Poster solitude

Next time you are at your favorite scientific meeting, take a look at the trainees that are standing forlornly, uncomfortably alone at their posters. Contrast them with the young trainees that have an audience stacked three deep in a semicircle.

Do you notice any differentials in male/female, attractive/unattractive, white/black/asian/latino/etc ?

I think I shall engage in this exercise at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November.

27 responses so far

  • Rico says:

    I would add in the differential "big/small name school" as well.

  • jipkin says:

    Do you notice any difference based on the name of the PI on the poster? Surely this is the largest predictor of crowd size (once you've normalized to popularity of the field in general).

    For instance, there's a lab at UCSD where it doesn't matter what your color is, you're going to have a five-deep throng for the entire four hours (at SFN).

  • drugmonkey says:

    and if either of your hypotheses were supported it would mean....?

  • jipkin says:

    I don't know what the implications would be other than to confirm that big name PIs tend to get their names by doing good AND popular science and people want to know what they're working on. And they tend to have the most money and therefore are using the latest techniques.

    My comments only relate to the saturated end of the poster-crowd distribution. Perhaps race/gender/attractiveness will be better predictors in the 1 - 10 crowd size range. Although then there's also the tendency that a crowd will attract a crowd...

  • odyssey says:

    I encourage everyone to try and talk to a couple of these "lonely" students who are in your general field of interest. It's good for both parties.

  • profguy says:

    I will freely admit to being prejudiced in favor of the students/postdocs of PIs whose work I admire. This isn't always correlated with $ (I am in a physical science field that is not quite as winner-take-all as anything biomed seems to be). Sure it ain't fair in some cosmic sense, but it's a rational strategy in a world (or a conference) oversaturated with information. Don't we all use the same prejudice when deciding what papers to read, talks to go to etc.? Besides not wanting to waste time hearing about uninteresting work (whether that's the fault of the trainee or not), it's personally awkward when one realizes after a minute that it's going to be uninteresting, but it's too late to get out politely.

  • Steve Shea (@sheacshl) says:

    I have long wondered about this - what affects poster crowds. It's undoubtedly complex, but I notice that a lot of the variance I see relates to the numbered topical session. There are sessions I have been to where the whole subfield is there and makes their way through each poster, and then traffic falls off a cliff where the numbers turn over. So I think a lot of it is subfield culture. Obviously, I typically have better interactions at lighter times and posters than the jammed, must sees (cough... techniques posters... cough)

  • Ola says:

    Meh, at the meetings I attend it's mostly about the content. Some things attract a big audience and others don't. The poster sessions are tied to the plenaries, so if you select the right session and your poster is on-topic for an inspiring talk given by a good speaker, then you get more traffic. The "trendy" topics change every year (this year was autophagy, last year was cancer metabolism, blah blah). Usually within every 150+ posters per session, there are 2 or 3 presenters fending them off with a shitty stick, and the rest are lucky if they get a couple of bites.

    If you push me I'd say probably there might be a slight bias toward good looking females in the high-traffic posters, maybe a slight shift away from Asians due to perceived language barriers. There are only 2 or 3 big schools which dominate the field, so the make up of the poster sessions is dominated by their graduate student populations, and on the whole they're well represented in minorities. Invariably, the reason someone has no traffic is because they have a title like "Non-confomeric aptamers of DF74GHS2-kinase in morphogenic ideopathology, a computational systems approach", with 50 equations, 9 point text, and halitosis. Oh yes, never underestimate the power of mouthwash/gum for a poster presenter.

    One thing I always try to do if I really have a good talk/interaction with a junior person, is ask them if they want a drink from the bar. They can't leave their poster and are probably thirsty, and lord knows they're probably dying for a beer (I know I used to wish someone would get me a beer back when I did posters). Sometimes when the bar is free, this becomes a running joke among the PIs - "allow me to get you a drink, it's literally the least I can do".

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I encourage everyone to try and talk to a couple of these "lonely" students who are in your general field of interest. It's good for both parties.

    I try to go talk to a few of the forlorn looking poster presenters at each session, since I've been one myself. I can only handle a few though. My brain is generally already on overload as it is at meetings, and I need to save what capacity I have left for the stuff I really need to hear about.

  • dr24hours says:

    Take data.

    Also, when you see a trainee standing forlornly at a poster, it's important to point, and snicker, and then whisper something to a friend. Then, pull out your cameraphone and snap a picture. Giggle as you type furiously on your phone.

  • bsci says:

    The crowds are always around research from top labs or really phenomenal studies (often both). I wouldn't take not getting mobbed as a useful measure of individuals' biases.
    The bigger issue to me are the lonely presenters vs those with a steady stream of visitors.

    The name of the PI or name of the presenting author still matters. At least for me, a title that is interesting to me and a clearly designed poster will also catch my attention. If a presenter can't capture some of my interest without me walking to the poster, I usually don't stop. I've gotten sucked into too many 10+ minute discussions with people who can't explain their own research.

    I like to think I don't have any biases based on the appearance of the presenter, but I know many biases aren't conscious. I also use meeting planners to make obscenely long lists of posters to see in advance. I rarely see everything I list, but, when walking down a poster aisle, the lists make sure I don't ignore posters that I flagged in advance. While not the purpose of advanced-planning, such lists should reduce bias based on appearance.

