There’s an oft-repeated trope in scientific fields that the only thing that matters is the conclusions of a person’s research. Yet, we all know this philosophy to be incomplete. A brilliant researcher without an ability to communicate their objectives, data, and conclusions will have difficulty publishing their work in a venue of high visibility and impact. One of the most common mechanisms for sharing published and unpublished work is through poster presentations. Utilized appropriately, these sessions can provide your project with essential scientific critique, be mechanisms for directly interacting with potential reviewers and editors, and serve as a perfect opportunities for low-stakes networking.
How can you get the most out of these sessions as both spectator and presenter? I recently attended the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting in New Orleans, and although the poster session was intended to be two hours long, I was pinned at my poster, talking constantly for more than four hours. Here are some techniques I've developed:
Like the flu, enthusiasm is highly contagious.
When someone walks up to your poster, smile, introduce yourself, and ask where the visitor comes from: lab, topic area, and interests. This way you won’t waste time telling them about things they already know. Additionally, it allows you to fine-tune your presentation for their interests. Not only is this a great networking opportunity, but it will help you identify people of interest—i.e. potential collaborators, peer reviewers, and employment opportunities.
- Make sure to speak loudly, clearly enunciate, and face the person you’re talking to. Poster sessions are often in locations with terrible acoustics, so you have to try harder to project your voice.
- Practice presenting your poster so that you can get through the main story in five minutes or less. You don't need to present every piece of data for every person, just tailor your talk to their interests. If they have more questions, they’ll ask.
- Be sure to present the objectives (why should someone outside of your field care?), the method (how are you pursuing these objectives?), and conclusions (what does your data mean in the context of the field?). Use this as an opportunity to practice distilling your project down to its essential parts. This will be useful when it comes time to write the paper, too.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Another thing that brings in a crowd? A visually appealing poster. In general, you want a high picture-to-word ratio, with just enough captions to provide the bare details necessary to interpret the data. If you don’t have microscopy imaging data, you can use colored frames to box each subject (i.e. Objective, Background, Technique, Result #1, etc.), graphs with colored bars, and/or pictures to illustrate conclusions or conceptualized experiments. One of the best draws to posters is a person with a laptop and movies, but even without this, a bright, organized poster that is not overly crowded and has pictures will always be preferable to a disorganized poster containing a solid 4-foot by 6-foot block of writing.
In my case, my PI gave a talk a couple of days before my poster session. During his talk, he mentioned my research, showed a small portion of the results, and then referred people to my poster by listing the date/time/location. This visibility encouraged those with questions to come talk to me. Quartzy’s networking cards are perfect for this type of publicity because they help direct others to your poster. Sometimes it can be difficult to get high-level PIs to come to your poster, so a more direct approach is useful. For instance, you can walk up to the PI, introduce yourself/project/university, and mention that you would love the opportunity to talk to them about your project. If this is too intimidating, you can ask a more senior graduate student or postdoc who knows this particular PI, and they can facilitate the introduction. Alternatively, it’s very helpful if your PI can directly approach other PIs and refer them to your poster.
Overall, poster sessions are a great way to practice talking about your work, from the broad goals and implications to the minutiae. They're a mechanism for beta testing how you present and talk about the work, where you need to spend more time on transitions, and experimental holes or limitations. These are all essential elements for putting together publications, presentations, grants/fellowships, and other scientific endeavors.
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Betsy B. McIntosh
Betsy recently defended her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Pennsylvania following an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Colorado State University. In the future, Betsy aims to combine her passions for data driven research, biology education, and STEM outreach to spread science literacy and enjoyment to people of all ages and experiences.