CfBS Postgraduate Symposium 2014

By Karolina Mirowska

A chronicle about one of the most exciting events of the year at our faculty.

Official poster of the symposium

I still remember the panic last year when I had to prepare the presentation for the Postgraduate Symposium. Sure, I have given some lab and group meetings previously but nothing on this scale. I have spent a lot of time trying to get the presentation right, wondering what needs to be highlighted and what can be removed. Until the very end I was unsure how it is going to be received. I don’t even remember how it went, other than the fact that I was really nervous. What I remember the best is how impressed I was with the quality of presentations and posters from other participants.

This year was no different. I was sitting during the talks, thinking to myself that everyone is just amazing, that the data they have is great and that everyone is clearly much better than I am. Same with the posters, I kept wondering what I am missing that my posters are not like them. I was really glad that I wasn’t a judge, because it would be extremely difficult to pick the best from that good. Turns out I wasn’t alone and everyone was thinking the same – the standard of the posters and talks was really high. So when the winners were announced I have made up my mind – I will reach out to both the winners and the judges and find out what made their talks and posters not only great but exceptional. In other words, keep reading if you want to know how to have a winning poster or presentation. Hopefully this will help next year’s presenters or anyone who is going to a conference or giving a talk.

Oral presentation

The key thing in preparing your presentation is to know your audience. It might be different if you go to a specialist conference but for a Postgraduate Symposium you need to treat your audience as an informed lay people. Yes, most of them are biologists but they are working in their field for a while now and might not be familiar with the details of your topic. They might have even forgotten some information, pathways or names that are basic for you. So simplify and explain as much as possible and avoid jargon! This is especially important when explaining the background and the methods for your project. Also, as Dr Patric Doncaster points out, remember to set your study in the wider context. And if you struggle with this, Matt Rodrigues has a tip for you – participate in outreach events which “make it a lot easier to find words when explaining your work to another biologist who might not be an expert in your exact field.” Remember also about the same principle during the questions – they will be coming from non-specialists, so do not worry about the details of the particular study but rather demonstrate principles and paint the bigger picture.

“Probably the most important thing to bear in mind is that most of your audience don’t work in your field, so keep everything as simple as possible. I tried not to use any scientific terms that weren’t entirely necessary and rely only on everyday speech wherever possible. “ – Emma Brooks

Try structuring your talk so that it has a narrative story and has all five necessary parts – introduction, objectives, methods, results and conclusions. Assign thematic titles to your slides, it will help the audience to know where they are in your talk. Spend a while properly explaining study objectives, which should be presented after the introduction and explaining the issue. The objective should also be reflected in the title of your talk. Remember to return to the issue and objectives in your conclusions.

“The best talks had a clear and interesting narrative structure, which engaged the audience by making them care about an issue and taking them through the process of scientific enquiry towards a discovery. Congshan Sun’s paper-prize talk was exemplary in setting out an issue and how she aimed to address it, and then explaining the results she found, and – most importantly – the checks she made for alternative explanations, allowing reasoned conclusions at the end.” – Dr Patrick Doncaster

Also, keep in mind that even if you had said something once, that doesn’t mean that people will remember that. Make sure you guide them through your talk– post small pictures of a pathway or the method as a reminder on the slide and make sure to repeat the key information. Same applies to the main message – repeat it couple times and make sure to put it in a context, so that people can not only understand it but also grasp why it is amazing. Matt Davies, this year’s winner, has also an unusual suggestion for structuring you talk for a bigger impact: “Finish the presentation by discussing the impact of your work as opposed to starting with this. This way the biggest point you make is the last point”.

As for the slides itself, remember that sometimes less is more. Therefore Matt Davies advises not to overload your slides with information and try to explain your point with images rather than text. As they say, one picture can be worth a thousand words. Emma Brooks gave a great example for it with her take-home message: instead of just writing it down, she used this simple slide. And everything is clear!

