Ukrainian Physicists Experiment with Internet Seminars

By & . Published on 26 January 2016 in:
January 2016, News, , ,

In the 20th century, Ukraine held a respected position in the international physics community due to the quality of its research and researchers. However, in the 21st century, the physics community, like much of the rest of Ukraine, is facing many challenges.

In the spring of 2015, a group of Ukrainian physicists sat down to discuss ways to help their colleagues from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, displaced to other Ukrainian university centers due to the military conflict in the East of Ukraine. Among other options on the table, one was to promote the integration of young researchers into the European scientific community. Besides the obvious intellectual value, better integration has a clear potential for improving the funding prospects. In 2015, Ukraine became, for the first time, a full member of the European Commission grant program, Horizon 2020. While technically, Ukrainian scientists, physicists in particular, can now enjoy the same grant opportunities as the rest of their European colleagues, in reality they are still hindered by many obstacles. A big one is the lack of experience and reputation within the European Commission grant system or, more broadly, lack of day-to-day collaborations with physicists from abroad. An average young researcher or graduate student in Ukraine can download and study any paper from the leading physics journals. However, the odds of him or her being able to attend a live talk given by a foreign physicist are slim. Visits and scientific exchanges occasionally happen, and some exceptional Ukrainian groups are well represented worldwide, but on average, scientific contacts have not yet reached critical intensity. All this creates a very palpable cultural disconnection between Ukrainian scientists and the European scientific community, a situation that should be changed as soon as possible.

Bridging this gap is a complex task that should be approached in many ways. One of them is taken by a pilot program of the Ukrainian Physical Society (UPS) offering internet-seminars with speakers from around the world presenting fresh results to Ukrainian audiences. Internet-seminars (or webinars) are a natural cheap alternative to the physical travel of the speaker. Of course, the question is how effective such an alternative can be, and whether it can actually ensure enough scientific discussion and stimulate people-to-people interactions.

The technical side of a webinar organisation is well developed. UPS teamed up with the American Physical Society (APS) that generously offered its own webinar platform for the program. Using the platform, the speaker presents from his/her office, while the seminar attendees see the slides on-line and with a live audio stream. A video stream of the speaker can also be used. Questions can be asked during and after the presentation.

Notably, the most interesting aspect of a webinar is not the presentation technology but the way in which the attendees are encouraged to participate and devote their full attention to the talk. However, webinars do not provide the social interaction that is associated with attending a live seminar in person. There are also many potential distractions during a webinar. The UPS solution to the distraction problem is to offer two levels of participation in the seminars. The core audience of the talk gathers in a dedicated auditorium where the slides are projected on a large screen and people find themselves in a familiar seminar setting. The rest of the audience can join on-line. Ideally, the job of the organisers is to make sure that the core audience is composed of researchers who know the subject and can interact with the speaker effectively. People in the core audience bear the main load of the discussion, while the on-line participants may join in asking questions if they wish to do so.

The first few seminars of the series have shown that a double-tier organisation of a webinar seems to work well and produces a better interactivity. UPS now plans to continue the series to popularise it and increase participation. Eventually the goal of the program is to trigger a proliferation of on-line seminars in Ukrainian institutions. With the technical details worked out during the pilot program, it will become easy to start a local seminar series and concentrate on inviting the best speakers in the world working in a given field. Such seminars will certainly bring Ukrainian physicists one step closer to their European colleagues. How decisive will this step be? Quoting a wonderful theorist M. I. Dyakonov, “the key aspect of the future is that it is unpredictable.” (

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