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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 2, 2010

Posters and Pickiness

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Posted by Derek

Blogging time is short today, since I'm on a deadline to produce a couple of posters for presentation. These are for an internal hoe-down, unfortunately, so I won't be able to share the fruits of my labors with everyone out there in the readership. With any luck, though, they'll turn into public presentations/publications eventually, though.

As far as I'm concerned, posters are quite a bit harder to work up than a talk. They really should stand by themselves, for one thing, so you can't fill in any holes verbally. And narrative flow is harder: there's no chance to go back and re-emphasize or contrast with later slides, because the whole thing is sitting out there, with no guarantee of what order people will use to see its parts. (I find that narrative is one of my main weapons in a presentation, so going without it is always tough).

I care about design, too, probably more than I should, so a poster also presents complications there. If visual cues wander a bit from slide to slide through a presentation, that's not good, but it's not fatal, either. But when everything's up there on one sheet, the messages really have to be consistent: same fonts, same colors, same rotations, views, and angles, etc.

But at these times I try to remind myself of what happened to a friend of mine many years ago. She was working on a poster for an ACS meeting, and took it to her PI to look over. "Yes, yes, that looks good", came the word, "but could you perhaps take this part over to here? And emphasize this a bit more? And. . ." So she went back and made the changes, and took the poster back for a re-check. "Much better! Yes. . .but I wonder if maybe this part should be bigger? And did you find a way to include those results where. . ." Back for another round.

After another iteration of this, she caught on. She started taking an unchanged version back to the PI, and after another couple of rounds of seeing the exact same poster, it was finally pronounced ready for viewing. Saves time, saves effort - try it when you can!

Comments (23) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | The Scientific Literature


1. Tok on September 2, 2010 8:57 AM writes...

Hmm... I thought it was more critical to have everything as consistent as possible in a presentation. If an audience member has to spend even 5 seconds doing mental gymnastics to figure out how a structure relates to the previous slide, you've lost them. With a poster, if someone is momentarily confused, they can take a few seconds to work it out.

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2. bigredbruce on September 2, 2010 9:27 AM writes...

It's a time honored technique often used with marketing plans whereby you basically dust off last year's with a few additions. I've always wondered if I couldn't just stick a sheaf of blank pages in the middle to give it appropriate heft - since I've seen little evidence that anyone actually reads. I tend to use a more spreadsheet/project oriented version to actually implement & track. Too bad you don't get more direct design support - I find lots of scientists get into the design aspect but it wastes lots of time & graphics groups can do it a lot faster/better if available to you.

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3. Ed on September 2, 2010 9:28 AM writes...

Derek, I think it unlikely that you care too much about design - rather the overwhelming majority of posters are horribly under-designed.

Take a guess at how many of your colleagues know what the acroynm C-R-A-P means, and you begin to understand why your average poster is such an unappealing prospect of multi-color day-glo nastiness.

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4. Petros on September 2, 2010 9:42 AM writes...

I think it helps when the meeting defines a standar size for posters and insists on a single large sheet being pinned up. Over the years I've seen all sorts including 2 sheets of A4 typescript (normal size font)- an academic's excuse to attend the meeting

Too much detail crowds it while too much data can give information overload, especially when there are no handouts to study and its busy at the poster board

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5. AR on September 2, 2010 10:01 AM writes...

Off this subject a bit, but I recall when I was an inexperience study monitor in Drug Safety, an seasoned pro told me he was so discouraged at the rubber stamps on reports from upper managers (who only focused on the summary, in case you are wondering) that he wrote this sentence into the body of the report:

If you read this sentence I will give you $50.00.

Four reviewers later he kept his money. I often wonder if that sentence made it into an IND?

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6. CMCguy on September 2, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

Rather than taking back an unchanged version the better trick is to provide an older edition and see if any of the same changes come out again. I recall several times in my thesis where iterative reviews generated cycles in text that often ended where they started. I am glad at least by the time I wrote up that I had a home computer for managing textual edits and more critically creating/changing structures. In the early 80s overlapped the transition from using typewriters and drafting/rub-out symbols which was much more difficult to modify and correct.

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7. Anon on September 2, 2010 10:39 AM writes...

If someone tried that trick with me, to show the same thing repeated times, they would be told not to do it again or it would show up in their year end performance review.

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8. Virgil on September 2, 2010 10:49 AM writes...

Story of the student/advisor reminds me of a similar experience in a restaurant, while working the tables...

Customer (who was male and in the company of a very attractive much younger female) asked for his steak "blue". This is a kind of macho "who can eat the rawest meat" thing. Upon delivery of steak to the table, he exclaimed it was overdone, and wanted a replacement I took it back to the kitchen. Chef said "give it here", and promptly put it back on the grill for another couple of minutes. Steak went back out to the table more cooked than before. Customer ate it and liked it. No idea if the girl was impressed.

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9. Evorich on September 2, 2010 11:05 AM writes...

I tend to find that the method that works best, as a PI, is to pull your finger out of your ass and make the changes yourself, then send it back to the person and say "here, you're ready to go".

Why some people trying so hard to get themselves into a Dilbert cartoon?!

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10. CRH on September 2, 2010 12:10 PM writes...


So, you advocate, NOT allowing your students to do the presentation themselves? You, as the PI, should have to do everything? How is that helping your students? It has nothing to do with "pulling your finger out of your ass", but everything to do with you must be pleasant to work for.

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11. AT on September 2, 2010 1:27 PM writes...

Going to a sidetrack for a while here, but what software do you use to make your posters?

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12. LNR on September 2, 2010 1:58 PM writes...

