Some notes on poster design

In preparing my fabric poster for ASM 2014, I decided to review some of the key concepts for how to make a poster about your research. Here are some of my notes.

It’s essential to remember that a poster is a marketing tool. It’s more of an abstract than a scientific paper. And because it is an abstract, you don’t need to have one on your poster. Its purpose is for networking and shameless self-promotion. Be sure to use lots of pictures and select a nice color scheme. This time around I decided to use a combination of the Wes Anderson palettes

You should use something like Adobe In Design to lay out your poster. Powerpoint is not designed to create high quality graphic images. I use Photoshop because I like to take photos and I know my way around it. Also my computer is powerful enough that I don’t run into any memory issues. But I’ve been told that In Design is better suited for poster layout and uses less memory.

Your poster is a way of introducing yourself to new people and for sharing a few of your recent findings. Under the title, put your name, co-authors and institution(s) but please no logos. No one cares about your institution’s logo or what your building looks like. You should also provide your email address or website, so interested folks can contact you afterwards.

Don’t put any references on your poster. You can’t afford to give that space away to a reference list that no one will read. But you can give out copies of your own relevant published work (that has references). For the first time I posted an envelope with copies of a recent paper next to my ASM poster and I ran out of copies early into the poster session. 

Here are the fundamental questions that your poster should address:

What is your question and why should we care?

What did you do? 

What did you find?

What’s next? 

You should also address the ever important question: So what?

It is very important to check the amount of space that you will be allotted at the conference and to know what the size requirements are for the company who will be printing your poster. It will save you time if you set it up with the right size at the beginning. For my fabric poster that I printed with Spoonflower, the size was 36 in by 58 in. Although I was hoping to do something more edgy with my poster design, I fell back on the traditional strategy of using a landscape layout and dividing it into thirds. Then I addressed the above questions, moving from left to right. People know what to expect in terms of flow with this format. If you use another format, be sure to provide clear visual cues to guide the reader from start to finish. 

Use a bigger sized font or bold to highlight important results or concepts. Try to use no more than three fonts. I used two fonts in my poster: Helvetica (font size 56) for the subheaders and Garamond (font size 36) for the text. Avoid Comic Sans Serif, Times New Roman and Arial. This also applies to slides for talks (but with different font sizes).

For additional resources, Colin Purrington has an excellent webpage on poster design that is well worth a visit and is way more extensive than the suggestions provided here. You can use the website Vischeck to see how your figures might be seen by someone with colorblindness. And you can post your poster in this Flickr group for feedback. 

Here is my poster, which will also be up on F1000Posters soon. 



Fabric posters

It’s that time of year when we have to prepare presentations on our work for scientific conferences. Recently I presented a poster at the General Meeting for the American Society for Microbiology 2014 that was held in Boston a few weeks ago.

This time around I was excited to make a poster after reading a blog post by Jessica Polka about fabric posters. In fact, I was so intrigued that I didn’t even try to get a slot for a talk at ASM and instead I signed up to give a poster presentation. I followed Jessica’s advice and I ordered the performance knit from Spoonflower. One key thing to remember when starting to making your poster is that the standard size with Spoonflower is 36 in x 58 in, so set your poster up with that size at the beginning and use 300 dpi. Also I used the rush service and it was still cheaper than traditional poster printing (but you do need to allow at least four days). I ordered mine on a weekend; it shipped on Tuesday and arrived on Thursday morning. 

In addition to the novelty factor and the brilliant colors, fabric posters have a huge advantage over traditional posters because they fold up small and you can easily fit them in your carry-on. This is how my poster arrived in the mail:Image

You can also wear them to the meeting and whip them out when some kind person expresses interest in your work. Jessica encouraged me to take a picture of me wearing my poster as a scarf and post it on Twitter with #posterscarf And you should too!


The poster hall at ASM was very impressive. I did see one other fabric poster there but I was surprised that there weren’t more. And I felt sorry for all the people schlepping around poster tubes.


