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Pitt Biology Research Paper

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Plan Your Research Poster


Before you even open Powerpoint or other poster making software, you want to plan out what you will show and sketch it on paper.  We start with the meat of the poster -your data- and work forward to your conclusions and the backwards to the background the audience needs to understand your work.

Choose the data that you will show in the results section,

Go through your lab notebook and flag your most important advances, developments and findings since your last presentation.  Talk with your lab.

Draft-sketch the results figures including the types of graphs or other comparisons you will show. 

Analyze the data to make conclusions and determine short and longer future directions,

Consider the significance of your data and what it suggests your next questions to tackle should be. Tie yourr findings back in to the BIG PICTURE goal of your lab's work. Sketch a model picture to illustrate your conclusion and embellish with simple, straight-forward language.  

Discuss your data, conclusions and sketches with your lab.

Decide what the main message of your work is,

Keep it short and sweet and make this your title! Use the active voice (i.e., avoid "ing" on the ends of verbs and avoid the verb "to be" whenever possible.

List all of the authors and contact them to make sure they know you are presenting this work.

Define your initial research question and explicitly state your hypothesis that the data should address,

Plan to have one or both of these clear and bold in your background/ introduction section.

Choose the background information this audience needs.

Your audience will need to understand the question your work addresses and you’ll want to give them the tools to understand your results.  Why is this question important?  What problem are you trying to solve?

(In our department, freshmen through biology faculty are your audience.  for other meetings this differs significantly.) for our department, start with intro biology level and decide the minimal detail needed to understand your project. Sketch 2-3 pictures to illustrate and embellish with words.

Draw a flow chart of your methods

Explain your procedure with pictures or cartoons that are simple and give the audience what they need to understand the experiments whose data you will show.  Include your model system. If you developed a new method you may want to describe it in more detail.

Acknowledge the people and sources who helped you,

Outside of your lab, there are people to acknowledge and sources to cite. Funders should also be thanked. Co-authors are not re-acknowledged.

Site relevant literature succinctly.

Eliminate extraneous material,

As viewers scan the room, you have about 10 seconds to trap their attention or they'll move on.

The average poster viewer wants to spend less than 10 minutes on your work.  There is lots to see and it's hot and crowded.

Only show material that adds to your central message.

Ethical considerations,

Follow rules for authorship. All authors should have a chance to review you poster and abstract before they are printed.

Use your own words and cite relevant  literature. The consequences for ethical breaches are quite serious.

Avoid enhancements to images and state exactly what modifications have been made - it is too easy to alter your own data (falsification) and you must be able to defend any and all of your changes.


Plan out your poster layout


Posters in our department should typically be formated to: 40 inches wide x 27.5 inches high

You can make a "custom slide" of this size in Powerpoint.

Before you actually spend time on the computer, take a big piece of paper that is about the right size and a ruler to see if you can actually make it all fit. Put it on the wall and ask people if they can read it from 3 feet away. Think about where the eyes of a person of average height go as they read your poster and what white spaces you want to leave for natural pauses.

Colors of projection and colors of printing are not the same. Use a palette meant for printing. Choose colors across or three in a row on the color wheel. Eye-catching yet subtle. Enhancing not distracting.

Standard layout:

  • Place a higher importance on figures over text.  Build figures first.  Have a figure in every section.
  • Text boxes: Plan about 6 sentences, around 200 words, or less for each text box. If there’s a natural break place, break text with a picture.
  • The total number of words on the poster should be less than 800 words (~200 words per section, ~11 words/line), and break up sections of words with figures.
  • Font sizes and styles are important. Don’t choose more than two and be very consistent with sizes.
    • Style: Some suggest a serif fonts for the body text. It is up to you but use the same font and line spacing throughout all of your text boxes. Something else to keep in mind is spacing. Courier and Courier New use the same amount of horizontal space between letters. Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica, Verdana, Georgia and Geneva use proportional spacing that can be harder to read at times.
    • Size: Make sure it can be read from 4 feet away. Your main title should be larger than 75pt. and the rest should be 24pt. or larger. The smallest font allowed is on figure labels, and they still must be readable.
  • Alignment: Natural spacing for reading is left justified.
  • Proofread. Project your poster on a screen and look carefully for errors. Pay attention to resolution of pictures. Colors or projection and colors of printing are not the same.

