A case for remote video PhD defenses

Fabian testing the makeshift desk lectern for his video defense.

After years of diligent research, the date for the defense of our group’s first PhD student, Fabian Bonk, was set to March 27, 2020. But then an unforeseen event complicated things: the SARS-CoV-2 virus started to spread globally. In response to this threat, social distancing confined us to our home offices just two weeks ahead of the planned date. In the general upheaval, we were for a long time not sure how and if the defense could still be held. It was only three days before the date that we finally learned that we could hold the defense as a video conference.

Only having used it once before, we decided to use Zoom as our video system and we frantically tested all the options available in this comprehensive platform (many thanks to Gerhard!). In particular, sending the members of the committee temporarily to a private room for discussion was a key feature that should ease the handling of the event (a feature also available in other platforms).

While during Fabian’s presentation and discussion we enabled live video only from the defendant and committee members, it was a feeling of community and commitment when during the private committee session, we asked everybody to activate their webcams and say “hello”: one video feed after another popped up until the monitor became a mosaic of people sitting on couches, in kitchens, or labs, having closely followed Fabian’s defense. Up to 50 people had tuned in!

Fabian did an excellent job with his presentation and discussion, not to mention his research which culminated in his thesis (see below). Cordial congratulations and many thanks for having been an integral part of the team! From the technical part, everything worked very smoothly.

While the drawbacks of video meetings are obvious and we dearly missed the opportunity to celebrate the great success and to clink glasses in a big round afterwards, the benefits are that people who would not or could not travel were able to join the event without any effort.

Social distancing now forces us to rely more and more on video meetings and we will get better used to it over time. In the future, hybrid events might become the new standard in which local audiences are seamlessly mixed with remote audiences, combining the benefits of both approaches.

Permitting remote PhD defenses in times of social distancing is in the interest of all doctoral candidates, the next generation of scientists and leaders. Our experience shows that such events need not be postponed. The technology is ready. Decision makers at Universities’ administrations should follow.

Social distancing prevented us from creating a properly decorated doctoral hat, a highly held german tradition. We will rectify this as soon as possible! “Something is still missing” is noted on the makeshift hat. Thanks to Canan for the beautiful SARS-CoV-2 drawing.


Check out Fabian’s research:

Bonk, Fabian, Denny Popp, Sören Weinrich, Heike Sträuber, Sabine Kleinsteuber, Hauke Harms, and Florian Centler. 2018. “Intermittent Fasting for Microbes : How Discontinuous Feeding Increases Functional Stability in Anaerobic Digestion.” Biotechnology for Biofuels, 10(1), 274. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13068-018-1279-5.

Bonk, Fabian, Denny Popp, Sören Weinrich, Heike Sträuber, Daniela Becker, Sabine Kleinsteuber, Hauke Harms, and Florian Centler. 2019. “Determination of Microbial Maintenance in Acetogenesis and Methanogenesis by Experimental and Modeling Techniques.” Frontiers in Microbiology 10(1), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2019.00166.

Bonk, Fabian, Denny Popp, Sören Weinrich, Heike Sträuber, Sabine Kleinsteuber, Hauke Harms, and Florian Centler. 2018. “Ammonia Inhibition of Anaerobic Volatile Fatty Acid Degrading Microbial Communities.” Frontiers in Microbiology 9 (November): 1–13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2018.02921.

Bonk, Fabian, Denny Popp, Hauke Harms, and Florian Centler. 2018. “PCR-Based Quantification of Taxa-Specific Abundances in Microbial Communities: Quantifying and Avoiding Common Pitfalls.” Journal of Microbiological Methods 153 (August): 139–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mimet.2018.09.015.

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