Four Things Every Science Communicator Dreads about Conference Posters (and how to avoid the things!)

I have a deep, dark, shameful secret to admit—poster sessions at conferences make me cringe. There, I said it.

It’s not actually the sessions that bother me—I think they provide an opportunity to have one-on-conversations with colleagues and prospective collaborators, all while partaking in (hopefully free) booze and greasy snacks.

No, it’s the posters themselves that make my science communicator heart sad. When did it become the norm for posters to have infinitely small text, ridiculously jargony language, and obscenely dull visuals? Why isn’t anyone making use of the many at-your-fingertips editing and design apps to jazz up their posters these days? Who are those people taking time to actually read any of these wall-mounted journal articles? They must be angels.

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“Look how much fun we’re having designing this conference poster!” said no grad student ever….until now.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve walked past a poster that grabbed my attention and reeled me in for a closer read, and one of those times was because the poster was about manatees—my all-time favorite ocean animal. But the other times were posters that used an eye-catching design, graphics, and images, and more importantly didn’t include superfluous text. Most other posters look like they’ve downloaded their template straight from the PowerPoint starter pack:

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I think that all conference posters should be, nay deserve to be, eye-catching and creative. I don’t really blame the poster authors for the current state of blandness. Most of us are just following advice, templates, or examples from senior members of our field, assuming that a conference poster has to follow a specific set of poster-design commandments passed down through the ages. Poster sessions have become as standard as talks at scientific conferences, and the ‘poster presentation’ is a rite of passage for most graduate students.

But guess what? There are no poster commandments. And the budding young scientists rejoiced.

There are recommendations and guidelines for conference posters, but almost no conference committee requires that a poster be designed to look exactly like a scientific paper smooshed all onto one page. It’s true! Release the shackles. I looked up poster guidelines for several of the largest science conferences in my field, and not one of them prescribed a strict template. In fact, most stressed that less text and more visuals were preferred, and that posters should be used to spark conversation, not summarize your work in full detail.

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Here are some scientists rejoicing in the knowledge that they never have to use PowerPoint Template #3 again to design a conference poster.

Here are three examples of poster guidelines I found on conference websites:

The American Geological Union (AGU) states, “Include the background of your research followed by results and conclusions. A successful poster presentation depends on how well you convey information to an interested audience.”

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC): “Text should be limited to brief statements. Each poster should make a unified, coherent explanation of your work. Materials, both textual and visual, should be of professional quality and clearly legible from a distance.”

Ecological Society of America (ESA): The only specific poster guidelines listed on the ESA website are related to poster size dimensions.

So why aren’t more scientists breaking free from the standard PowerPoint three column poster template? It may be fear of breaking an unwritten norm and losing esteem in the eyes of their colleagues. Or it could be they just don’t realize that they have nearly a blank slate upon which to slather creativity and novelty. Either way, in the hopes of encouraging at least a few future poster presenters out there to consider changing it up, I’ve created a list of five things to avoid when making a conference poster, and what you can do instead. This isn’t an exhaustive list of pointers for designing a good poster—there are plenty of sites out there with that kind of information (like this, this, or this). My list is more about hacking away at the wretched habits of generations of boring posters, and moving into an era free from (okay, at least less dominated by) columns and boxes.

If you consider these four points the next time you are tempted to default to that icky PowerPoint template, your local science communicator will thank you, and may just give you a big grateful hug. And if you need help with a design, don’t be afraid to reach out to the #scicomm community!

Alright, without further ado, here are four  conference poster no-no’s according to a scientist turned science communicator:

1. Text, text and more text.

Your poster doesn’t need to describe every detail about your research. That’s what the interaction at poster sessions is for—the talk with other people about your work. Focus on the broader context and importance of your research, rely more on visuals, and provide your contact info so interested folks can contact you if they want to know more. A viewer should “get it” in 30 seconds. You can provide in-depth information in a handout.

A good rule of thumb I’ve seen is that if you removed all the body text from your poster, your visuals should still be able to tell a story. If you’re really feeling bold, do away with paragraphs all together! Just use dot points and key phrases that people can easily follow. Also, try to keep 40% of the poster area empty of text and images. I would also love to see more posters with titles that I can understand without needing five PhDs (one is enough for me, thanks!). Simple language does not mean less scientifically sound.

