A field guide to biomedical meeting creatures, part 2: Poster time!


Since I've started blogging, I notice things that I probably wouldn't have noticed before. I suspect it's because blogs are a voracious sink for writing and require feeding with a regular infusion of new ideas. Fortunately, the AACR Meeting provided a veritable cornucopia of ideas, and I even had the foresight to jot many of them down.

So it was at the session at which I was presenting a poster.

For those who don't know how poster sessions are run at such meetings, I'll give a little primer. First, you must understand the hierarchy of presentations at these meetings. The best abstracts get chosen for plenary session talks (like the one I was fortunate enough to be chosen to give last month, which partially inspired me to write this). Plenary sessions are often the only session going on at the time they occur, but even if other stuff is going on they are always the biggest sessions. The second best abstracts are chosen for smaller talks in smaller, parallel sessions. The third best are chosen to present posters. The fourth best are deposited in the circular file after a rejection letter is sent to the authors. Oh, there are variations, depending upon the size of the meeting. Because AACR is so big, there are in essence three different levels of parallel sessions called Symposia (bigger guns--but not Plenary Session big guns--giving talks), Mini-Symposia (usually graduate students, fellows, and junior faculty), and Poster Discussion sessions (basically a poster session in which the presenters are allowed to give a five minute talk). But they all break down into specific levels of prominence, a veritable pecking order, if you will.

My abstract happened to be chosen only for a poster session. (Ah, well, win a few, lose a few, I guess, given that I was just one notch above rejection.) Unlike some other meetings, that's not so bad a thing at AACR, for the simple reason that, at the AACR Meeting, it's quite rare for any but the heaviest of heavy hitters to be invited to give plenary talks. Heck, this year even Judah Folkman (my angiogenesis hero, whose work I'll write about sometime in the near future) and Max Wicha (I plan on writing about his work on breast cancer stem cells in a future post, along with a bit about of my skepticism about the concept) were giving talks at Symposia, rather than Plenary Sessions (although the organizers badly miscalculated how many people would want to see Max Wicha, even at 8 AM, leaving those of us who didn't get there 10 minutes early either standing along the walls or sitting on the floors straining to see the slides, much to the annoyance of many).

Poster sessions come in many shapes and sizes. At the core of all of them is the presentation of your data in a concise (an hopefully attractive) form on a poster, and during the session the presenters are expected to hang out by their posters for some period of time, in case attendees want to ask questions. At their best, poster sessions are a chance to schmooze with more prominent scientists, many of whom actually like to wander around and check out various posters. At their worst, they are a chance to stand or sit forlornly by your poster as sparse attendees wander by, briefly glancing blankly at it. In that aspect, they are not at all unlike high school dances. (Indeed, I've decided that I will never present a poster at one meeting in particular again because the sessions were so poorly attended and there was so little interest in anything of a basic science nature, like much of my work.) The AACR is amazing in that the poster sessions are absolutely enormous (just check out the pictures I posted along with this piece), and there are seven of them, each lasting four hours, one in the morning and one in the afternoon of every day of the conference except the last. There are easily several hundred posters per session in the biggest hall in the convention center, for a total of over 5,000 posters presented over the course of the meeting. Presenters are expected to stand by their posters for the first three hours of the session, which can get really boring really fast if you don't have a lot of traffic by your poster.

One of the potentially biggest bummers about taking part in a poster session occurs if you happen to be unlucky enough to be stationed next to a high traffic poster. I've had this happen to me a couple of times at AACR. You stand there, with no one looking at your poster, while an overflow crowd of 20+ people is milling around the poster next to you, bumping into you, giving you annoyed looks because you have the audacity to stand next to your own poster, blocking the spot that they wanted to use to look at the poster next to you! Fortunately, that didn't happen to me this year, but unfortunately the traffic by my poster was only moderate. It probably didn't help that I happened to have drawn a spot just north and east of Siberia, as far as the convention floor goes.