That woman must have worked for my PI. A lifetime ago, a friend was trying to get subsidized bus fares for students at a university. Wrote 5 pages of nice cover, put it on top of a ream of blank paper, and the subsidies were approved. Good thing my friend didn’t have to present a poster.

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13. J-bone on September 2, 2010 2:48 PM writes...

AT, the way we did it at my grad school was to make a single Powerpoint slide. When it looked the way we wanted we'd change the dimensions to poster size (48" x 36", I think).

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14. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on September 2, 2010 4:19 PM writes...

Who besides undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, and early-career bench scientists, wastes their time with poster presentations? I for one have always (always!) hated poster sessions. Crowded, lots of mediocre results, really bad wine, and warm cheese. I remember one ACS meeting (Anaheim, 1992 I think) where a poster session was actually held in a parking garage. That was the final straw!

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15. DrSnowboard on September 3, 2010 3:25 AM writes...

Even in mediacre pharma, we still do it by powerpoint slide, but best to have it at full size to start with unless you want your graphics to look like aliased crayon drawings.
Find someone with a template and use that, starting from scratch is a pain.

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16. RB Woodweird on September 3, 2010 6:18 AM writes...

Back in the days when I worked for a large company whose name was French, we had to send off our poster material to a company-approved shop down near Global HQ so the resulting graphics, font, legal disclaimer wording, etc. would be uniform across the many SBUs. Of course, most people waited until the last minute to send it off and got back a huge tube the day before they were to fly off to the meeting. One always opened that tube with great trepidation, as the shop was filled with professional graphic artists but apparently no scientists. Sub and superscripts might come and go, symbols get swapped out, etc.

Even though we are no longer part of that company, we still find the occasional poster rolled up in the corner. They cost so much and look so spiffy that it is hard to dispose of them.

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17. London Chemist on September 3, 2010 6:19 AM writes...

Briefest poster I ever saw: BOSS '92 (I think). One piece of a spiral bound note pad, two structures (hand drawn) and highlighter pen to show the transformation. From a Russian University, if I remember correctly.
Anybody beat that? (No shows don't count!)

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18. Virgil on September 3, 2010 7:58 AM writes...

@11 AT:

We use powerpoint, but by far the biggest PITA of all is carrying the damn things on a plane to/from a meeting. One key trick I learned is to make the poster with a natural break-point half way down the page (you can even draw a feint line there) - just fold it down the line and it won't disrupt any of the text/figures, plus it'll now fit in an 18" tube which is small enough for your hand luggage. Nothing worse than lugging a 4 ft tube on the subway or leaving it in a taxi.

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19. MedResearcher on September 3, 2010 3:49 PM writes...

Another vote here for Powerpoint on one slide, as the spiffiest means to lay out a one piece poster.

In the biologic sciences, I have always gotten more thorough feedback in discussions at poster sessions, than from any commentary related to an oral presentation. Poster sessions are also reasonable places for more established faculty to see promising [and not-so-promising] post-docs on display.

As the PI of student doing a poster for the first time, if he/she gets pretty close, I tell he/she what I am doing, why I am doing it, and willingly supply the final touches to save everyone time.

When the student can't finish the next one without help, it's a pretty clear message to me that I've got to teach the task better.

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20. Cialisize_me on September 3, 2010 6:05 PM writes...

My personal pet peeve, poster-wise:
When a poster has too many words. I won't sit and read 5 pages of text. Bullet points, with large text, can get the main points across in a short time. Fewer words.

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21. srp on September 3, 2010 7:54 PM writes...

The reverse trick allegedly was pulled by Henry Kissenger when he ran a legendary NSC sweatshop under Nixon. A new guy would be assigned a report to write and get it back with "You can do better than this" scrawled on it in red. The terrified guy would pull an all-nighter and redo the whole thing. When Kissenger was handed the new version he would say "Now I'll read it."

I suppose that's one way to communicate standards of effort and quality.

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22. non-pharma chemist on September 5, 2010 6:18 PM writes...

All this poster session talk is bringing me back to grad school. An ambitious professor had established an in-house symposium where the students were "encouraged" to attend with a poster for a session before some invited speakers (who were actually some seriously good scientists). To try to gain a little more street cred the poster session was also open to outside applicants. All us arm-twisted gradkids wandered around checking out each other's posters for a bit but we all stopped cold at the classic montage of 8.5X11 pages - but in this case, scribbled over with rough cartoons. I'm going pretty far back, so the only one I can remember had a cross-section of a hill(?) with some kind of creature buried up to its neck, with a line coming out of its mouth going to an "O". The caption read something like "IT TRIES TO EAT THE DOUGHNUT, BUT IT CAN'T! BECAUSE IT'S BURIED IN SAND!" I seem to recall the rest of the cartoons were about nuclear power and some of the pages were just filled with looneytunes scrawl. Cue frightened grad students eating lunch in terror while some of our white knight professors distracted the obese, extremely talkative culprit who none of us had ever seen before. Who said poster sessions were boring?

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23. HappyDog on September 9, 2010 8:52 AM writes...


I had the exact same experience in graduate school. I was generating one of those archaic ORTEP plots for a small molecule crystal structures I'd solved. My PI kept asking things like: There are only three lines through eack ellipse. Can you make it five? Can you rotate it X degrees this way? Can you rotate it about Y degrees that way? Can you make the black a little darker? Can you make the white a bit whiter? All afternoon I worked on something else and carried the exact same figure back to him every half hour or so. After five hours he pronounced the 'edited' version suitable for publication. The rest of the lab and I had a good laugh over beer about that one.

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