Lab Rats


What's the point of scientific posters?

Prof-like Substance 12 July 2009

Lost in the crowd: posters may be a dying art form

The highlight was carrying my bazooka-shaped tube through airline security and then having to wedge it into a crowded overhead baggage compartment

They stand, nervous and alone, with a look of desperation in their eyes. If you make eye contact they see the opportunity to start talking and it can be awkward to just keep walking. "No, thanks. Really, I'm on my way to a meeting." If you look over your shoulder as you walk away you can see that disappointment and it's easy to think, "Man, they are just so young."

I hate poster sessions.

For those readers who aren’t familiar with the concept, most scientific conferences have oral presentations and posters for attendees to visit. Talks are what you’d expect them to be: a lucky few get to stand and present their research to a room full (or not so full, depending on the time of day) of fellow scientists. Because conference content varies, talks can be scheduled to last anywhere from less than ten minutes to over an hour. Poster sessions, meanwhile, are often held in large auditoria. Dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people all make 3’x4’ posters to display their work to whomever should express an interest.

I know that the poster session can be an important part of a conference; it allows people who were not selected to give a talk the opportunity to share their work. But is it really worth the amount of time spent making the poster to stand in front of it for a few hours in a busy room only to have only a couple of people actually read it and interact with you?

I say no. My choice of organism to study, and the techniques we use in my lab, mean that I work in what might be called a “scientific niche”. Because of this, conferences in my field are not like the biomedical science hoopla events where only Principal Investigators have the opportunity to talk about the work in their lab. At the conferences my lab attends, students regularly give oral presentations of their work and posters are typically reserved for works-in-progress or those that are deemed "less interesting" by the organizers.

During my career I’ve had the good fortune to have only made a single poster, and that was in a year in which I wanted to present on two separate topics at the same meeting. I spent about three hours putting my talk together and three days on the poster, constantly trying to clarify and reduce the text to the point where it was just shy of becoming one giant non sequitur. After this effort, printing and laminating the poster was another two-day chore and upon picking it up I immediately identified a spelling error. The highlight of the experience was carrying my bazooka-shaped tube through airline security and then having to wedge it into a crowded overhead baggage compartment.

My talk was well received at the conference and I got lots of feedback, whereas I stood next to my poster for two hours only to point out the results to the few friends who came by out of support or pity. From that point on I vowed to avoid the poster like Shannon Sharpe avoids a classic suit and an "inside voice". I would rather give a talk with six people in the audience – which I did once at a giant meeting in which my session was a bit outside the main theme – than stand alone in a crowded room.

If presenting a poster isn't bad enough, I don't enjoy going to poster sessions either. If it's a small meeting with fewer than 100 posters then I’ll at least attend, but the aforementioned quality issue still comes into play. At larger meetings where there might be hundreds of posters, it’s a game of finding a needle in a haystack. Do I want to browse 400 abstracts to find a couple I might be interested in? Hmm, no. If the meeting is well organized, there is the option of going to each section you are interested in and browsing through the crowded maze of poster presenters who are over-eager to spill their spiel all over you. Maybe there are one or two posters that are exciting and you have the opportunity to talk with the students and see what direction their work is going. More likely you end up hearing a dozen stories that you do not want to, simply because you get trapped near a poster and your eyes linger too long on the title, and hours later you invariably end up walking out, covered in regurgitated information all over your good conference jeans.