Tag Archives: conference

How to Make an Award-Winning Scientific Poster

  1. Decide with one month to spare that you will attend an overseas conference and frantically make travel arrangements.
  2. Email the incredibly responsive conference organizers because you’re not sure if you can give a talk or if you need to present a poster instead.
  3. Make a poster so great that you win the poster competition and get to give a last-minute talk the next morning as a result.

So that happened. You can watch my talk here.

The Cool Stars 19 conference was outstanding for many reasons, and winning the postdoc(!) poster competition was just one of them. Of course, the ability to make a good poster did not appear in my head out of nowhere! One set of great guidelines is here, and AstroBetter has compiled many handy resources about conference presentations (including posters) too.


Rather than rehash everything that has already been said about making effective posters (you did click on the links above, right?), here is an overview of how I approach poster design together with some tips to make your poster visually compelling.

  • Re-read the abstract you submitted to the conference weeks ago. Is it overly ambitious? Totally off-base? No matter. Your poster is an opportunity to communicate what you’ve done as of TODAY. Hundreds of people will glance at your poster, but only a few will skim your abstract.
  • With the above in mind, copy just the title and author list from your abstract submission (or craft a condensed version if necessary) and forget about the rest of it. Do not copy and paste your abstract anywhere. You will be staring at a giant blank canvas; it will be tempting. Just say no.
  • Use whatever software you are most comfortable with to make your poster. This could be Illustrator, Keynote, Powerpoint, Word, whatever. Does your software let you make a large page size, insert text boxes, images, and shapes, adjust fonts and colors, and precisely drag stuff around? Yes? Good.
  • Follow the conference’s rules for poster size. Sometimes you have a choice between portrait and landscape, and sometimes you don’t. You can make a good poster in virtually any aspect ratio, so pick something within the limit and stick with it. (US-based pro tip: 36 x 48″ is a standard size at FedEx Office and very similar to A0; having one dimension be 36″ also makes printing on fabric easier.)
  • Boil your message down to two main points, and be able to say each point in one tweetable sentence or less. Then divide your poster into three chunks: the first portion is reserved for big-picture motivation and context, and each of your main points gets another third. Use distilled versions of these points as headers for each chunk instead of meaningless words like “Introduction” and “Conclusions.”
  • The focus of each chunk must be figures. Let the figures speak for themselves. For example, you do not need to write “y generally increases with x over the full range of the dataset.” Instead, use clear axis labels that communicate why the correlation is important.
  • Write bullets and single-sentence captions, not paragraphs. Write only the most essential words to explain each figure, and no more. Notice there are no end-of-sentence periods on my poster, because each thought stands alone.
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon. Yes, knowing your audience is critical, but mostly, your audience is tired. Write what you mean, not what your sub-discipline’s jargon-and-acronym-machine expects you to say. If you must use acronyms, define them near the very start of your poster’s first chunk.
  • There is no ultimate poster font size law… but yours is too small because you’re trying to cram in too many words! My default was 52 pt (with some figure labels necessarily a bit smaller). Sans-serif fonts are easier to read than serif fonts.
  • Pick a simple, colorblind-friendly color scheme and stick with it. This means your plots, your text, and anything that goes on your poster should ideally coordinate. If you’re not sure what to choose, consider the colors in the figures you plan to include, and/or consider the color palette for the conference itself. Dark text on a light background is easier to read than the opposite.
  • Don’t be afraid to overhaul your figures. Crop out extraneous axes and tiny labels. Make custom legends. Annotate plots to drive home key messages. Present one illustrative example instead of seventeen nearly-identical panels.
  • Advertise your papers, and give credit where credit is due. Essentially everything on my poster is from my own work or my credited coauthors’ work, so there are very few formal citations. If you borrow any plots or images, be sure to cite the original source. However, a poster is not a literature review; if people are truly interested in your full set of citations, they can read your papers.
  • Take your time and be picky. Ensure elements line up within and between chunks, use the exact same colors and fonts throughout, and get several sets of eyes to proofread.