Here’s some inspiration:

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This poster uses key highlights and large visuals to tell a clear, engaging story without much text.

 

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Brief text, large and interesting visuals, and contrasting colors really draw the eye to this poster.

2. Boring boxes in boring columns in boring colors.

While you don’t want your reader to be confused about how to follow the story you present on your poster, there is no law stating you have to use 3 columns with one box for each section and the standard Microsoft color scheme. There just isn’t. You can still organize your points from top to bottom and left to right, or by separating text using boxes in some cases, but you can do this and still make an interesting design. Think infographic instead of scientific poster.

Here are some examples:

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You can take a slightly unconventional approach to poster design and still get your points across clearly with a little creativity.
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This poster takes a bit more of an infographic approach to explain their research activities.

3. Low quality images that look like pixelated blobs.

Okay, so you’ve thrown a bunch of images on your poster to take the place of the text, but you failed to consider whether they were high enough resolution, or whether anyone would be able to tell that that pixelated bunch of brown cells is actually a soil sample under a microscope. Instead, make sure to use high quality images (check the file size and resolution), crop as necessary to focus on key parts of the image, and try to use photos that have contrasting colors or clear features that enhance your research story. Do you study wombats or pitcher plants or tardigrades? Use several awesome photos of them on your poster! Even if you study something less glamorous or more abstract, use drawings, cartoons, or photos of the habitat/region you study that draw attention to your topic, like this poster:

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This poster uses a fairly standard layout, but with minimal text (yay dot points!), and lots of helpful visuals that enhance the research story. Evidence that you don’t have to go full rogue to make a better poster.

4. Complicated figures that make people run away scared.

Similar to using bad images, bad figures negate the point of using visuals in your poster. I know it takes added time and effort, but I beg of you to simplify graphs, charts, or other figures so that they are easily interpreted in under 10 seconds. Again, you want people to ask you questions. While you’re at it, make sure they are high enough resolution to read clearly at full size. Don’t just plop a big graph on your poster to take up space and reduce your need to come up with descriptive text. Instead, highlight just the most important or interesting outcomes of your research, and leave your readers wanting more.

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This was a poster featured on betterposters.blogspot.com, and while they gave some advice on how to improve some of the layout choices, the author did a good job of keeping things simple, putting the results up front and center with simple visuals, and even making a question box for people to leave comments.

Do you have other suggestions or thoughts about conference poster design and presentation? Leave them in the comments below!

BTW, here’s an Infographic version with the 4 poster No-No’s for those who want a way less wordy version!

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Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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The most AMAZING story you’ll ever read! (A.K.A., the concerning rise of Click-Baiting and sensational “science”)

www.cartoonsbyjim.com
http://www.cartoonsbyjim.com

Social media can be a catalyst for spreading awareness about scientific and environmental issues, and in some cases can help affect positive change. But for every link posted that actually leads to a valid, well-researched story, there are a dozen more that MIS-lead you to some nonsense article, or worse—a sensationalized, one-sided, often poorly-researched story thinly veiled as ‘scientific’.

Let me disclose my own perspective from the start: I trust the evidence showing that climate change is happening, and that CO2 and methane from human-caused activity is a huge contributor. I am skeptical that corporations generally have the best interests of society or the environment at heart, and I realize that government is not always transparent or just—regardless of which party is in control. However, I am also not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact believe that conspiracy theorists tend to draw attention away from some of the most pressing issues affecting the world.

While I know that human knowledge is still very limited, and our view of the universe is naturally incomplete, there are methods we can use to improve our understanding—and then of course there are methods some people use to obfuscate that understanding. As a trained scientist, I am wary of explanations that lack credible evidence (or use faulty evidence) to back them up. Each time we read a scientific story, we should be asking ourselves about the credibility of information we receive—what are the credentials and reputation of the source, what evidence does the source cite, and does the source consider multiple perspectives and valid references?

As a communicator, I am particularly sensitive to journalists, writers, or bloggers who display unacknowledged bias or inaccuracy in their reporting of scientific issues. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I endorse any particular information source; but irresponsible scientific writing ends up burning more bridges between the public and science in a time when scientific understanding is more critical than ever.