When the time came to mount the poster, I found that it was a little hard to smooth out every last wrinkle. We needed a few extra pins and I was glad to have a friend’s help. But all in all the fabric poster was a huge success. I had a great time at the meeting and now I can think about what sewing projects I want to do with it.



Learning how to promote my research (Virus of Unusual Size Kills Anthrax)

This was a banner week for me. I published an article in PLoS One on a novel bacteriophage that I co-discovered while studying naturally occurring anthrax in Etosha National Park, Namibia. This new phage is quite different from previously described Bacillus anthracis phages and is notable because it physically large and has a large genome for a Siphovirus (168kb).

When a manuscript is accepted by PLoS One, they send you instructions about what date the paper will be published and then they say something about how if you will be preparing press materials for this manuscript, you must inform our press team in advance…

Well I’ve never prepared a press release but this got me thinking. Last year one of my friends did and his work ended up in Wired Magazine (that’s so cool!). Also I’ve become increasingly interested in how to use social and other media to promote your research. (Somehow my paper on how vulture guano affects soil bacterial communities was under appreciated, even though I think that it is a very nice paper.)


And so I contacted the UC Davis Office of Strategic Communications and asked if they would be willing to work with me on a press release for our paper. And they were! We checked with our collaborators’ home institutions but none were interested in issuing in a joint press release (somehow they failed to see the possibilities for a Giant Virus from Dead Zebra Kills Anthrax).

Both the paper and the press release came out on Monday afternoon and the university also published a post based on it on the UC Davis Egghead blog. I tweeted the blog post (but I don’t have many followers), posted it on Facebook (mostly friends and family not in science), and went home.

On the way to work the next morning, I received an email from my husband saying “You’ve made it now!” He had received an email from a friend who found an article about our press release on the front page of Reddit (for newbies like me Reddit is a news and entertainment website with the slogan, “the front page of the internet”). Of course there were a lot of inane comments and most people did not read our paper (which was not linked in the article posted on Reddit). Still this was very fun!

All in all, the press release yielded a wide range of articles a number of online magazines and was even published in Russian and German (but this version dropped me in favor of my German and Swiss collaborators). My favorite title is “Anthrax faces silent war with giant deadly killer” (on World Science) but the Pig Site’s Rotting Zebra Bacteria Can Kill Anthrax is a close second.

Then I received a tweet from a producer at WNYC’s The Takeaway wanting to chat. So now I’m famous and you can listen to me here!

 I’ll have to let you know if this helps advance phage research. But we’ve already received one request for the phage from a government lab and my collaborators were so impressed with the widespread interest in this anthrax phage that they are now going to include virulent anthrax strains in the testing of the lysin protein that the phage uses to rupture cells.


Learning compassion from a zebra

jackal on carcass

Circling vultures led me to find the young zebra nuzzling the cold body of his mother, trying to nurse. He is holding vigil as scavenging jackals and vultures dart about, ignoring him, fighting for access to her corpse. There is nothing else that he can do; zebras don’t adopt orphans and the rest of the herd has moved off to the waterhole. The young zebra lets me approach and pet him when I go over to collect samples from the carcass to determine the cause of death and pound in metal stakes to mark the location of the body. He is young and playful, still bearing the brown and furry coat that helps baby zebra blend into the golden-colored grassland. Some time in the night, he is chased from the carcass by lions. The lions probably killed him because this time he doesn’t return.

This young zebra and his mother are both victims of anthrax, a deadly disease that principally affects grazing animals. I was in Etosha National Park, Namibia (in Southern Africa), investigating how infectious hot spots persist to infect zebras and other grazers. After four field seasons and hundreds of carcasses, you would think that I would have become inured to such losses. Instead I became sensitized to the struggles facing young (and old) zebras. When I started the project, I saw a carcass as a data point rather than someone’s mother. Now, as I tell a friend later over a gin and tonic at the bar in the tourist camp, I have to squelch the overwhelming desire to take the poor orphan home and rescue him from his fate. This has also become a problem for me in watching nature shows. 


Welcome to my new blog on microbes associated with animals.