I am currently sat in a hotel lobby in Basel, Switzerland, after a cancelled flight on the way back from the ISMB/ECCB 2019 (biggest biannual computational biology conference for you non-bioinformaticians out there). As my second international conference and the second time presenting my research in such an event, I thought I should kill my newly acquired free time by sharing my international experience with you.
The conference was split into Communities of Special Interest (CoSIs), and each CoSI had its own track with 10 rooms running at the same time. I mainly stayed in the Translational Medicine and Variant Interpretation CoSI tracks since they seemed more appropriate to be beneficial for my work but popped in and out from other ones. I think my favourite talk was from Stanford University Assistant Professor in Medical Genetics, Ami Bhatt. She gave a fascinating talk about microbial genomics and precision medicine. It had a vignette about faecal transplantation and how they refer to them as crapsules (the whole room chuckled). I spoke to a lot of people in this conference about being a trainee clinical bioinformatician for a national clinical service and a lot of them were amazed. “Oh so you do applied bioinformatics?” was a common reaction. Isn’t all research done with the sole purpose of one day reaching the clinic?
Luckily, I managed to get a yes from my department to attend this conference because I submitted an abstract for a poster and it got accepted. I had a poster on my research project, which is a collaboration with the Tissue Typing department, on predicting HLA high-resolution (a little bit complicated but I will happily give a recap on it to whoever is interested). Here’s excited me and my poster.
The poster session was not as bad as I thought. Most importantly, there was liquid courage (aka wine) to help everyone get their words out and attempt speaking to strangers. Not going to lie, HLA resolution & transplantation is not the most popular subject in such a conference, next to graph genomes and deep neural networks. This might have to do with the fact that HLA genes are so polymorphic and complicated that they have whole departments working on them. But the people I did speak to were ones that have worked or were familiar with some of the terms and I got some positive feedback. The main question was, “so is this machine learning?”, to which I had to reply “unfortunately not, but maybe in the future!”. So here are a few pieces of advice on how to promote your research and survive a poster session.
Submit, submit, submit
International conferences can be daunting, multiple science tracks at the same time, hundreds of talks to choose from and the terrifying task of networking. Take it one step at a time and you can quickly get settled in and in full bragging mode about the NHS. If you find a conference you like and have something that could be presented at it don’t hesitate to submit an abstract for it. Firstly, your department will be happy you are being proactive with your training and interested in promoting your work in your field. Write a draft abstract and get your peers/colleagues to proofread it. Submit it! The worst that can happen is they say no, but big conferences have multiple poster sessions so there is a high chance of it to get accepted. Once you have accepted abstract, nine times out of 10 they will say yes for you to go to it. It is promotion for your whole department, bragging into the outside world about the amazing research that happens inside a hospital.
Every conference provides information about the required size of the poster so make sure you read that carefully. Once you start designing, ask your department if there is a departmental template as a lot of them have one ready with all the required logos. The easiest way to design it is on Powerpoint as everyone is familiar with it. Make sure you set your slide size to your poster size so it scales everything correctly and once you finished make sure you send it to print in time as most places need 3-4 working days.
When you finally make it to the poster hall, yours might be one of hunderds of posters, make sure it stands out. How you ask? Here’s a few tips:
- Font: Have a font size that is appropriate for your poster size to make it easy for the reader. For an A0 poster, 66 for the main title, 44 for headings and 32 for the main text reads nicely. And please no comic sans (just joking, I hope no one ever uses comic sans in a scientific paper).
- Margins: Make sure to not overcrowd your poster. Leave sufficient padding around the text to make it appealing to your reader.
- Structure: the basic structure of a poster should be like a research paper, with an intro to your subject, methods, results and discussion, future steps or limitations.
- Introduction: make sure you captivate your reader in the first sentence. Avoid super-simplified statements that the reader would already know. “The rapid development of NGS technologies and reducing cost has enabled genomic analyses to reach the clinic” – everyone knows that in a bioinformatics conference. In addition, make sure you state your aim, why are you doing this and why it is important.
- Text to Pictures ratio: There are a few no-nos, a poster that is 100% text is a poster that no one will pay attention to. Make sure you include table summaries, graphs and appropriate diagrams. If you can show it graphically do it and add a simple legend. That way is someone is interested you can run them through it quicker and it looks better.
So it is now time to stand proudly next to your poster. Don’t fret. Take a deep breath. You know you research so just relax and talk about it. However, I might not be the best person to give you advice, as I tend to overstress about everything. But I think this time I was a bit more relaxed, went down to the poster hall, grabed a glass of wine and was ready to share my HLA knowledge with the world.
- Have a walkthrough ready: A lot of people come up to you, read your poster for a second to ensure they are interested and then go “Could you run me through it?”. Have a summary of your poster ready specifically for a time like this. It doesn’t have to be word for word the whole poster but enough to give them the gist of your work. They will then ask questions so you can go more in depth with your answers.
- Have a clear aim: Make sure you know why you are doing what you are doing. Be passionate for you work and show it to the world. I believe the majority of us do it for the benefit of the patient so show that to whoever you talk to. Even if we help one person that is enough right?
- Don’t be scared to say I don’t know: Although you are meant to be the expert of your project, people will come and ask for things you might not be aware yet or are way past your level of expertise. You can say you are not aware of it. Take your notebook out and make a note of it. A poster session is an opportunity for discussion and bouncing ideas off your peers. You might have a breakthrough while talking to someone, or they might introduce you to a concept, tool, method and make you life 100 times easier. Who knows really?
- Don’t stress: Again this should not come from me but it is the advice everyone gives. The first person you talk to will probably be the most difficult one but just keep going, you will find your flow and be able to effortlessly describe you work. If it helps, take 10-15 minutes before the session to read over your poster and relax.
Ok, I should stop rambling now. Going to a conference is definitely a rewarding experience, especially if you are presenting your research. I recently gave a talk to the ACGS Summer Meeting and that was a bit more nerve racking, but a poster session is definitely a more relaxed setting. Submit your research and I will keep my fingers crossed for you that it gets accepted.
Thank you for reading this and I hope you find something useful. Let us know if you went to an interesting conference or have more tips & tricks to share with other trainees.
Till next time. 🙂