26 January 2012

Link roundup, January 2012

Neil Withers has an editorial in Nature Chemistry called “In praise of posters.” I’m particularly grateful for something I’ve wondered about: the origin of poster sessions.

But once upon a time there must have been meetings without posters. So when was the first poster and who came up with the idea? Sadly, it looks as though history (or at least, as it is indexed by Google, Web of Science and other such databases) has not recorded the exact moment for us to celebrate. As far as we can tell, however, the idea originated in Europe, perhaps because the range of languages spoken meant it would be a good idea to have a session where delegates could absorb information in a non-native language at their own pace. The phenomenon was only reported in North America in 1974 at the Biochemistry/Biophysics Meeting in Minneapolis. Not that Americans were slow to embrace the visual, however. The American Chemical Society then introduced poster sessions for the fall national meeting, in Chicago in 1975, a move that resulted in some 41 presentations (take a bow, Divisions of Chemical Education and Inorganic Chemistry). What’s more, the session was seen as a ‘trail blazer.’

The article also has some great links, such as this one, which asks, “What makes a good poster?”, and presents a good case that posters are often superior forms of communication over talks. (And if you look close, you’ll see a cameo appearance by this blog.)

Ed Yong discusses how to make a great conference.

Rig things so that the most passionate people show up.

Arrange everything so that they have nothing to distract them from the business of talking to each other.

Equalise everything.

19 January 2012

Critique: The Marlborough Fault System

This week, we have a lovely geology poster submitted for review from Jana Mittelstädt.

This poster is successful because it only tries to do one thing: present a case for a new hypothesis to explain a geological feature. And it makes its case through one large, detailed graphic.

My only suggestions for improvement would be a few minor changes at the top of the poster. That there is ample blank space at the bottom of the poster means that some of the material at the top could be enlarged without crowding the rest.

The labels, “Previous interpretation” and “New hypothesis” are far smaller than their importance warrants. People are going to look in that upper left corner first, and by enlarging the labels above the green maps, you would let them known in an instant the case that you are trying to make on this poster.

Similarly, the callout under the second map seems a little too understated, although it might be more legible on the printed poster.

Finally, the text in the upper right is large enough, but would benefit from some paragraph indents and half a line, or line, of space to separate the text.

If you have a poster you’re proud of, email me! I’m particularly interested in posters from sciences besides my own (biology), and academic disciplines besides science.

12 January 2012

Don’t make errors in your error bars

Comparing averages should be one of the easiest kinds of information to show, but they are surprisingly tricky.

Most people know that when they show an average, there should be an indication of how much smear there is in the data. It makes a huge difference to your interpretation of the information, particularly when glancing at the figure.

For instance, I’m willing to bet most people looking at this...

Would say, “Wow, the treatment is making a big difference compared to the control!”

I’m likewise willing to bet most people looking at this (which plots the same averages)...

Would say, “There’s so much overlap in the data, there might not be any real difference between the control and the treatments.”

The problem is that error bars can represent at least three different measurements (Cumming et al. 2007).

  • Standard deviation
  • Standard error
  • Confidence interval

Sadly, there is no convention for which of the three one should add to a graph. There is no graphical convention to distinguish these three values, either. Here’s a nice example of how different these three measures look (Figure 4 from Cumming et al. 2007), and how they change with sample size:

I often see graphs with no indication of which of those three things the error bars are showing!

And the moral of the story is: Identify your error bars! Put in the Y axis or in the caption for the graph.


Cumming G, Fidler F, Vaux D 2007. Error bars in experimental biology The Journal of Cell Biology 177(1): 7-11. DOI: 10.1083/jcb.200611141

A different problem with error bars is here.

05 January 2012

Free maps!

Indiemapper, an online mapping program that I discussed before, is now free for all to use.

I was using it earlier this week. I continue to be impressed with this project. It’s straightforward to import *.kml files from Google Maps or Google Earth, and to export high resolution images from maps.

Related posts

Do I have to draw you a map?

The story behind a symposium

Last week, I announced a symposium that I am co-organizing for next year’s International Congress of Neuroethology at the University of Maryland over on my main blog, NeuroDojo. It’s titled “Nociceptors in the real world.”

My partners in this venture are Ashlee Rowe (at the University of Texas in Austin) and Ewan St. John Smith (you can listen to him on the Science podcast talking about why naked mole rats don’t feel pain from acids).

What I didn’t mention on my main blog is how the symposium came together. It started in a poster session.

In particular, this symposium for next year’s Neuroethology meeting started at the last meeting in 2010.

Before the conference, I had checked for other posters on the topic I was presenting on (nociception). Out of several hundred posters, there were four: myself and three others. The good news was that we had been placed together, so we were able to see each other’s work easily. But in the back of my mind, I was sort of chewing on the fact that this topic was not well represented at this meeting.

This poster session was... compact. You were elbow-to-elbow with the people next to you, and because the poster boards were zig-zagging across the floor, it was very difficult to have to facing posters being presented at the same time. This meant you sort of had to cooperate with people who had posters next to you to be able to show off your work at all. And we were so close, it was extraordinarily easy to strike up a conversation. I loved the work that Ashlee and Ewan had on their posters (you can see a bit of Ashlee’s poster behind me in the picture above).

At some point, all this coalesced in my head into an idea. I went over to them and said, “We should do a symposium on nociception at the next congress!”

They liked the idea. And that got the whole ball rolling.

A lot of emails and Google Doc sharing and invitations later, and we’re going to have a symposium at the next meeting, and I’m super excited about it. The meeting is 5-10 August 2012. Mark your calendars if you’re interested in nervous systems, animal behaviour, or evolution!

If we had got up and given three straight slide presentations in a row instead of standing next to each other for a few hours at that poster session, it would not have happened.

And that’s today’s reason why I love poster sessions.

Because stuff gets done there.


Blogging from International Congress for Neuroethology in Salamanca, 2010

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4-5
Conferences and cathedrals