting presented a dynamic and engaging collection of scientific sessions, panels, and educational sessions featuring the most diverse set of voices yet.
ASTRO staff and meeting organizers have set a new high bar for in-person scientific meetings with such a triumphant return in a setting of appropriate safeguards. This was a fantastic experience, exceeding all expectations. It feels good to be back and I am already counting down the days to ASTRO 2022!
Austin Sim, MD, JD is a PGY-5 Chief Resident in Radiation Oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and serves as the Chair of the Association of Residents in Radiation Oncology (ARRO). In this role, he also serves on the ABR Radiation Oncology Initial Certification Advisory Committee and on several committees within the American Society for Radiation Oncology. He is passionate about optimizing patient care outside the four walls of the clinic through clinical research, leadership development, and health policy.