Putting your best poster forward

By Jessica Waninger-Saroni, St. Mary’s University

Jessica received honorable mention in the 2014 ASBMB poster competition for Enzyme Mechanisms and Chemical Biology Best Thematic Poster Award. She presented her poster, “The crystal structure of SOD5; an unusual copper-only superoxide dismutase.”

ExHall_029After countless hours spent in the lab doing experimental procedures, it can seem daunting to figure out just the right way to assemble all the information you have gathered into one coherent piece of work. In this situation, the best thing to do is actually quite simple and is something that we learned in early childhood: tell a story.

A good story contains key elements such as sufficient background on the topic and its relevance. Why should I care about your project? What impact will your findings have on the scientific and medical communities? More importantly, if I am in a field not even closely related to yours, could I understand your poster? Imagine that you are a cell biologist studying nucleosome packaging and you review a poster about medicinal bioorganic chemistry. Chances are that you will not have sufficient knowledge to adequately understand the framework that the presenter’s project is built on; this is where background becomes important.

The content of your story is crucial, but how you plan to present it is just as important. One thing to keep in mind is that we are visual creatures. Images have the unique ability of capturing the attention of an audience while efficiently and succinctly describing an entire idea. Very few people enjoy standing one foot from a poster and squinting at tiny print describing the miscellaneous details of every reagent used. These details are important and you should be knowledgeable about them, but they do not necessarily need to be displayed on your poster. By using images rather than text, you will be able to illustrate the key chapters in your story. This will reinforce what you say and help you stay on a deliberate path as you present.

Once you have your story figured out, your visuals finalized and your text spell-checked (It’s amazing how misspelled words pop out in size 32 font), the next step is to start practicing. The best way to practice before arriving at the competition is to give your presentation over and over again. I did so many dry runs with my poster that my friends could just about recite it for me. You should know how to deliver your masterpiece in 5-7 minutes, and your fingers should know where to point without even looking at your poster; this is preparation.  Finally, when preparing what you will say, it is important to anticipate questions and prepare appropriate responses.

You should have some understanding of every topic related to your research, even if you didn’t personally do a specific portion. If it is on your poster, know exactly what it means and its potential applications.

It can be intimidating to talk to professors about your research because you realize that the depth and breadth of their scientific understanding far outweighs your own. In this case, it is important to remember that this is your project. Aside from your mentor, no one knows more about it than you do. So you should stand tall and speak with confidence. Ultimately, presenting is a learned skill just like anything in life, and the more you do it, the better you get.

In many ways, going to a conference and presenting your project is one of the most productive things you can do in preparation for a career in science. At its most fundamental level, presenting teaches you how to effectively communicate your work to others. I would argue this is one of the most important characteristics of a good scientist today. The ability to communicate science to any audience shows true mastery of the topic. So utilize this opportunity to begin learning these skills as it will undoubtedly prove to be an asset throughout your scientific career.

Click here to learn more about the ASBMB annual meeting.

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