Summer Research Symposia

Hello again! As promised, I am writing about the poster presentations that my students gave following their summer of research.

I’ll start off with saying that I am very proud of their work and commitment, and am even more psyched that they are excited and inspired to expand on their projects into the school year!!

So let’s talk about this last week…

To get ready for the symposiums, my students had to build their posters from scratch. This is a big deal…because constructing a poster from nothing is really difficult. How do you tell your story to a multi-field audience on 36” x 48” of space? To be honest, I don’t think I was even prepared to tackle this with my students. But, we figured it out. Here’s how we did it and how I would do it differently in the future:

I started off by providing the kids with a poster that I had created previously. This way they didn’t need to mess with size setting, the format was already in place, they would just need to replace the content. I asked my students to take the template I provided, plug-in their content, and send me a draft. What I anticipated receiving was posters that needed minor editing, what I got was…less than that. An analogy I used to describe my situation to a friend was this: I wanted a baked and iced cake, which I would then add the final details to to really make it pop. What I actually received, however, were the ingredients to make the cake myself…you see where this is going. I think I spent, like, 6 hours working on posters.

Outside of moving things around and resizing and finding better photos, I also had to do a lot of work on the writing. I think I forgot how inexperienced students are with writing. Even though we had all worked on the abstracts, the introductions that my students sent seemed, to me, really off-target. There was good stuff in there, but it wasn’t as succinct and intentional as it needed to be. In the future, I plan to dedicate much more time to writing the introduction (and methods and conclusions and future directions) with my students rather than seeing what they submit and scrambling to re-write it before the deadline.  I think, overall, condensing their thoughts was really difficult for them. I saw a lot of “fluff” and repeating. This went for the conclusions and future directions as well as the introduction. Does anyone have some good resources they refer their students to to help with this? 

Poster organization was also another aspect that I think they will become better with over time. For example, each poster started off with the pictures and graphs each as individual figures thrown into the middle of the poster. What I think is more appropriate, and how I hope they organize it in the future, was to split the data up by brain region and dedicate each region to a single figure. Such that Figure 1 was all about the prefrontal cortex and within that there was Fig. 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. with images and graphs. Figure 2, then, was another group of images and graphs dedicated to the hippocampus. I find this easier for the audience to help move through the poster because it makes in clear that a lot of the information is specifically referring to one thing, in our case, brain regions.

After lots of back and forth, we finally got final products done and printed. Phew.

Overall, my lesson was this: Take the time to work on each aspect of the poster with your students the first time around. This will save time and frustration. For real.

Once we got past actually making the posters and getting them printed at the last possible moment (making me feel like a grad student again), we could look forward to the presentations. My students would only be participating in the poster sessions, not giving any talks. I thought this would be a good choice since they probably didn’t have enough data to talk for 10 minutes…next time! I talked with each student at length about how to balance their 2-minute spiel with introduction/background, results and conclusions. We were all confident, so I did not have them practice in front of me before we went. It’s not like we left ourselves with time to do that anyway…

I also discussed wardrobe with my students. Business casual. Always. For everyone. I’m hate to be a presenter-shamer, but dressing down (shorts/jeans/t-shirts) or like you are going to da club (tight/short) is one of the best way to take the focus away from your poster. End of rant.

Finally, I warned my students about the haters out there. You know, the folks that come around and tell you that your methods are wrong or that your data is wrong. I have never experienced such aggression at any one of my presentations, however I have heard horror stories. And while I think that the response to these people is a no-brainer, I took the time to discuss it with my students. My advice: always be polite and never get upset. Thank them for their observations, tell them that they bring up valid points (whether or not they really did), and assure them that you will seriously consider their suggestions as you move on with your unfinished project. I see no quicker way to diffuse a situation. Anyone else? 

Fortunately, I think confrontations like I described above are unheard of at undergraduate poster symposiums, so I really wasn’t too worried. However, it never hurts to be prepared.

The first symposium was at Bloomsburg University and the second was at Moravian College. Both venues were great and there was a great showing of students who were very excited to talk about the work they had been doing all summer. All three of my students enjoyed walking around and hearing about what other projects had been worked on and what they could bring back to our lab. They also did really a really fantastic job presenting their work. Some of my colleagues listened to them and reported that overall, the prepared talk and the posters were good, no red flags. Really, I am so proud of them!

Like any proud parent I was sure to take photos that I will now share with you:

Following the symposium, on our 2 hour ride home from Moravian, they all shared some ideas they have for their projects, some cool things they learned from other fields, and how much they loved presenting!! Music to my ears!! I think that these two days were not only a great way to wrap up the summer, but have also propelled us into the fall semester. These three are actually EXCITED to get into lab and see where their projects go. Isn’t that the point of undergraduate research? To expose students to the wonder of asking questions and learning how to answer them and then to inspire them to keep asking? Goodness, I’m having a moment. I’m a little inspired, too!

Anyway, I’m proud of them and how far they have come. I’m very much looking forward to what is next and to see how much each of them grows as a researcher over the next school year.

As always, thanks for reading and please share some of your thoughts on student presentations and how you’ve prepped your researchers in the past!


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