Remember: the whole reason you travel to conferences is to talk to people about your research. Sometimes you will be standing near your poster and sometimes not. Do you know what I did with all the words I wanted to put on my poster but didn’t? I used them in conversations, and they appear or will appear in papers. So yes, your poster must stand alone, but it shouldn’t have to tell the full story.

Finally, consider how you usually feel during a conference. Mentally sharp? Plenty of free time? Excited to carefully read each poster twice? Of course not. Everyone is exhausted and overwhelmed. That’s really what these tips are dancing around. Could your sleep-deprived officemate distill the essence of your poster after staring at it for 20 seconds? And do those 20 seconds make them care about your results? If not, you still have some work to do.

Mid-AAS Musings

I can’t imagine kicking off a new year without the winter AAS meeting, and there’s no better venue than Seattle. This year, I’m teaming up with fellow astrobites author Erika Nesvold as a Media Intern. We have official-looking “Press” ribbons on our badges, access to a quiet press room with free coffee and tea, and even less free time than usual (ha!) as we dash between regular science sessions and press conferences.

I am also presenting a poster on Wednesday (345.16). This is a sneak preview.
I am also presenting a poster on Wednesday—this is a preview.

A lot has changed since I attended my first AAS meeting in 2008. Certainly the obvious things: everyone has a portable screen, oodles of sessions are all about exoplanets, the program book is (finally!) accessible online with an app. But more noteworthy to me is my sneakily slow-growing familiarity with all the science. I remember my first few AAS meetings were fraught with struggling to understand the plenary sessions, being completely lost in the parallel sessions, and being afraid to ask anyone about their poster because I didn’t think I knew enough about their subfield. That’s not to say everything was over my head; rather, it took me a good deal of intellectual effort to distill the gist of a presentation, and sometimes I didn’t have all the pieces I needed to complete the picture.

There was no “Eureka!” moment when this changed. I can’t point to a single event, or even a single year, when I suddenly filled in the missing knowledge gaps I barely knew about. But today, I realize I am more often than not answering others’ questions: Why should I license my code? What is reverberation mapping? How do I analyze stellar spectra? What is the SDSS data release all about? How does the revamped Kepler “K2” mission work? What is microlensing and why does it require precision parallax? In turn, I find myself actually wanting to ask questions after talks, and when I see someone standing in front of their poster I am comfortable starting a legitimate conversation about their research.

At the same time, AAS meetings remain incredibly exhausting. The introvert in me still protests on day 2 or 3, and I have to acknowledge I cannot attend an event in every single time slot. A deluge of newsworthy science results from my colleagues can still set off a bout of impostor syndrome. But it is wonderful to cram one week a year chock-full of nothing but astronomy. The whole shebang will be over before I know it.

If you’d like to learn more about what’s happening at this year’s AAS meeting, check out the daily astrobites posts and the #aas225 hashtag on twitter.

Adventures at AAS

One of the highlights of my year is always the winter American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. It’s a few days in early January jam-packed with as much astronomy as you could imagine—some 3000 astronomers presenting new research, learning about resources for education and outreach, and seeing colleagues in person for once.

AstronoMerrdiff with fellow conference-goers Gavin Mathes, Laura Mayorga, and Nigel Mathes.

This year’s meeting was held in National Harbor, outside Washington, DC. For the first time, I signed up to give a talk about my latest research instead of a poster. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for Thursday morning, the last day of the conference… and if you know anything about AAS meetings, you know that Wednesday night is Party Night. Oh well.

Between frantically scraping together results for my talk and trying to be in two places at once from roughly 8:30am–10pm for three days straight, it was pretty tiring, but equally engaging and amazing. Here are some highlights.

  • Achieving an airplane miracle: I had to rebook on a different airline out of a tiny five-gate airport (at the last minute, for free, with a layover in a different city) and I managed to arrive at my final destination within five minutes of my original flight. What.
  • Arriving early to crash participate in part of the AAS Ambassadors workshop. I did this program properly last year, and was invited back to chat with the new cohort.
  • An excellent plenary talk by Alyssa Goodman about visualization in astronomy.
  • Answering questions at the combination astrobites / astrobetter booth and getting to know my fellow authors.

