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Why the humble poster session is here to stay. We hear from two poster presenters at FENS.

The scientific poster session has been around since at least the 1970s. One science historian places its origins in meetings of biochemists and physicists back in the late sixties.

 photo LS posters

Today, poster sessions – scheduled en masse in cavernous exhibit halls – are frequently where the real action happens at scientific conferences. Unlike symposia, where lab PIs formally represent work done by the team, posters are where research methods and findings are explained and defended by first authors; those who did the heaviest lifting back at the lab. Here we offer two first-person experiences by poster session presenters at the recent FENS Forum of Neuroscience.

The Up Side of “Negative” Feedback

Chiara Varazzani, PhD Candidate, ICM – Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière, Paris France

The recent FENS Forum taught me as much about others’ research as it did about my own. Taking part in the outstanding symposia allowed me to learn from scientists who are currently defining my field and the opportunity to present a scientific poster revealed new insights into my research project.

We are currently working on the respective roles of dopamine and noradrenaline in motivational processes by recording the electrical activity of monkeys’ neurons in two key structures of the brain, namely the Subtantia Nigra and the Locus Coeruleus.

Sharing my results at the FENS forum made me realize the benefits (and limitations) of using classical model-based statistical tools, and helped me get more familiar with the process of taking my ideas through to publication.

In particular, several colleagues did not see eye to eye on the conclusions I drew from my results, challenging the delicate flow from hypothesis to deduction. I presented this work at four international meetings over my first two Ph.D. years and positive feedback has been important at the very beginning by increasing my confidence and my commitment to my work.

chaira original

However, we are now close to completing this research project and “negative” feedbacks are certainly the most informative and stimulating remarks in this phase. I find that the criticisms I received during my poster presentation just give me the information I need to take my performance to the next level by pointing out where I need to spend my effort.

Chiara Varazzani

The “Heart of Science”

Steffen Wolff, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Ölveczky Lab Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

After Geneva and Barcelona, Milano was my third FENS. FENS is a must for me – for the science, but also for so much more. I came to Milano just two weeks after starting my postdoc with Bence Ölveczky at Harvard University, working on motor learning. This might seem early, but for me keeping in touch with European neuroscience is essential, and it was a great opportunity for a first glimpse into motor learning and to meet people in the field. But to get most out of FENS, I really wanted to present my own research.

Obviously, I had no results from my postdoc, yet. Therefore, I presented my PhD work with Andreas Lüthi in Basel, Switzerland, on the role of distinct types of amygdala interneurons in fear learning. I was unsure what to expect since my work had been recently published in Nature. But I got an amazing reception.

 poster 2

While fixing the last piece of sticky tape, I was already asked for a tour! An unbroken stream of visitors followed – sometimes one at a time, sometimes groups in three rows. People with specific questions to the paper mixed with others who were just curious. These different angles and diverse questions triggered stimulating discussions.

Talks or papers are great to share your research, but presenting a poster is a much more direct interaction. No matter if it’s one person or a crowd, you explain, they ask, you see their faces – agreeing, interested, nodding, critical or puzzled – and you react. You repeat, stress a point or engage into a discussion. Presenting a poster is also rewarding – you may get a hint, a piece of advice or ideas – or you realize flaws and missing pieces.

Finally – discussing your results with other scientists is at the very heart of science – science depends on interactions and exchange of ideas In the end, the new thoughts and criticisms you get [presenting a poster session] will help you with refining your project and eventually writing and publishing a paper.

It is absolutely crucial that your paper submission is not the first time other scientists think about your project!

Steffen Wolff

How does your experience compare?

If you’ve had a similar (or diametrically opposite) experience as a poster presenter that you’d like to share, please leave a comment below or email a post (300 to 500 words) to If you prefer to share your thoughts via Twitter, be sure to subscribe to the PLOS Neuro Twitter list and use the hashtag #sciposter to chat about this topic.

  1. Than you for sharing this interesting piece. As a Director of Research Communication I’ve had the opportunity to attend many poster sessions. I’m not a Ph.D. scientist, so maybe I’m not the intended audience – but I think that many researchers may be missing out on interesting engagement opportunities by creating posters that leave people asking ‘what’s the point?’

    I can certainly see the value of highly technical posters in poster sessions when the goal is for individuals in the same field of study to share work with each other. They all understand the jargon and concepts. But what about the instances when poster sessions are interdisciplinary. If you have a biomedical engineer presenting next to someone from the earth and atmospheric sciences department, will they understand enough about the poster content to see opportunities for collaboration? …or will those opportunities be missed?

    Then there are people like me…and business people…and administrators…and so on. I look at a poster like the ones shown above and my eyes glaze over. Admittedly, I may not be the intended audience – but what if the messaging was clear enough so that even I could understand the research being presented? I might see it as a potential news release. I may also know of others on campus (or even off) working on similar problems who could be collaborators. I may know of potential sponsors who would be interested in hearing more about the work.

    I say all this to get us thinking about the value of messaging. I don’t think a slick headline with a giant photo and three bullets is the answer, but presenting the work so it’s at least little bit easier for everyone to understand could be valuable. …maybe then, we wouldn’t ever have to ask ‘what’s the point’.

  2. Great comments, Kirk.
    As a media and communications skills trainer I’ve conducted numerous “Poster Presentation” training sessions with world-class researchers and physicians, and although a “slick headline and a giant photo” are a tad over the top, the three simple bullet points are a really good idea.
    Refining a poster’s key messages into simple language and communicating them effectively is a learned skill and it takes specialized training and practice, but it brings an important level of comfort and confidence to a poster presenter. And when a presenter is comfortable and can make the science understandable to the rest of us… journalists, business types, investors…well, that is how studies get attention.

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