Presenting Your Poster


What are the challenges of presenting your poster orally?

****Comparing with a seminar talk what is the poster session most similar too? (Q+A- which many of us found to be the hardest part of the seminar talks/rotation talks) Make sure you have an answer for every question you got. KNOW YOUR SCIENCE AT EVERY LEVEL. YOU NEED TO BE THE EXPERT.

Who will be the audience today who might visit your poster?

  • Freshmen looking for research or sent there by their class
  • Sophomores
  • Juniors and seniors
  • People from your own lab
  • Faculty, postdocs and grad students from labs nearby your
  • Faculty instructors of yours
  • People you’ve invited
  • Fellowship committee members,dept honors members

Every attendee is a different “audience” and since they are often the only one at the poster, you need to identify and meet their needs. How do you do that? How do you prepare for that?

Personal interactions are key!

Identify their goals.

Check in continuously--Keep looking for non-verbal cues from the attendee.

How many new terms can a person handle? What counts as a “term”? what is common molecular jargon and what is lab-specific jargon?

If you have to use terminology, what do you do to make it better? Esp with mixed audience.

How confident should you be? Where are you the expert? Where might the audience be the expert?

Practice pacing- take breaths. Try to keep your tone even but your volume can change. Use the pictures.

What does it feel like when no one visits your poster? How can you guard against that?

The above information is adapted from the Americaan Society of Plant Biology's poster advice.

Assess your availability

Research projects can vary in the time commitment they require. Before you begin searching for a project you need to understand how much time that you have to dedicate to a project. This availability should be clearly communicated with any professors you contact. Outline your schedule including classes, out of class commitments, and time which you feel could be dedicated to research.  Our introductory biology research lab courses allow you to gain research experience while you earn your introductory biology lab credit.  You also gain valuable lab skills in all of lab courses.

Explore current research

  • The most important step is to familiarize yourself with the research being conducted in various labs. This information will help you to determine which labs you’re interested in. For this department, see the different research areas, and the research descriptions on individual faculty's profiles.  Take notes on faculty that interest you. You can even view abstracts and papers from the lab in the publication section of each profile. You don’t need to understand it all, but it may help to focus your interests. (For suggestions outside our department, click here).
  • Attend the Department of Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Fair in February. Current undergraduate researchers will present posters of their research, and an abstract book will be available.
  • Apply for our summer research fellowship that will help you match in a lab.
  • Attend university poster sessions such as the annual Science 201X Symposium in the fall and the Undergraduate Research Fair sponsored by the Honors College in the spring.

Prepare a resume/C.V. or a brief description of yourself and your scientific interests

Professors realize that students in their first or second years may not have the experience necessary to generate a meaningful resume/C.V. This should not discourage underclassmen. For such students, a statement including relevant personal information and scientific interest is sufficient. Additionally, some professors may request a copy of your transcript.

Contact the professor(s) whose research interests you

For most professors, the best way to contact them is by e-mail. Make sure that your e-mail clearly states who you are and why you’re interested in the lab. Additionally, you may request a meeting with the professor to talk about the possibility of working in the lab. Be sure to include contact information such as a telephone number and/or e-mail address. If you do not hear back from one particular lab, do not be discouraged as many professors keep busy schedules.
** Note that professors can get flooded with requests for laboratory positions making it difficult for them to respond. Be sure to plan accordingly. If you would like to start research in the fall semester, do not wait until the fall to contact professors; instead, start making contacts in the spring or summer for these positions. ** or apply for our summer research fellowship that will help you match in a lab.

Prepare to meet with the professor

During your meeting with the professor you may want to find out some more information about the expectations for undergraduates in the lab. These expectations differ from lab to lab. Getting answers to your questions will ensure that the lab is in fact a good fit for you.

Questions to consider:

  • How many hours do undergraduates usually work?
  • Are hours flexible if I have other academic obligations?
  • Will I be able to work independently or will I be supervised?
  • Will I be able to work on a project?
  • Are there any papers I must read before starting?
  • What funding opportunities exist?

This list is not meant to be comprehensive. You will undoubtedly have your own unique questions. Remember that these first meetings should really be a discussion of your goals and the professor’s goals and expectations.