Annual Research Festival Springs Back to Life at Fort Detrick

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; image courtesy of the Spring Research Festival team
Image of a sunflower in a graduated cylinder partially filled with blue liquid

The 2021 Spring Research Festival logo.

The Spring Research Festival came to Fort Detrick this year without its signature massive tent, the home of a sprawling equipment expo with dozens of booths. It came without audiences in auditoriums or gatherings around scientific posters. The community didn’t circulate between buildings for events. On the surface, it may have seemed that the festival didn’t come at all.

But after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic, the annual two-day event did indeed return in a virtual format. The change from the norm didn’t seem to hinder things, either: hundreds of attendees, including a few members of the public, tuned in—rivaling or exceeding attendance for a “normal” year.

“When the decision was made to go remote, the [planning] committee saw the opportunity to be able to expand the audience reach beyond those that traditionally attend the event in person,” said Marsha Nelson-Duncan, one of NCI at Frederick’s representatives on the festival planning committee. “This was a great opportunity for us to offer the community an inside look at the local response to COVID by the partner agencies here on post.”

The event evidently united Fort Detrick as it has done in years past. Participants have called this year’s festival a valuable opportunity to learn and collaborate.

Virology from the Vantage

Two keynote addresses brought in eminent coronavirus figures to discuss the past year. Ralph Baric, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, lectured about SARS-CoV-2, coronaviruses more broadly, and countermeasures. On day two, retired Col. Deborah Birx, M.D., former White House coronavirus response coordinator, shared her expertise on the pandemic.

“One of the things that stood out to me in this [festival] was the superb selection of speakers, whose contributions to the virology field, and SARS-CoV-2 research in particular, was significant and very important,” said Lyuba Khavrutskii, a research associate at the Frederick National Laboratory who attended both keynotes and helped to judge other festival events.

“I was very impressed with both talks,” she added.

The keynotes each drew more than 150 viewers—what would be standing room only in the venue normally used to house the lectures.

‘I Hope It Will Inspire New Collaborations’

A five-hour symposium with presentations from scientists at NCI at Frederick, Frederick National Laboratory, and the U.S. Army and Navy offered a closer glimpse of coronavirus research at Fort Detrick, further uniting the community around the subject.

“I liked the idea of sharing our COVID-19 research with colleagues in other agencies on the Fort Detrick Campus. I hope it will inspire new collaborations between agencies and push us to take advantage of all that Fort Detrick has to offer,” said Alex Compton, Ph.D., an investigator at NCI at Frederick and a presenter in the symposium.

Compton shared his group’s work on molecules called “rapalogs” and how they affect cells’ susceptibility to coronavirus infection. He said the symposium had a “cohesive feel” and paired well with the keynote lectures. Audience participation in the Q&A was less dynamic than during an in-person festival, but 99 people on average watched each presentation—an impressive crowd for the event.

Blitz Brings Opportunity

The festival’s iconic poster blitz made its return this year, with 22 staff, scientists, and interns hustling to explain a poster of their research in three minutes or less. The judged competition aimed to show a variety of work at Fort Detrick—anything from cancer to emerging infectious diseases—and encouraged viewers to visit the virtual poster gallery that was on display over the two days.

In a truly impressive fashion, NCI at Frederick student interns Ella Fitzgerald and Taeeun Kim tag-teamed their presentation about cellular microscopy within the time limit. The performance won them second place in the event. Another pair of NCI at Frederick interns, Elizabeth Willman and Samyak Jain, similarly beat the buzzer.

“As someone who’s had little experience with scientific presentations and poster making, this festival allowed me to work on developing these skills, which will hopefully help me through college and the rest of my career,” Fitzgerald said.

Kim agreed, adding, “The … posters had something unique in each of them, and I enjoyed listening to the speakers who worked in other fields of science that I was never exposed to.”

Alan Doss, of NCI at Frederick’s Scientific Library, gave a notably unique presentation: a metadata analysis of scientific publications from NCI at Frederick’s founding to the present. He too found the experience valuable.

“Participating provided me with a chance to show what the Scientific Library can do with publications metadata,” he said, adding that viewing other presentations was also educational.

Each participation averaged 88 spectators.

‘I Was Able to Learn So Much’

Another symposium, given by postbaccalaureate and postdoctoral researchers, rounded out the festival. Like the poster blitz, the judged event showcased diverse research topics and called attention to early career researchers.

“Participating as a presenter was extremely valuable, as I was able to learn so much from everyone’s research as well as gain experience presenting,” said Sarah Flaherty, a postbaccalaureate Cancer Research Training Award fellow in the Optical Microscopy and Analysis Laboratory at Frederick National Laboratory.

Flaherty’s confident presentation about the tumor microenvironment and oxygenation earned her first place in the event.

“I’m just getting started in my scientific career, and so it was an incredible opportunity to present to and with more accomplished scientists,” said Flaherty, who will be attending medical school in the fall.

Sixty-seven viewers on average watched each presentation.

Community Affirmed, Near and Far

Several of the festival’s participants and spectators commented that the festival was well organized and brought valuable research into one place.

A U.S. Army team led by Taylor O’Guinn oversaw the festival’s coordination, aided by NCI at Frederick staff. The Frederick National Laboratory Conference Center—especially Jason Tait, Joe Freeman, and Jeff Skowronski—managed the technical aspects of the virtual event, even working late into the night before day one to ensure things ran smoothly. There is already talk of doing a hybrid in-person and virtual festival in 2022 to reach a larger audience.

“Overall, the first fully virtual Spring Research Festival was successful in meeting the goal of sharing and explaining the vital work taking place here and is a reminder of the major positive impact that this community of like-minded scientists has had on all of our lives,” NCI’s Nelson-Duncan said.

Flaherty agreed, perhaps best summing up its spirit: “Events like these remind me that my lab is part of a much larger scientific community at Fort Detrick and beyond.”

A video announcing the award winners from the judged events in this year’s festival is available on the USAMMDA YouTube channel.


Samuel Lopez is a technical editor in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where he writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the day-to-day operations of the Poster newsletter; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.