What makes a memorable poster, or, when should you water your flowers?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Being out of the lab, out of science, and out of funding for a while also means that I have not been at a scientific conference for a few years now, not even my favourite meeting of the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms. I have missed the last two meetings (and I really miss them - they are a blast!).

But it is funny how, many years later, one still remembers some posters from poster sessions. What makes a poster so memorable?

I guess it has something to do with one's interests - there is just not enough time during a session to check out every single one out of hundreds (or thousands) of posters.

So, at the beginning of each session (unless I had a poster of my own), I'd get myself a glass of wine and, checking my pre-marked catalog, march to see the three posters (or less) on clocks in quail, followed by another three on other bird species. After looking at those with full attention, I'd go and check out some other posters, on lizards, frogs, fish and insects, on seasonality, sex differences and sex steroids, on behavior, ecology and evolution. I'd stop by my friends' posters and see what they've been up to since the last time I saw them.

By the time the session is over I'd realize (and not really care much about it) that I have missed most of the molecular and medical posters, most of the posters on fruitflies, rats, mice and humans, as well as all the math modelling and software/methodology stuff.

But even apart from one's own interests, there are some posters that remain forever in one's memory. I tried to think what was it about those particular posters that made them so memorable to me and to see if any general rules can be drawn out of them.

Exhibit 1.

Back in 1998, I will never forget the pair of posters from the same lab, showing a temporary loss of circadian rhythmicity in arctic ptarmigans and in reindeer (I have written a post about the reindeer study when it finally came out in Nature several years later). What was so special about those?

First, they answered a very old question that the pioneers of chronobiology (e.g.,. Pittendright and Aschoff) asked back in the 1950s. Answering long-standing questions of the field are always exciting.

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Second, they forced textbooks to modify the statement that all animals at all times display circadian rhythms. A little dogma-busting is always exciting.

Third, the question was behavioral/ecological/evolutionary, which is inherently interesting, and even more so considering how few people in the field bother themselves with such questions - thus it was a rare ultimate poster ina sea of proximate posters.

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Fourth, they did their research in unusual animal models - charismatic megafauna, which is always eye-catching in an ocean of mouse and rat studies.

Finally, they did their work in the field, out in the Arctic, so they endured physical hardships in order to get the data. They had to figure out how to deal with a novel situation and modify the equipment and experimental protocols accordingly. This was not just another Southern blot. This was creative and almost heroic. There was something old-timey and sentimental about their work - how many people wish they could do something that exciting instead of pipetting 13 hours every day?

Exhibit 2.

From the 2000 meeting, I remember a poster mainly for its cool title: "It's ZT13 - Do you know where your hamsters are?". Everyone was talking about it - and not just because the title was funny.

ZT13 is the time during the light-dark cycle which is 13 hours after the lights-on (or dawn). Usually, animals are held in LD12:12 (12 hours of light, 12 hours of dark), so ZT13 is also the time just one hour after the lights-off (or dusk). Hamsters, being nocturnal, are supposed to be at their most active at that time, running in their wheels like crazy. But, what this poster showed was that a particular strain of commercially available strain, a very popular strain, is not active at ZT13 - they start running in their wheels a little later during the night.

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This was very important because many molecular chronobiologists do not continuously monitor circadian outputs in their animals. They go by the old literature that says that hamsters are active at ZT13 (and inactive at ZT2), so they take their samples at those times and hope for the best. This poster forced everyone to check back on all the literature on this strain and re-evaluate the findings. Was gene expression or neurotransmiter activity level related to time of day or to activity levels? You could not know without continuous monitoring of hamster activity. That was a big warning and wake-up call to the molecular folks that 'animals matter'.

Exhibit 3.

Back to 1998, nobody can forget a trio of posters by Gerta and Gunther Fleissner. At the time when most posters were made by gluing pieces of paper onto cardboard (like I did that year), they showed everyone the full potential of PowerPoint. Their three posters were big, colorful and eye-catching, yet tastefully done. Those three posters were a big advertisment for PowerPoint, after which everyone in the field changed their technique.

