Peer Review team overcomes COVID-19 with virtual meetings

July 7, 2020

In an average fiscal year, the ORISE Peer Review team manages more than 200 meetings across the country, with over half of those meetings held in person. But, by March of 2020, managers knew that the onset of COVID-19 would require an immediate shift of plans, changing the outlook of the year ahead.

“Conversations began the first week of March and we began moving meetings from in-person to virtual meetings by the week of March 16,” said Jody Crisp, group manager for Department of Energy (DOE) research reviews.

From mid-March to the beginning of April, cases of COVID-19 grew from 755 to 27,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As safer-at-home regulations were instituted across the country, Peer Review Project Managers Julie Webber, Tracey Vieser and Linda Severs jumped to rethink the format of their upcoming in-person meetings.

Limited time to shift

Virtual Review lobby screen capture

Julie Webber and her team had two months to reformat a meeting that usually hosts around 350 attendees and 500 one-on-one appointments.

“We learned at the end of April that the SBIR/STTR Phase I Release 1 PI Meeting being held in Washington, DC, was going to be changed to a virtual format,” said Julie Webber, who manages the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I Release 1 Principal Investigator Meetings for DOE.

The SBIR/STTR Phase I Release 1 PI Meetings are held twice a year with two days of an informative general session, and about 500 one-on-one, in-person appointments for mentors, stakeholders and SBIR program staff. In a two short months of re-planning, Webber’s team learned the Cvent appointments software and uploaded multiple schedules needed to launch virtual appointment scheduling for the meeting’s Principal Investigator attendees. Cvent provides integrated technology solutions to maximize the impact of meetings and events of all sizes. During the two day meeting, 300 attendees participated in a Zoom webinar general session and 90 one-on-one virtual appointments. 

While admitting to a few sleepless nights before the meeting, Webber said the experience was a huge success thanks to her team’s agility, led by SAWD tech team members Melissa Williford and Bruce Warford.

“We all have the ‘yes’ attitude,” Webber said. “We all try to think outside of the box to meet customers’ needs, and we don’t say ‘no.’”

Overcoming challenges

Virtual Review presentation areas screen capture

Tracey Vieser agreed that her team’s adaptability and communication was key in quickly pivoting their plan from in-person to virtual meetings. In the past three months, she’s stayed busy re-formatting three panel reviews, four program reviews, and principle investigator meetings and workshops for DOE’s Office of Science.

“We had to rethink a lot of pieces,” explained Vieser. “Every customer is different, and we’ve had to discover our own virtual parameters while ensuring they meet our customers’ needs.”

And changing the format of meetings hasn’t been easy. Vieser’s team had to solve how they would manage possible conflicts of interest in virtual meetings; and how Zoom “breakout rooms” could allow teams in and out of program reviews, mimicking the dynamic of an in-person review.

“We’ve also used PeerNet in our virtual program reviews,” added Vieser. “The document exchange capability in PeerNet has allowed customers to upload presentations and other documents that are too large to transmit through emails.”

She explained that not only have customers appreciated using PeerNet as a tool in their virtual reviews, but they’ve been able to test PeerNet updates and gain a better understanding of PeerNet’s advance software.

Despite the challenges of shifting historically in-person meetings to engaging, virtual experiences, Vieser said that her team has managed to impress and please their customers. Her proudest moment so far followed their first virtual review.

“Our customer was very anxious. After the meeting, he sent my supervisor an email about how incredibly impressed he was, and he’s not the type of person to give anyone a 100 on a paper,” she laughed. “When you impress a tough customer, it makes all of the work worth it.”

Beyond expectations

Project Manager Linda Severs also earned high praises from DOE’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) Office with her team’s quick-thinking and event planning efforts while adjusting the EERE 2020 Vehicle Technologies Office Annual Merit Review.

With two months of notice also, Severs and her team sprinted to transform this four-day meeting to a virtual event; yet she never had doubts about what her team could accomplish.

“We definitely felt some stress, but I felt we could succeed,” Severs said. “I had total confidence in our staff and our abilities.”

And that confidence paid off. Not only did Severs’ team successfully execute the meeting virtually, but attendance of the meeting more than doubled in the virtual environment. With more than 2,500 attendees, 160 poster presentations and seven Zoom sessions running simultaneously, the meeting was able to support 300 interactive sessions.

“The event was better than I had hoped for,” wrote Heather Croteau, EERE program manager, in an email. “I can’t capture in words how impressed I am with your team and how smoothly this event went.”

“The virtual event was a definite win. I was very impressed with the structure of each session,” agreed EERE Deputy Director Dave Howell.

Virtual meetings aren’t over yet

To date, the Peer Review team has had to reformat 41 meetings to virtual environments, and more virtual meetings are scheduled for the remainder of 2020.

With virtual resources, such as Zoom and PeerNet, efficient teamwork, and earned experience, Manager Jody Crisp is assured that her team will be able to continue shifting meetings and managing new virtual meetings as they are requested by customers.

“We have successfully transitioned and supported the virtual environment. We adapted and demonstrated the importance of our processes that allow the entire team to be available to step in and support our customers,” said Crisp. “Most importantly, my team stepped up and supported each other when it was needed.”

Learn more about ORISE Peer Review capabilities and expertise.

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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

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