Like the types of questioners at scientific talks, there are different styles of poster presenters, which you will come to recognize rather quickly if you ever get the opportunity to present a poster. They include (but, of course, are not limited to):
  1. The Schmoozer. This guy (or gal) wants nothing more than to make as many contacts as possible and will do whatever it takes to achieve that aim. If you show the least bit of interest in his or her poster, the Schmoozer will sidle up to you and try to chat you up. (Characteristic quote: "Can I have your card? Here, please take mine.") Of course, once the schmoozer finds out that you're merely junior faculty or a fellow, his or her reaction to you will be similar to what you would experience if you showed up with skin lesions characteristic of the bubonic plague or, if you're a guy, the reaction you got the last time you tried to hit on that gorgeous model-quality beautiful chick at a bar. How do I know this one, you ask? Don't ask.
  2. The Ghost. This presenter doesn't like the whole poster thing. The Ghost will disappear shortly after the poster is put up and will be nowhere to be found at any point, until the end, when the poster has to come down. (Sometimes the Ghost will not even show up then and will let the cleaning staff throw the poster away.) Too bad for the Ghost if a heavy hitter or a department head looking for faculty happens to wander by and likes the ghost's poster. The Ghost will have just blown his or her chance at that job at Harvard or M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that he or she craves.
  3. The Carnival Barker. Perhaps the most annoying presenter of all, even more so than the schmoozer, the Carnival Barker will stand in front of his or her poster, beckoning people to "come on in" and check out the poster. Worse, you're not safe even if you're in the middle (or even on the other side) of the aisle, because the Carnival Barker will come out and get you. His or her behavior is not unlike that of a carnival barker or of the people strip clubs in the French Quarter in New Orleans hire to try to get people to "come on in." How do I know about that, you ask? Don't. (A less racy example comes to mind. If you've ever been to Mulberry Street in Little Italy in New York, you know that there are so many restaurants in such a small area there that the restaurants have people who stand in the streets and try to lure passers-by in.)
  4. Impervious. Impervious doesn't like the poster thing any more than Ghost, but feels obligated to follow instructions and stay by the poster until the bitter end. That doesn't mean impervious has to talk to anyone or acknowledge anyone's existence. Impervious may be pissed off that his abstract didn't get accepted for a talk or may believe that sitting by a poster is below him. Whatever the reason, the key characteristic of Impervious is his ability to study closely the meeting program, never making eye contact with anyone who looks at his poster, and/or to carry on multi-hour-long conversations on the cell phone while sitting by his poster. (Impervious sometimes even brings along an extra charged cell phone battery, just for this purpose.)
  5. The Pointer. This presenter comes complete with a pointer (either the old-fashioned kind or a laser pointer). And he knows how to use it--much to the annoyance of anyone who happens by his poster.
  6. The Poser. The Poser will be dressed to the hilt (a very stylish suit if a man or a very attractive dress--with just a tasteful bit of cleavage showing or a hemline that's just slightly shorter than one might consider appropriate--if a woman) and will look as though he or she is literally striking a pose by the poster. It almost makes you want to get out a camera. snapping pictures, and start yelling, "Oh, yeah! The camera loves you, baby!"
  7. Lost Little Boy (or Girl). This is the saddest poster presenter of all. Lost happens to have a poster that not very many people are interested in. Consequently, during the time no one is looking at the poster, Lost will sit around and look, well...lost. When the rare meeting attendee shows the slightest bit of interest in Lost's poster, he or she will focus a gaze on the attendee not unlike that of a puppy who wants to go out and play. How do I know about this one, you ask? Don't. Really. Don't.
Of course, the people wandering by and checking out the posters are an equally eclectic bunch. There is considerably overlap between these people and the people I previously describedwho come up to ask questions after a scientific talk. Indeed, you can encounter almost any of them, with the exception of the Moderator, because there is no Moderator. It's also unusual to encounter Pontificator, Show-off, or Me-Too. (Mainly because there is no real audience for them to try to impress, so what's the point?) However, in the poster session, there's a huge difference inherent in it because of its structure. In the poster session setting, certain of these creatures can be much more of a threat that they normally are at any scientific talk you might give, because there is in essence unlimited time for them to torment you and no way for you to escape. There's no Moderator to keep Conniver or Rival from pumping you for as much information as he can about how far along you are compared to him; to keep Clueless Wonder from wasting huge swaths of your time with idiotic questions; or to keep Nonsequitur from asking interesting but largely irrelevant questions. But worst of all, there is no time limit and no escape from Oh Shit!, who can spend as much time as he or she wishes tearing at the flaw he or she's discovered in your work and convincing you what a careless scientist you are. It is a true poster warrior indeed who can disarm these fierce foes, who are but annoyances in most scientific talks but can be determined destroyers of your sanity in the very different setting of a poster session. Your only hope (and only escape) is for your poster to be so popular that you can quite correctly tell any of them that you have to be fair to the others there and talk to them too. If your poster is not sufficiently popular and you're stuck one-on-one with any of them, you're royally screwed.