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Once you cannot help but not notice the posters, you come closer to see what they are all about. Then, you remember that the Fleissners are the Grand Masters of histology, microscopy and scientific photography. Every image you saw made you gasp for its sheer beauty. Then it made you gasp again because you realized how clearly each answered one of the old, long-standing questions in the field.

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Then, of course, you get drawn into the conversation with Greta and/or Gunther, both of whom are wonderful people who really know how to make their research exciting. So, in the end, you realized that you have missed pretty much the whole poster session because you spent an hour in front of each of their three posters.

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It helped also that each of the three posters was on different and unusual animals. The first, and the most exciting one in terms of pure science, was about scorpions. The second was about circadian clocks in beetles and the third was about applications of chronobiology and photobiology in improving physical, mental and reproductive health of animals kept in zoos. Who could forget the actograph showing how quickly a change in the light-dark cycle made a kiwi lay an egg?

Exhibit 4.

It's been more than a decade now since we realized that melatonin is not just a vertebrate hormone. We now know that melatonin is found in most invertebrates, fungi, plants and protists! There is quite a lot of work going right now trying to figure out what is the function of melatonin in plants.

But back in 2000, that was still quite new. What current research often forgets is how chemically similar melatonin is to the plant hormone auxin. Both are derivatives of tryptophan.
Auxin is actually not a single chemical but a generic name for a mix of realted hormones:
So, in those old days, Kent Edmonds (who was a postdoc in our lab when I just joined, was great help in showing me the ropes around the lab and around being a grad student, and we even co-authored a paper later on), had an idea. He got a couple of undergraduates and did a ...not a cross-species, but a cross-Kingdom experiment! Now, that is rare! And eye-turning. And exciting!

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They gave either auxin or melatonin or control to mammals (rice rat, Oryzomys palustris), and they gave either auxin or melatonin or control to plants (Arabidopsis and Coleus). What they found was that auxin has a similar effect to melatonin in rats - anti-gonadal (e.g., it shrinks the testes because it is a marker of non-reproductive season) - yet not as strong as melatonin itself.

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Likewise, melatonin had a similar effect to auxin in plants - promoting growth. The results taken together pose a question (which I do not see adressed in more recent literature) that melatonin in plants may work as auxin and may actually be a by-product, or even a mistake, in the biochemical pathway of auxin production.

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Kent, being a chronobiologist, thus understanding the importance of timing, first did a pilot experiment, checking if the timing of application of the treatments had an effect on the results. And sure it did - watering the plants, and it does not matter if it is pure water, a solution of vehicle, auxin or melatonin - results in faster and greater growth of plants if it is done in the morning than at any other time of day or night. Since this was done in the laboratory with constant temperature, Sun-induced evaporation was not a factor.

So, what do you learn at a scientific conference? Water your flowers in the morning.

Are there any pointers one could take from my examples above? Perhaps...

- make your poster eye-catching. Make sure it is noticeable from the distance. Use a different format, technology and color-scheme from everyone else.
- make your visuals stunning. Put great pictures and photos on the poster. Make a cool drawing of your model. Use cartoons. Instead of a bar-graph see if you can use a novel or unusual way to show your data. Bring a lap-top and include a multimedia presentation with your poster. Glue a vial of fruitflies to your poster.
- make a catchy title. Something funny or punny. Short and sweet. Huge letters. Exclamation points and question marks.
- tackle big questions. Or old, well-known, yet still unresolved questions. Or quirky, novel questions. Nobody remembers yet another molecule in an old pathway.
- use different model organisms. More unusual the organism, more memorable the work. Instead of being a 1000000th mouse estrogen receptor person, be the ONLY platypus person in the field. Unscoopable. Unforgettable. Indispensible for planning meetings and plenary talks.
- use different techniques and approaches. Creativity is well-regarded.
- be in a minority. If everyone is proximate, be ultimate and vice versa. If everyone is medical, be evolutionary, and vice versa.
- trigger sentimental feelings. Everyone got into science by reading about heros from the past (Darwin, for instance), but very few can do science the way it was done in the 19th century. See if you can mimic that style. Personal courage also pays off (as in doing physically dangerousm difficult or exhausting research).

Anything else?

OK, anyone else has memorable posters to write about?


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