The Poster Sessions: Showcasing the Latest Research

Stepping onto the exhibit floor at an Annual Meeting poster session is a memorable experience. Row upon row of colorful posters beckon, and the chatter of thousands of people fills the room.

During the upcoming American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, 5,434 posters will be presented over the course of six poster sessions. These posters represent 11 major areas of scientific research—bioinformatics, convergence science, and systems biology; cancer chemistry; clinical research; clinical trials; endocrinology; epidemiology; experimental and molecular therapeutics; immunology; molecular and cellular biology/ genetics; prevention, early detection, and interception; and tumor biology—and two policy tracks, regulatory science and policy and science and health policy. In addition, participants in the AACR’s Scientist↔Survivor program present posters on advocacy. This year’s meeting will also feature posters from undergraduates who were awarded Margaret Foti Foundation Undergraduate Prizes for Cancer Research.

In the months leading up to the Annual Meeting, the meeting’s program committee reviews abstracts. After deciding which abstracts to accept, the committee invites some researchers to give oral presentations and assigns others to poster sessions. By the time a study is posted, it has been read and scored by anywhere from two to six reviewers.

Researchers who learn they’ll be participating in a poster session spend the last few weeks before the meeting translating their work into posters that summarize their findings while providing enough visual appeal to attract an audience. Many will work to hone their findings into a quick “elevator speech” – a simple summary that will allow them to connect memorably with a visitor.

“Sharing your work during a poster session gives you the opportunity to practice talking about your research in a clear and concise way and responding to questions,” said Lisa N. Haubein, PhD, director of Scientific Programs in the AACR’s Program Development office. “These skills will help you form new relationships and can make you more prepared to give an oral presentation in front of an even bigger audience.”

This year’s Annual Meeting features one poster session on Sunday, March 31, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and one on Wednesday, April 3, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. On Monday, and Tuesday, poster sessions will take place from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. During those four hours, researchers stand with their posters and are prepared to discuss their findings with any interested attendee.

Social media has added a sense of immediacy to poster sessions. Per the AACR’s social media policy, attendees are permitted to take photos of all posters. However, if you do not want people to share your work via social media, you should add a sign to your poster saying, “DO NOT POST.” Attendees are asked to comply with this policy throughout the Annual Meeting, in all levels of presentation.

For many early-career researchers and for those who present through the Scientist↔Survivor program, poster sessions are their first chance to present their work. The promise of professional opportunity and pride in one’s research may be tempered by a slight case of the jitters. We Tweeted out a call for advice from AACR members, and received some excellent tips. Some highlights:

“Make sure your conclusions are clear and highlighted properly. Many people start there and then if they find it interesting move forward to the rest of it. This is simply due to the high volume of presentations.” – Anchit Khanna, MD, PhD, @your_Lifesaver

“Have a short synopsis (a couple of mins) to pique the listener’s interest to bring them in to your poster, in addition to different levels of depth/explanation for different listeners. Don’t start with a 20 min talk!” – Brittany Avin, @BrittanyAnne340

“Stand by your poster. Nothing worse than walking across that massive hall to a specific poster with burning questions to find it unmanned!” @Jennerifer

An early-career researcher discusses her poster at the AACR Annual Meeting 2015. Photo by Todd Buchanan.

“Bring a bottle of water, because you’re going to be doing a lot of talking …” – Matt Martin, @signaltonoises

“Great timing—it’s all in the prep. Treat it like an oral presentation and talk yourself through it. If it flows well, you will be able to explain it to others. Make your own task easy and reduce anxiety.” – Janis Callister, @janiscallister

“Smile and say hello.” – Arutha Kulasinghe, @aruthak

“Care about your work, be passionate about what you do. Good posters are the sparkle of the next big thing.” – Bettina Ryll, @BettinaRyll

“At AACR 2014, my post was scheduled for the last day. An announcement marked the end of the meeting, but people were still listening to me with so much interest. That was when I felt like a little ‘heroine.’” – Khushboo Agrawal, @WomanInCancer