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Poster session, the Most Learnable Part in a Scientific Conference, a Mutual Learning Mode

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking – Carl Sagan

As I was surfing the Internet on an idyllic afternoon, my friend emailed me that he was going to attend a Gordon Research Conference (GRC). I looked it up and immediately found a list of potential lab heads, which I thought could be beneficial for my career development.  I registered to attend this conference at once, since I had just got my PhD degree and was looking for potential job opportunities. So it happens, GRC was not a new word to me. Four years earlier I had attended a GRC on dendrite, sponsored by Dr. Nancy Gray, President and CEO of GRC. Coincidently enough, the Mitochondria in Health and Disease was held in the same spot. Usually January through March, GRC would select Ventura (CA) to be its conference site.

In many ways, the GRC is quite unique. It is not simply a scientific conference for sharing people’s work or get first-hand scientific discoveries, but also a chance to really “enjoy” science. The length depends on specific conference, but usually the Gordon Research Conference lasts for five days (from Monday evening to Thursday night). Together with Gordon Research Seminar, the GRC last  for seven days (from Sunday evening to next Friday night), making it a quite special experience.


The venue is tricky

My past two experiences with GRC took place in Marriot, CA who provided a quite open space for having meals where attendees should sit around a table. Hence, you can talk to different scientists even if you didn’t reserve someone to sit beside you beforehand. So your neighbor is instead randomly selected. Everybody can have several rounds of meals and rounds of meal neighbors. I attended Cold Spring Harbor Conference and other small scale conferences or seminars in the past and during these conferences, people usually sat face to face in a rectangle table like what we see in coffee shops. However, rectangle tables limited the range of scientists and you can only talk to one person or three people at most when having a meal together. Usually the consequence is that people from the same lab or people who knew each other beforehand often prefer to sit together throughout the whole conference. However, the round table “forced” people to sit with “strangers”, which would provide more chance for sharing thoughts, collaborating or even telling jokes. For a job hunter like me, it was the best chance to talk to different potential professors without feeling awkward or very intentionally.


Poster session is the most learning part

Poster session is the most learning part or we could say, poster session is a valuable training exercise with a great ability to ask the researcher directly. Most people would say attending a conference is just to listen or receive knowledge, but I suppose it is more of a bilateral process. What’s more important, GRC appeals attendees to present unpublished data and more not-open-to-public-yet data can be seen here compared to other conferences.

During the lecture session, attendees learn from the speakers, but since question time is almost limited, it is unclear what to do with unanswered questions. This is where the poster sessions come into play as a solution to this problem. Usually the lecturer is the lab head and lab members present posters. We can ask them in detail without time limit as long as the post presenter is happy and patient enough with us. I usually go through every poster during the poster session, listen the presenters walk through the poster and discuss with them to see if I could get any clues for my own projects. Sometimes, I ask them questions straight away if I am familiar with their projects without their prior introduction or if their poster is easy to get understood.

If you are a poster presenter yourself, poster session in a way provides the best opportunity to show other scientists your project and to have your moment in the spotlight. This means however that you need to know your research project by heart, why you asked the questions that you did and how you tried to solve you them, what results you came up with and what conclusions you made from it and simply why it matters. As a presenter it is important to be aware that your audience may not always be friendly. They could, for instance, ask you critical questions which could make you feel embarrassed. Most of the time is that you don’t know the straight answer. That’s not a big deal because we are not born to know everything. You just tell the audience you don’t know and will later check it out. But the worst situation is that you find you were totally wrong. For instance, you were opposite to generally-acknowledged principle. This is not a pleasant feeling, but it is an important experience and beneficial for your project to forge ahead or change into a new direction or quit as soon as possible.

The mutual process of receiving and providing embellished the literal meaning of a conference. When it comes to terms like “conference”, “seminar” or ”lecture”, we would first think of stuff like “I’m going to attend it”. Thus, the first impression of them is a kind of passive participation. Many fellows would rather tend to be listeners or learners and instead of themselves show other scientists their own project, except when they are encouraged or forced by their supervisors to upload their abstracts. Conferences are for that reason a rare chance, since not everybody can be selected to present a talk, but posters are always welcome. So, poster session provides more information than lecture part. For presenters, it’s show time whilst for attendees, it’s time to learn.


Helpful for future career

Any scientific conference can help your future career, but GRC is most learnable. Lectures and posters presented at GRC are mostly unpublished and the venue provides unique dining way to get to know more peers and learn new stuff. Anyone can make friends during conferences so these venues is great opportunity for ECRs. Through discussing with fellows, you may find clues to your long-standing problems; through chatting with seniors, you may get advice from their past failures; through moving a step forward to talk to the big figures, you may have new horizons, etc.

This is also an opportunity for master students to find a PhD program, for PhD students a postdoc position or new research collaborators to fulfill a project and broaden the horizon. It is also a great chance to make new friends and to meet great scientists that you admire for their work.


Take home messages

Take advantage of every chance where you could discuss science with people. And never act as an audience simply to receive knowledge by being left alone in the corner. Talking with more people offers more opportunities.


Featured image: “little poster session” by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0





Alessandra Dillenburg. (March 27, 2018).  Travel, science, and making friends: why you should go to a small conferencePLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Carl Sagan: ‘Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking’, Carl Sagan’s last interview – 1996

Lei Shen. (April 10, 2018). I survived giving my first large conference talk as a PhD student. PLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.



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