  • david says:

    My main criterion for spending time at a poster (outside of those whose topics directly touch my work, or those done by my friends) is my estimate of the likely ratio between amount learned and effort spent. I skip posters that are packed with data, and have no schematics or graphs. I skip posters with dense fine print. I skip posters with titles that are longer than this sentence.
    I will likely stop for posters with brief bullet points, easily grasped graphs, photos of the experimental setup, and large enough print that I can read the whole thing from a socially acceptable distance.
    I'll also likely skip posters at which the presenter is scowling, looking at his/her watch, or otherwise appears less than happy to be there.
    Also, I try to say a few kind words to student presenters.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you push me I'd say probably there might be a slight bias toward good looking females in the high-traffic posters, maybe a slight shift away from Asians due to perceived language barriers.

    mmm-hmmm. and are there any nonAsian ethnic minority scientiests (trainee or otherwise) in your field? I tend to see more of them standing by themselves than I do with a huge crowd. It is not impossible that this is hugely affected by my confirmation bias since I am only just now thinking about this perception that has tickled away in the back of my brain for several years now. finally it has surfaced.

    it is not impossible that there is some degree of causal influence of lab size/reputation/hotness...but that just begs the question , does it not?

  • Dave says:

    Money being tight, it's a talk or publish-only for me. Don't have the luxury of swanning around at meetings with a lame poster these days. That's what online abstracts and e-mail/skype are for.

  • Ola says:

    and are there any nonAsian ethnic minority scientiests (trainee or otherwise) in your field? I tend to see more of them standing by themselves

    Yes, as mentioned further down in my comment, the big schools in the field send a LOT of them to meetings, and they are far from alone/forlorn during poster sessions. Many of them are from BSD labs, so maybe that's why they're not alone? Like I said, if you look hard, you can see extremely mild bias, but you have to look very hard indeed in this particular field, which is dominated by a few schools with very strong minority graduate programs. Maybe if you're a minority at a small school, in a non BSD lab , then you feel the pain, but overall the field goes out of its way to be inclusive.

    In my experience the bias you speak of is more of an issue at larger meetings (SfN, EB, AHA, ASBMB etc.), where the audience is more fragmented, less people know each other, so ability to be a DB is greater because you'll never meetvthat person again (if they even see your badge!) At society level meetings , plus Gordon/Keystone, everyone knows each other, so maybe people are less aloof toward trainees. That's why I much prefer smaller meetings.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I am a female in a male dominated field. Thinking back to my poster presentations I was swamped every time, even when I had a seemingly boring topic. This could have something to do with my lady parts but more likely it's because I'm approachable. The same thing happens when I'm standing at the bus stop or walking on the street. The ability to project a safe space especially to often socially awkward scientists goes a long way when trying to draw a crowd.

  • AnotherLurker says:

    How fast you get people through must soak up a good bit of the variance. Drone on and the crowd builds up. Give an efficient tour and you may actually reach a lot more people overall. Your audience will be impressed with your concision, and you may even have time to get your own beer.

  • Hermitage says:

    I never know what I'm supposed to do with my face when no one is stopping by my poster. So I just wear my default expression, which has been described as some form of bitchface. I don't know how to look approachable, because if I try smiling when no one is looking at my poster, or is around generally, I feel like a psycho idiot.

  • Grumble says:

    "This could have something to do with my lady parts but more likely it's because I'm approachable."

    Uhh, maybe it's because the topic of your research is interesting and/or a lot of people know about you and/or your PI and want to see what you're up to?

    Just about the only thing that will prompt me to look at a poster is that the topic interests me and I think I might learn something from it. Your "approachable"-ness, whatever that means, makes zero difference (unless you are so unapproachable that you aren't there - I tend to ignore posters with no one standing in front of them, unless it's a competitor doing the same experiment I am) (or unless you're unapproachable because you are surrounded by 25 people and there's no way I'm ever going to get to the front. In that case, I'm happy for you, but fuck you anyway.).

  • Dave says:

    I have never gone to a poster based on anything other than the abstract/title in the abstract book/app.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think I shall try hiring a bouncer with a velvet rope for my next poster session.

  • Be sure to note whether people have nail polish that matches their poster! I'm pretty sure that will be the determinant of poster solitude or huge masses. Also optogenetics.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    Uhh, maybe it's because the topic of your research is interesting and/or a lot of people know about you and/or your PI and want to see what you're up to?

    One of my busiest posters was the mutagenesis of an already well mutagenized enzyme and the result was one atom moving a tenth of an angstrom, so it was clearly at the very forefront of the scientific frontier. I'd say about half of my visitors usually fall under the know me/my PI catagory. The other half know nothing about me, my lab, or my topic. They're just poster trawling and decide to stop at mine. I do put a lot of effort into making my posters graphically appealing and easily digestible which could account for some of it. However, I do get chatted up at least once a day by random strangers (the joys of public transportation) leading me to believe that something about my demeanor make people comfortable starting a conversation with me.

  • BioDataSci says:

    Perhaps the presenter's ability to present plays a role [gasp!]?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am curious as to whether you "approachable" and "Ability" fans imagine that the perceptions of your phenotype on the part of listeners plays no role?

  • Brugg says:

    For my next poster at a meeting, I'm going to have drawings for bags of candies every 15 minutes. This will increasing the popularity of my poster, but if there's even a half-way attractive but well-dressed female grad student presenting her poster near me, it's still not going to do squat.

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