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Science, Maths & Technology

A poster boy for academic research

Updated Monday 21st July 2008

When it comes to academic posters a snappy title and some eye catching images help in getting a complex message across

The Friday before last I travelled to Keele university to take part in the Midlands hub of the national UKGRAD (or Vitae as it is now) poster competition. This event happens every year with PhD researchers encouraged to enter and publicise their work and improve the skills required in getting a good message across.

Now when I say it was a poster competition I don’t mean the typical posters you can see down many high streets. Academic posters are often used at conferences to describe research so often include a lot of information. The idea is not to get a very short impact message across but to have a narrative that explains the work undertaken in such a way to generate confidence in the information presented. Conferences often include poster sessions and I wrote about one I attended in Bordeaux last year in a blog such as this one.

The reason why I was at the Midlands hub is a) I study within the Midlands and b) I had won one of the positions available to the OU by gaining a prize in the university's own smaller competition. I had entered the year before but did not get over the first hurdle so it was really nice to see that I had learnt some of my lessons and gone the one better.

The reason why I got through to the regional hub, I think anyway, is because I made my research more accessible than I did the year before.

I had a snappy title (Have you ever wanted to be a superhero?) and I tried really, really hard to distil what I wanted to say into small bite-size chunks with a clear aim in mind to their inclusion.

This all sounds like common sense, which it is, but what was really great was going to a competition open to all so that I got to see lots of different research and how each group presented their work. I noticed something interesting. Assuming all the research was of equal quality there seemed to be a clear division of success between research groups. What I saw was social sciences not getting as much recognition as the sciences and the medical sciences often taking away the top prizes. I tried to figure out why this may be.

A common heard gripe of social sciences is that their subject does not often include images which they can use to entice a casual browser to dive deeper into their work. There is really important work being undertaken within social sciences. This research addresses topics which go on to affect millions of people. Unfortunately there are no really iconic, emotive and relevant images that can go with it. Sciences in general have less of a problem.

Anything remotely linked to space sciences can quite happily lay text over the latest offering from the Hubble space telescope. Extremely familiar shapes like cells and shiny lab equipment often intrigue the passer by. In terms of communicating to a non-specialist in your research, which all the judges were, these are invaluable tools in making your poster get ahead of the pack.

The social sciences flow chart may be succinct and well thought out but it is just not going to pull in as much of a crowd than a magic eye picture used to describe vision.

While this may account for sciences disproportionate prize winning it does not explain why the top prizes went away to medical sciences beyond any other. The reason I believe this happened was due to relevance.

Everyone in that room, no matter their age or profession, has had some dealing with illness or disability. This enables everyone looking at that work a foothold into understanding the aims, procedure and conclusions of that research. I believe this lesson is the real crux of communicating academic work to the general public.

You have to not only snag a reader but hold them. The best way of doing this is to make a bridge between your work and the non-specialists knowledge. Every endeavour should be made, without sacrificing the quality, to enable the layman a way of understanding and appreciating the work. There are always circumstances where this becomes incredibly difficult to do but it is often the case that this skill will prove massively useful later on. After all…

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother " - Albert Einstein

As far as the actual prizes went I didn’t make it through the Midlands hub. The eventual winner was very deserving since they had figured out how to make an artificial heart for 5% of the current cost.

There was a blissful half a second when the prize was called out since he had the same first name as me, the second half a second - with the last name being read out - was more disappointing. I can’t grumble too much though, since after showing my poster, one of the judges asked if they could use it in their course at Nottingham University.


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