Climate change denialism (like vaccination controversy) has been addressed effectively by hundreds of scientists and communicators, so I won’t spend time here discussing the ways that climate change science has been cherry-picked or misrepresented by people either not well-versed in science or actively trying to distort it. Instead, I’ll provide a few other examples of troublesome reporting.

Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species  in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.
Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.

Frankensquito or Insect Savior?

A smaller—but no less controversial—story popping up in news media lately is the development and release of genetically modified mosquitos to help combat mosquito-borne diseases. I won’t go into the details about their development, here but you can read more about the technology by googling, or in the articles I link to below.

GMOs typically refer to modified crops like soybeans and corn, but more and more research labs are toying with genetically modified insects and animals. I am wary of genetically modified crops for a number of reasons—the unscrupulous purposes of their creation, their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and their detrimental social-economic impacts to small farmers. However, it would be unfair, and extremely ideological, for me to render every single GMO as evil without considering multiple perspectives.

Even for those GMOs that I oppose, such as GM soy, I must acknowledge that we don’t fully know how harmful these crops will ultimately be to our bodies or the environment compared to conventional crops. GMOs developed by academic or independent institutions (as opposed to agro-corporations) may actually provide some human or environmental benefit that outweighs risks or harms.

So what about these genetically modified mosquitos? Depending on which media source you look to, the mosquitos are either dangerous mutants who will lead the apocalypse, or they are angelic saviors in the plight against deadly disease. Of course, neither of these depictions is completely accurate, but the concept that GM mosquitos are just one more, somewhat successful but limited attempt to control vector-borne disease is not a newsworthy headline.

The click-bait culture has fed into sensationalized media, enticing people to click on extreme headlines that never live up to their hype when you actually read the story. It still doesn’t keep people from clicking on the links, however. And while clicking is harmless, when links begin to spread from reader to reader via social media, a highly distorted viewpoint can reach epic proportions.

One such story from the site Collective Evolution talks about the potential release of GM mosquitos in Florida, arguing that these mosquitos may spread their genetically-modified DNA to humans, that their populations may eventually get out of control, and the diseases they carry are not even that dangerous or prevalent. All of these points are partially valid, but have been purposely slanted or stretched beyond scientific fact. The article does site some references, but many of them are from sources with well-known biases or controversies themselves.

On the other hand, NPR published an article about the mosquitos that projects a very benign, almost positive slant, providing arguments and facts not mentioned by Collective Evolution, but also not delving into much about the risks of GMOs. On the other extreme, an author from Discovery Magazine attempts to squash all fears about the mosquitos point by point, arguing that protests against their release are ignorant fear-mongering. Another pithy author took this approach to the issue in the Washington Post.

A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.
A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.

There are more than 50 Shades of Gray—metaphorically speaking

As with any issue where science meets society, there are many nuances to the GM mosquito story, only some of which are discussed in any one news article. This is not a clear black/white, good/bad issue. The decision to release these mosquitos or not is contingent on particular societal values at a given time.

Some things to consider: the mosquitos being targeted are not native to Florida, so eradicating them (or reducing their numbers) would not necessarily be a disruption to native fauna and flora. The diseases the invasive mosquitos carry, while not widespread in the U.S. at this time, are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm. The same mosquitos have been released in other cities around the world with great success, and no recorded harm, resulting in reduced rates of disease. The current method of controlling these mosquitos is with tons of pesticides—not exactly a healthy alternative. However, there have been many cases of biological releases gone wrong, so this is not a fail-safe procedure.

Would you rather be exposed to pesticides or take antibiotics rather than GM mosquitos? Do you fear GM technology more than tropical diseases? How you feel about these various trade-offs will color how you interpret the issue, and the media provides additional filters. My main point is just to be aware of your own biases as you react to any scientific story—while your viewpoint may remain the same, understanding how you construct your perspective is a valuable thought-experiment that can help you build tolerance and openness to other perspectives.

Our world is a mix of cultural relativism, objective external reality, and subjective reactions to that reality. Cultivating a greater awareness of what you read, and what you share with others, will help us as a society to expand our consciousness and be more thoughtful about how we co-exist in the world.