Campus partners prove vital for continuing research and scholarship during pandemic

Author: Brandi Wampler

Similar to weather forecasting, ecological forecasting combines observational data and quantitative modeling. By recording what was forecasted as well as what actually occurred, scientists can identify new observations and revise their models to improve future predictions. With ecological forecasts, researchers can anticipate an array of problems, including next year's wildfire season, next week's clean water supply, or next month's coronavirus caseload.

In order to help grow and diversify the community of near-term, iterative ecological forecasting researchers, the multi-institutional National Science Foundation-sponsored Ecological Forecasting Initiative Research Coordination Network (EFI-RCN) had planned to host an in-person event in Boulder, CO. But like many other conferences and events it had to be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. This is when researchers at the University of Notre Dame began to consider how to continue the EFI-RCN 2020 Workshop virtually.

12Professor Jason McLachlan

“We had several goals we were planning to address at the workshop in Boulder, including designing a ‘forecasting challenge’ or a good-spirited competition to forecast ecological change using data from the National Science Foundation's National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON),” said Jason McLachlan, associate professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame, member of the EFI-RCN, and affiliated faculty of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative. “So, when we had to switch to a virtual event, we wanted to make sure that those agenda items would all still be possible.”

As McLachlan and Jody Peters, program manager of the McLachlan Lab and the EFI-RCN, worked to transition to an online workshop, they realized that University resources would be critical. From learning how to set up event registration to deciding which platforms would be best for hosting the workshop and facilitating discussions, Peters had to learn new platforms and processes to make it successful. Departments like the Office of Information Technologies (OIT) and the Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship were key.

“I worked closely with Martin Klubeck for event registration, which was critical for collecting participant research interests and needs for tailoring presentations, and Mike Ball helped me determine what Zoom platform would work best for what we wanted to accomplish,” said Peters. “Other resources, like the OIT Lunch and Learns as well as working with and using documents from Julie Vecchio, helped me decide the best way to share workshop logistics with the presenters and organize the event.”

Although there has been a learning curve for hosting a virtual workshop on Tuesday, May 12 – Wednesday, May 13, there were also some benefits. 

The original plan was to host the in-person meeting at NEON headquarters where space limited the event to 65 participants. With the new format, the EFI-RCN was able to open enrollment and register over 260 participants. Before, the initiative had to limit graduate student attendance to 15 people. Now there are more than 60 graduate students registered to attend. 

“Originally, we had only two people who were able to support their own overseas travel to come to Boulder. Now over 10 percent of workshop participants are coming from time zones outside the U.S.,” said Peters. “There are real benefits to being in the same room with people, but online teaching showed us that large virtual meetings can work well. The workshop will now be larger and more accessible, and we anticipate that this will help the EFI-RCN grow and become more diverse.”

Additionally, the online component has helped the EFI-RCN address the need for closed captioning. Participants will have early access to pre-recorded videos to help individuals who are hearing or visually impaired, to assist those who speak English as a second language, and to allow individuals from outside the U.S. gain access to materials at a reasonable time. A transcriber has also been hired to transcribe or caption unrecorded portions of the online event. 

Overall, McLachlan hopes this first virtual workshop could allow future meetings after the pandemic to be in-person/virtual meeting hybrids.

“Given the interest for this workshop, we have been thinking long-term about how we can use the virtual elements to our advantage,” said McLachlan. “Like leaving more in-person time for discussion and face-to-face interactions or having breakout sessions that narrow in the focus for topics in ecological forecasting.”

To learn more about this event and the research and goals of the EFI-RCN, please visit


Brandi Wampler / Research Communications Specialist

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see or @UNDResearch.