19 March 2015

Posters at the front of Science

It’s a little unusual to see posters mentioned in one of the magazines that likes to position itself as a “journal of record,” namely Science. Here’s what editor in chief Marcia McNutt had to say on posters, which should be familiar advice to all readers of this blog.

I encourage students to request a poster presentation at a large meeting. This format can be less stressful than speaking in front of a large audience. Furthermore, the student personally converses with members of the scientific community who share an interest in his or her research. The back-and-forth is good training and a reminder to students that discussing their research with experts or nonexperts should be a two-way conversation. Another advantage of presenting a poster is that the student can tailor the narrative to the interests of whoever stops by, in a Q&A exchange. I recall years ago when a graduate student was disappointed that her research would be described “only” in this format, until one of the giants in her field spent considerable time at her poster to discuss the work. As he left, he said, “I wish I had thought of that.” She was later hired into his department.

To be effective, posters need to be eye-catching as well as informative. In a convention hall lined with poster boards, scientists will bypass those with large blocks of texts and tables of impenetrable numbers. A cartoon that summarizes the model or findings, attractive displays of data, and photos that illustrate the experiment are good ways to grab attention. Creative ways to display pertinent information are a definite plus. I personally like posters that begin with the motivation for the work and end with the findings, areas for follow up, and broader implications of the results.

McNutt goes on to say:

Training the next generation of scientists to communicate well should be a priority.

This statement causes me a little exasperation, because I hear, “We need to train young scientists to...” more often than the chorus of a top 40 pop song.

“We need to train young scientists two write better.”

“We need to train young scientists to talk to the media.”

“We need to train young scientists to do better statistics.”

“We need to train young scientists in ethics.”

“We need to train young scientists in grantsmanship.”

“We need to train young scientists about social media.”

And everyone is convinced that this training is an urgent priority. To borrow a phrase:

I do completely agree with McNutt that the more established faculty have an important role to play here: go the the darn poster sessions. And don’t just chat with your conference buddies!

And researchers attending meetings should take some time to judge a few student papers, visit student posters, or attend student talks.


McNutt M. 2015. It starts with a poster. Science 347(6226): 1047. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aab0014

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