    Astrobites authors gearing up for AAS.
    Astrobites authors gearing up for AAS.
  • Helping judge undergraduate posters for the Chambliss Award. It is a great way to learn what they are researching and help them practice their presentation skills.
  • Being invited to write posts for the AAS Facebook Page about the meeting.
  • A special lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Unfortunately many parts of his talk didn’t sit well with me; he is a superb communicator but he is also very full of himself. His talk didn’t need to denigrate vegans, Republicans, the poor/uneducated, religion, women, or anybody else just for a laugh.
  • An excellent session about code sharing in astrophysics. (Summary: do it!)
  • A fantastic plenary talk by Mark Krumholz about the origin of stellar mass. He is a superb speaker. Read an astrobite about his paper on the same topic here.
  • A very important discussion about the use and misuse of the GRE for admission to graduate school. As somebody with an abysmal Physics GRE score, I was interested to learn that the exam is biased against women and should never be used to make admission cutoff decisions. Vanderbilt’s Bridge Program stood out as an awesome example for how to completely ignore the GRE and actively recruit and support underrepresented populations in STEM PhD programs.
  • Participating in a Hangout for Nicole Gugliucci’s Learning Space show as a followup about the AAS Ambassadors program.
  • The aforementioned Wednesday night party with a pre-party to match.
  • My five minutes of fame: telling a room of ~20 people all about my latest research, and successfully answering questions afterward.
  • A full afternoon of Hack Day that featured a variety of fun projects and free food.
  • Tweeting all the while. Search #aas223 for a sampling of meeting-related tweets.

All in all, an excellent conference. As usual, I am now inspired to go forth and do all the science! (Which is a good thing, because AstronoMerrdiff’s thesis proposal is coming up very, very soon, and there is lots of work to be done.) The next AAS meeting will be in Boston this summer, and the one after that will be in Seattle next January. If you’re ever geographically colocated with a future AAS meeting, I encourage you to stop by.

Well, that was fun

The US government shutdown finally came to an end this evening, as you may have heard. Why does AstronoMerrdiff care? Well, let me put it this way:

It was such a waste.

Many of my colleagues and friends were directly affected by the shutdown, and huge swaths of US-based science effectively ground to a halt. NASA closed its doors, an entire season in Antarctica was effectively canceled, radio telescopes went silent, conference talks were canceled or withdrawn… the list goes on.

My pay did not stop, because I am a university teaching assistant. But scientists are all connected to one another. It is important to realize that this shutdown is not just something that ends – repercussions will be felt for years to come. I am sad to report that the challenges of funding and support for science in this country are far from behind us.

Giants of Eclipse Wrapup

Interferometry, asteroseismology, heartbeats, tomography… oh my!

The rest of the Giants of Eclipse meeting saw a much wider array of subjects than just Epsilon Aurigae. We heard about interferometry, a special technique often used by radio telescopes to get sharper, higher-resolution pictures. Daniel Huber gave a great overview of asteroseismology, or stellar pulsations, which related to my talk the next day. Andrej Prsa discussed lots of work being done by the Kepler team with eclipsing binaries. The Kepler spacecraft is one of my favorites – it spent over three years collecting extremely precise data to search for planets around other stars. (Unfortunately it recently stopped working, and prospects of getting it up and running again are slim, but there is still tons of data to pore over.) A great benefit of all the high-precision Kepler data isn’t just planet hunting – it’s also extremely useful to study stars. We heard about a special kind of binary star that shows a “heartbeat-like” pattern in its light curve, and we also learned about an innovative technique called tomography, which essentially creates a 3D map from a series of 2D slices.

Brightness versus Time for a so-called "heartbeat star." The black dots are the observations from Kepler, and each line is a different model. The brightness changes because the two stars pass very close to one another as they orbit and their shapes are briefly distorted. Figure from Beck et al. 2013.
Brightness versus Time for a so-called “heartbeat star.” The black dots are the observations from Kepler, and each line is a different model. The brightness changes because the two stars pass very close to one another as they orbit and their shapes are briefly distorted. Figure from Beck et al. 2013.