There are, however, a few questioners who are more or less unique to poster sessions. They include:
  1. Don't Talk to Me (a.k.a. "I Vant to Be Left Alone"). This variety of poster browser is the counterpart of Impervious. He will stand in front of your poster for many minutes, apparently drinking in every word of your brilliant prose and studying every figure with great interest, sometimes even making little "uh-huh" noises, but will ignore you completely. If you try to ask him if he has any questions, it's no different that talking to a rock.
  2. James Bond. Usually affiliated with a pharmaceutical or biotech company, James Bond walks around with his digital camera and takes pictures of the posters, sometimes blatantly, but sometimes in a rather furtive manner. Of course, he could be afraid of getting caught, given that the rules against photography or audio recording of posters and talks are posted everywhere, but they are rules that don't ever seem to be enforced, in my experience. Sadly, the stereotype is not entirely incorrect here, as most James Bonds I've seen are Asian.
  3. The Clueless Wonder. OK, he's not unique to posters, but no one (and I mean no one) can waste more of your time or make your poster presentation experience more miserable than a clueless wonder cornering you. Pray that he doesn't find your poster early in the poster session.
  4. Tell Me All About It. Perhaps the most annoying (and unfortunately probably the most common) of the unique poster warriors, Tell me's characteristic opening line is, "Please, take me through your poster," or "Please, tell me the story." It's not as if you didn't spend hour upon hour carefully crafting your figures and text and arranging them carefully on a poster to, oh, tell your story in a succinct and interesting (and hopefully visually attractive) way, but this clown wants it all spoon-fed to him or her! After about the tenth time leading someone through my poster, I've been know to swear that the next person who comes up to me and asks me to "tell me all about it" will die a horrible, slow, painful death. Unfortunately, I don't have the courage of my convictions, and they never do. I suppose that it helps to remember that they are actually showing an interest in your work, even if they're too lazy to actually read your poster.
And there you have it, the poster warriors. As you can see, as is the case for giving scientific talks, there is more to presenting a poster than just standing there. However, forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and if you know what kinds of curveballs might be thrown your way, you have a much better chance of hitting them out of the park (or at least not striking out). You might even have fun.

Unless you happen to be Lost Little Boy (or Girl).

I wonder how many of my colleagues will recognize these creatures and whether they can suggest more. The floor is once again open!



  1. Another great post I can relate to. A couple of things I'd add:

    1. The friend: This is someone you know at the meeting. There is an unwritten rule that you will visit their poster, and they will visit your's. You will politely listen to what they have to say, and ask one or two questions to make it seem like you are interested (of course you're interested in your friend's research!). They will do the same for you. This ends up turning a poster session into a social hour, but most meetings are 75% socializing at 25% science (that's probably being generous to the amount of science).

    2. I find that almost all poster visitors are of the "Tell me about it" variety. It seems like when I present a poster, I end up giving a bunch of "mini-talks" instead of one big talk. I really don't mind going through each panel and describing my results -- I find that this ensures that my point gets across and it fosters interesting questions.

    3. If I really want to check out a poster, I can almost never find the presenter at his/her poster. If I'm mildly interested in a poster, the author is almost guaranteed to be standing next to it. If there is someone who I think should check out my poster, he/she will definitely not come look at it.

  2. You're right about the friend. I did just that at the meeting. I don't know how I could have forgotten this one...

  3. Hey Orac:

    Long time reader, first time poster. Great blog, insightful writing.

    While I agree with most of your observations, I'd slightly disagree with the "Take me through your poster" interlocutor. I'd actually argue that a large majority of poster presenters have no *clue* how to clearly and concisely summarize their findings. You might see lots and lots of Westerns, Northerns, random experiments without a shred of explanation as to why that bit of data is so important.

    Or maybe I'm just a retard.


  4. first time reader, first time poster, long-time sycophant. Excellent post! I was just at the AACR presenting a poster and Im happy to have run across your post so I have tangible categories by which to think of the people at the session. I just graduated from ugrad and im on my way to med school so I was thrilled to just be there - I have to admit that I bordered on the Schmoozer and the Poser.
    Might I also add the Name Dropper; in a conversation this person will talk about others in the field as if they are all his/her friend and act condescending if you dont know who the person they are talking about is.

  5. Good point! How could I have forgotten the Name Dropper?

  6. jeez... and i was actually thinking of submitting some of my smaller ideas as poster sessions for next year...

    thanks for talking me out of THAT!!

  7. Don't let me talk you out of it. Poster sessions aren't all bad...


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