Monthly Archives: February 2013

How (not to) present a poster at a scientific conference

Ok, so you are presenting a poster at a scientific conference. You’ve done the research, prepared and printed the poster and pinned it to the board, the poster session is approaching and you really want some feedback on your results and ideas. How do you maximise the number of people you talk to?

1. The Guard

Stand next to your poster at attention and wait. This signals readiness and a willing to discuss any aspects of your work. Do not make eye contact with approaching colleagues but as soon as they stop, pounce. This attentiveness is appreciated by all scientists, especially senior group leaders.

2. The Lure

Put some sweets in a paper cup pinned to the board and pretend to read your neighbour’s poster. Wait for someone to take one, then pounce. A weaker variant is to provide copies of your poster pinned to the board (tip: make sure they are FIRMLY attached – it buys you a few more seconds).

3. The Fake Crowd

Bribe your friends or colleagues to stand around your poster and talk loudly. Ask them to point and gesticulate wildly to indicate interest and controversy. This will naturally attract people.

4. The Suspiciously Quiet Poster

Not everyone will be attracted by the fake crowd. Try alternating it with the suspciously quiet poster. Go and hide by looking at the poster pinned to the back of the board. Watch for feet appearing at your poster and, well you guessed it, pounce.

Congratulations! You are now equipped to thrive in the cut-and-thrust world of the poster session. Especially if you don’t do any of these suggestions…..

Good science

“There was some good science in that seminar.�?

“Yes? Sorry I feel asleep shortly after the first slide of maths.�?

Familar? I expect every scientist occasionally gets the feeling that perhaps the person speaking is saying something interesting and important in say at a conference but why can’t they understand it? And why show us so much maths in such a small typeface?

Why do I feel slightly uncomfortable with this exchange? Well I think my discomfort begins with what is implied by “good science�?. The exchange above implies that is an an abstract output such as an idea, an experimental result or a theory.

But is that all there is to being a good scientist? Producing “good science�?? I hope not. I believe being a good scientist means having a wide range of skills, such working well with other scientists and mentoring students. This is in addition to producing good science. Crucially it includes the ability to clearly explain one’s research to anyone (or at a bare minimum a PhD student studying in your field). Or, as was put to me during my undergraduate degree by an influential professor: “If you can’t explain something to anybody, then you haven’t understood it.�?. Let me be clear: there are of course very difficult concepts in all fields. What I have primarily in mind is seminars in your department or talks at conferences. In both cases the audience is either in your field, learning your field or is at a remove of one or two steps from your field. I am a computational biophysicist – I should be able to explain how (and why) I am simulating the dynamics of a particular protein to any molecular biologist.

The tension I am feeling I think therefore originates from the subtle distinction between what we mean by “good science�? and “good scientist�?: producing the former does not automatically make you the latter.

This would perhaps be straightforward enough if it didn’t sometimes feel that this is turned on its head – the more obtuse and difficult to follow a lecturer or speaker is, the more important their work must surely be. Then producing what at least appears to be “good science�? (it must be because I can’t understand it) makes you a “good scientist�? and, for example, being able to explain your work, maybe even to undergraduates or, worse still, school children, is a mark against your reputation. This backwards logic is unhelpful and should be confronted when found.

But can we really separate the outcome (the science) from the researchers? I doubt it; if other scientists cannot understand our work and, let’s hope, be interested in it, then our results are less likely to spur further research.

So perhaps our respondant above should have replied:

“No, I don’t think so. I couldn’t understand a thing and this is my field. If we can’t understand it how can it be good science?�?