Also, Matt Davies suggests keeping audience engaged with animations. But be careful! You do not want them to be distracting so think about which part of your presentation can really benefit from them. For example, use them when you want to build a complicated picture or show moving parts. Make sure to clearly label your graphs (and the axis), especially if you are showing multiple types of response presented on one. If you are showing averages, it needs to be clear and error bars should show the variation around each average. Also, when describing the results, do not focus on the statistical significance by itself (* on the graph is sufficient) but rather on the effects detected and their interpretation. In addition, link your results to your objectives or to the main issue.

The last thing you need to consider is if you want to memorize your talk or if you prefer a bit more improvisation. It is a very personal decision and you probably just need to check what works best for you. For Emma Brooks (2nd prize), it was moving away from the memorisation, despite the obvious advantage of it – “Some people memorise their talk by heart, and actually these ones are often the most articulate. However I know I’ve frozen in the past when my mind has gone blank, so now I prefer to use each slide as a prompt of what I want to talk about. That way I don’t feel like I have to remember exactly what I want to say, but instead can just discuss each slide in turn.” Whatever you chose, make sure to speak slowly and clearly and be enthusiastic about your project.


You might think that this one is easier than the presentation, but here you are judged both on the design of the poster itself and its presentation. And as dr Rob Ewing, one of the poster judges, say “the poster presentation (i.e. explanation from the presenter) carries a little more weight than the poster itself. “ Therefore your concern should not only be to print it on time (remember 48 hours for the Print Center!) but also to practise explaining it. Having your poster ahead of time really helps with this, as Megan Sealey puts it “(…) because I made my poster ahead of time I was able to show it to a few people to get their opinions – so being organised really pays off.”

During the day, make sure you actually present your poster to the judges – find out who they are and drag them to your poster if necessary.

As for the poster itself, same rules apply as for the slides for the presentation. Everyone highlights that less is more, so try focusing on a story you want to present (it can be the most important experiments for your project or just one aspect of your project). On the other hand, just as dr Mariana Vargas-Caballero points out “you need to show that you are well into your PhD.” More specifically she advises to “make sure you define the big picture but also it is very important to explain clearly what you are actually measuring. A sample photo, trace, gel is very useful to visualise this.”

“When I designed my poster I was trying to include the necessary figures and captions so that I could explain my project, the results and the insight gained from them so that I could present them as a single story, kind of like a comic book.” – Matt Rodrigues

If you still have problem deciding what should go on your poster try doing an elevator pitch about your project – start by trying to condense your research into just three minutes (and then consider taking part in Three Minute Thesis™ competition, since you have done most of the work). This needs to be included in your talk or on the poster. Then cut your pitch even shorter, up to 30 seconds. This is your take-home message.

Regarding poster itself, make sure everything is clear and legible; also check the resolution of your graphics so that you don’t end up with blurry images. Make your poster interesting and inviting to people.

“I used diagrams wherever possible and cut down the amount of words to an absolute minimum. I also used bright colours as well as at the end of the day it needs to be eye catching.” – Megan Sealey

Dr. Mariana Vargas-Caballero also suggests to remember about the details: “A great way to convince people that you are on top of your data analysis is to show your experimental design and good stats in your poster (are error bars SEM or SD, results for ANOVA, N=, explain what * or ** significance is and whether you applied post hoc correction multiple comparison analysis), this doesn’t take any extra space and any informed lay person – or a judge – would appreciate that.”

Finally, whatever you are presenting, make sure to relax. Nobody knows your project better than you. Smile. Breathe. It will be all good.


*Complete list of winners*


1st prize: Matt Davies. “Somatic stress signalling due to presynaptic dysfunction in CSPα knockout (-/-) mice”.

2nd prize: Emma Brooks“Fishing for answers: Global evidence to positive impacts of freshwater biodiversity on fishery yields”.

3rd prize:  James Schofield. “The 5’-Terminal G-quadruplex of Task-3 mRNA determines mRNA fate and membrane expression”. 


Best poster: Megan Sealey. “How does ageing contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease?”.

Honorific mentions:

Matthew Rodrigues.“Site specific radiation damage to the I320 of PLP synthase”.

-Maja Genheden. “The MAP-Kinase-Interacting Kinases [Mnks] mediate the activation of protein synthesis by brain-derived neurotrophic factor [BDNF] in cortical neurons”.

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