Thoughts on Presenting a Poster: Science, Sun, and Sea World at the 2002 Spring American Chemical Society Meeting

Saturday, April 6th, 10 p.m.: The six travelers check into an Orlando hotel. We're undergraduates from Northwestern University and we're here, not for Disney World, but to present posters on our research to the American Chemical Society. Our business attire contrasts sharply at breakfast with the Mickey Mouse ears of the other hotel guests. Today, we opt for the intellectual excitement of displaying our research work in front of a professional audience. We expect the poster presentations we will make in Orlando to affect our futures.

"Anyone who presents an undergraduate poster at the ACS meeting is someone we want to recruit for graduate school," says Owen Priest, a faculty member of Northwestern University. Since all six of us in the group want to go to graduate school, his words hit home. Additionally, we undergrads will gain valuable practice in presenting and defending our work to a critical scientific audience and will have the opportunity to meet other scientists who share our research interests. Certainly, the opportunity to present a poster at a scientific meeting is a valuable one. What steps did we take to ensure that we would get the most out of this opportunity?

Our work started months earlier, when we submitted abstracts for the meeting and secured funding for travel expenses. Host universities - the institutions where we each did our research - paid most student expenses. Many universities offer such grants to students who wish to present at scientific meetings. If you worked in the summer for a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU) program, you may be able to get a small amount of funding from them, as well.

You'll need at least a week to work on your poster. Initially, you must decide if you want a one-sheet poster or a poster composed of many small sheets. A one-sheet poster is quick and easy to set up before the poster session. At the ACS meeting, the student next to me put up his poster in less than five minutes with four pushpins, while I struggled for 20 minutes to perfectly align 12 sheets on my display space. One the other hand, a one-sheet poster is awkward to bring on a plane. One of the students in our group used a fishing pole tube to bring hers to Florida. Also, when you create a one-sheet poster, you need to make sure it will fit the allotted space. Posters that hung over the edges of the displays looked sloppy and posters too small for the display wasted valuable space. Additionally, a one-sheet poster must be reprinted every time you want to add data to it or make changes.

There are several advantages to a poster composed of many separate sheets. For one, you can print on the paper of your choice. Many of the most attractive posters used glossy paper or paper with colorful (but muted) backgrounds. Also, a multi-sheet poster allows for flexibility. I made my poster using Microsoft's PowerPoint, which allowed me to easily insert slides made by other members of my research group. Upon my return, my professor and other group members could use my slides in their own presentations. In addition, I converted the same slides into an oral PowerPoint presentation two days after the ACS meeting. One drawback of the multi-sheet format is that the white sheets can't just be tacked to the background, or the poster looks sloppy. Backing the white sheets with a bit of colored paper makes the poster look more polished.

When creating the content of the poster, put your text in large letters and in bulleted points. Tell as much of your story as possible through pictures. Text and titles should be big enough so a person can read them from a distance, and the main title should be as large as possible. The title is what people look at as they decide whether to stop at your poster or to keep walking, so make it big. Demonstrating that your work is novel is especially important at an undergraduate poster session, where you will draw more attention to your research.

The basic sections should be an introduction, which can be several slides long if you have helpful, descriptive graphics, a description of your methods, a summary of your results, and your conclusions. A section listing new research questions raised by your work will demonstrate your thought about the implications of your results and that you have a plan for the future of your project. Always include acknowledgements and funding sources at the end of your poster. Mention the other members of your research group, and any people who shared their time or equipment with you.

When you present your poster, bring along your own supply of pushpins. Chances are that either the pushpins provided by the meeting will be too short to hold your poster up, or that the meeting will run out of them. I brought some 1" long map flags (Acco Map Flags, stock #72197), which are about two times the length of regular pushpins. After putting months or years of work into your research and weeks of work into your poster, the last thing you want is for your poster to be ruined because of bad pushpins!

You'll want to mentally prepare yourself for the poster session. Before the session starts, prepare about a two minute summary of your poster for the person who comes up and says, "So... what's this all about?" Be sure to practice it out loud before the session. Also, prepare a handful of cards with your name, institution, project title, and email address to hand out to people who want more information about your work. Use business card stock paper for these cards.

Once the poster session starts, make eye contact with people who seem interested in your poster, and encourage people to ask questions. Your goal is to gain experience presenting your work to a critical scientific audience. If you stand like a statue in front of your poster and avoid eye contact, you're missing out on the experience.

Even after you've packed up for the day, you have one crucial task left: Be sure to write thank-you notes to whoever paid your way. After the poster session, our group of student researchers went to dinner and talked about the conversations we had and the things we learned.

Poster presentations are special because the presenter can speak with a small group of interested people. While oral presentations may be more glamorous and get a higher billing in the meeting program, they lack the opportunity for the in-depth discussions possible at a poster session.


Suggested Reading

The University at Buffalo's Science and Engineering Library has an extensive website on designing effective poster presentations. It includes sample posters, links to other online resources, and an extensive list of books with poster-making advice.

The University of Kansas Medical Center has created an online tutorial with guidelines for making effective presentations. Oral, poster, and paper presentations are all included. The link to a web page on "How to Give a Bad Talk" is also of interest.

JYI has received funding support from several sources, including the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the National Science Foundation, and Duke University.
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