So much science! By the time I presented my research on Thursday afternoon, everyone was probably tired of listening to talk after talk after talk. But I was pleased that I didn’t go over my time, got a couple of chuckles, and was able to answer questions intelligently. Next time I give a talk at a conference, I hope I don’t have to go last, because I spent a lot of time worrying about my own presentation instead of listening intently to others’.

Overall, I was thrilled to meet so many other people who care about binary stars at least as much as I do. We shared many great meals and fun evenings. I left Monterey with new friends and a better sense of what cool research is happening with binary stars.

Giants of Eclipse, Day 2

What happened to Day 1, you may ask? Unfortunately, a canceled flight happened. To make a long story short, AstronoMerrdiff finally maxed out her travel karma and got to spend an extra day in San Diego. It worked out okay, though – I worked on my talk for Thursday, and had a great impromptu meeting with my old advisor at San Diego State.

By arriving at the conference in Monterey some 24 hours later than intended, I missed a couple of overview talks, a session on VV Cep stars (a special kind of eclipsing binary), and a particularly interesting-sounding theory session. This apparently featured red giant atmosphere modeling, red giants in eclipsing binaries (!), and working out how triple systems (three stars orbiting one another) may have formed.

Let me back up a step…

This conference is all about big stars that orbit other stars so that one routinely passes in front of the other. That’s why it’s called GIANTS of ECLIPSE! It also happens to be precisely what I’m working on right now. In particular, I’m working on a project that involves red giants in eclipsing binaries. A red giant is a huge, bright red star that has run out of hydrogen fuel. Our Sun will become a red giant near the end of its life. An eclipsing binary is a pair of stars orbiting each other that pass in front of one another as viewed from Earth. As it turns out, the talk I missed yesterday about red giant eclipsing binaries was originally scheduled for Wednesday, and got moved at the last minute. Neither the speaker nor I knew this until we each arrived.

A recurring theme at the conference so far has been “this person was going to come and give a talk, but wasn’t able to.” There have been at least four cases of this, and there are fewer than 40 people at the conference to begin with. Sometimes an absent presenter is able to Skype in and/or pre-record a talk to be played back. In other cases, they ask a colleague at the meeting to give their talk for them. And in many situations, the talk is simply withdrawn. These cancellations and substitutions are what led to schedule shuffling. Why this all has to be so last-minute and offline is beyond me.

So, this brings us to today. Today’s theme was Epsilon Aurigae (usually pronounced or-EYE-jee, with “jee” sounding like “jeans”). This funny name belongs to a particularly mysterious eclipsing system. As best we can tell, Epsilon Aurigae is a cooler F-type star and a hotter B-type star orbiting each other, with a critical twist – the hotter star is embedded in a dark, dusty disk. Epsilon Aurigae is a particularly hot topic right now among stellar astronomers because it just completed an eclipse: the dark disk hiding a hot star inside just finished passing in front of the cool star. This only happens every 27 years, so lots of people were excited to observe it and begin to understand it.

Artist's impression of Epsilon Aurigae.
Artist’s impression of Epsilon Aurigae.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epsilon_Aurigae.

The best part of a small conference like this, however, is meeting people whose names you know from papers – in person. The under-40 group is rather under-represented at Giants of Eclipse, which is unsurprising given budget woes. (Grad students and postdocs are generally hit hardest when it comes to travel funding. In my case, I’m only here because I could afford to pay out-of-pocket, and that simply isn’t possible for most early-career astronomers.) So: the few of us young folks automatically meet and shake our heads as some of the more senior astronomers use overhead projector sheets (yes, really).

Thankfully, it isn’t all slide rules – there is lots of great science being done. I’m looking forward to the next couple of days, where the talks will venture further afield than just Epsilon Aurigae. Giants and binaries and eclipses, oh my!