BPS Summer Research Program Alumni Reunion: A Current Student’s Perspective

From June 17-19 the Biophysical Society’s Summer Program in Biophysics hosted its annual Alumni Reunion Weekend in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Previous program participants joined the current class for a fun and informative weekend that included a BBQ reception, scientific presentations from program alumni, career talks and panels featuring a diverse group of visiting scientists, as well as poster presentations by students from the current class. Students, alumni, and professors had a chance to catch up, network, and even make a few new friends over the course of the weekend. Current students received feedback on their posters and guidance on navigating their careers, along with the opportunity to ask questions on a variety of topics. In this blog, we will hear from current BPS Summer Program participant, Monica Cortez, on her thoughts about the reunion weekend.

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The Biophysical Society’s 2016 Summer Program Alumni Reunion Weekend was my first experience participating in an event where I had the opportunity to present my research. The weekend’s poster session went well and I was able to discuss my research with alumni, current students, program staff, and visiting scientists. During the session, one scientist approached me with a mini experiment she was conducting on students during the poster session: I was dealt the task of explaining my project to her as if she were a time traveler from the 1800s. At first I was nervous about the approach to explaining my project in an elementary way, but much to my surprise, I quickly uncovered my talent for science communication. As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate your research to anyone ranging from the general public to the most knowledgeable scientists. There was a lot of fun to be had explaining my project in breaking it down to the bare bones of it, the most fundamental concepts going into the big picture of the research. I realized then that my ability to simplify the explanation of my project meant my mentor had done an excellent job in helping me understand my project.

As the poster session proceeded, groups would rotate, and some people would linger a little longer if something caught their interest or if they needed further clarification about the project. This brought me to my next challenge, the challenge of defending previous work done on the project; work done by other researchers collaborating on the project. This means that I was asked questions about the research that I had not asked myself previously. One particular question involved a technique I had not done previously. My first time doing the technique was less than 24 hours before the question was asked. This was a frustrating moment during the poster session. The conversation about a tiny but very important detail to the project felt like it went on for hours. As my first poster session and first experience presenting my “explanation of research” experience, I felt targeted by the question, but I walked away from it with a new understanding. This understanding is that you will be asked questions you did not think about, and you will have to answer truthfully that you do not know the answer to their question. It is not a matter of being targeted, rather it is a matter of realizing research is about answering questions no one knows the answer to.

On the concluding day of the weekend, Summer Program alumni presented their own research and took part in a career panel. This day, program alum, Dr. Yadilette Rivera-Colón provided feedback about the “time traveler” experiment she conducted and went on to explain her background and her path to get where she is today. Congratulations to her because she announced her next career move: an associate professor position! It was amazing to sit amongst a crowd seeing one of our very own alumni finally serving in academia as a professor. Another alum spoke on getting NSF grants and provided tips on how to apply. There were also alumni who spoke on taking steps towards other career opportunities outside of academia. I felt that this was a good choice of topic and beneficial to expose the current Biophysical Society’s Summer Program students to alternative career choices. The career panel was also beneficial in that it led to interesting discussions. One particular point I feel is important to mention is the commonality among the scientists on the panel: even though their paths were very different, they all overcame potential roadblocks encountered by building an excellent support system. One very emotional topic involved the journey to getting a PhD; many panelists felt a lack of excitement and emotional support from their advisors when passing their candidacy, being given a small “congratulations” and a “so what’s next for experiments?”. I was taken aback by this because I’ve always surrounded myself in a good network of people who get excited over my accomplishments no matter how big or small they are. This emotional experience was important for the summer students to witness, highlighting how a strong support system and communication skills play a huge part in success. Communication of your work as a scientist is important, but more importantly the communication between you and your advisor/boss is even more important. Once the emotional needs of the mentee are efficiently communicated to the mentor, their relationship can strengthen. Your mentor/mentee relationship is an important part to succeeding in graduate school and beyond. Several alumni candidly discussed how not meeting these emotional needs can lead to crippling depression during graduate school, and encouraged current students to utilize the Program’s alumni network as a source of ongoing support throughout their careers.

The weekend concluded differently than I had expected but overall I wouldn’t have changed anything about this experience. The summer students met people from different career paths and learned how to communicate. Being a part of this summer program feels like a privilege. Not only was I blessed with an advisor who helped me accomplish this part of my career journey, but I am blessed to be working on a project with an excellent mentor here at UNC who is extremely supportive as well. This weekend showed me that I also have a network of alumni from the Biophysical Society’s Summer Research program; an important connection between previous students and the current students has been established, and we are so lucky to have met them all.

 – Monica K Cortez, Biophysical Society Summer Research Program Fellow

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How Do I Prepare My Poster? How Do I Give a Talk?

Sections of this article are adapted from the article “Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentation,” by Steven M. Block, published in Biophysical Journal, Volume 71, December 1996.

Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted for the 60th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and your poster has been scheduled in with thousands of others during the meeting. What do you do next? How do you prepare for the presentation? What can you do to stand out from the others? Even if this is not your first presentation, it is important to keep certain things in mind while preparing your poster and presentation.

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First, consider how your poster will look—the size, colors, font, and flow of it. Think of your audience—people walking through the poster hall, glancing around for interesting topics. Most important on your poster is the title. The title of your poster does not need to match the title of your abstract. In fact, it’s best that it doesn’t. Your abstract title is probably long, incredibly descriptive, and possibly laden with jargon. But you are trying to attract people to come over and read your poster, so keep the title short, snappy, and to the point. Make sure someone can get a general idea of your topic just from reading the title – and make sure they can read the font from a reasonable distance.

Once you’ve lured readers to your poster, you want to make sure they can actually read the text you’ve so painstakingly put together. Fonts smaller than 12-point are just too small for a poster—14-point should be used as a benchmark for the absolute minimum font size (think fine print), and the main text should be 18-20 point or larger (the title should be even bigger). If your text doesn’t fit at that size, consider editing your text, not decreasing the font size. While we’re talking about fonts, keep in mind that poster presentations are not the right place to experiment with fun, fancy fonts (save those for e-cards to your Nobel Prize celebration!). Use fonts that are easy to read. If you want to move from the traditional Times New Roman, stick with something equally basic, such as Baskerville Old Face, Century Schoolbook, or Palatino Linotype. Make sure whatever font you choose works well with any equations or symbols you use. Once you’ve selected a font, keep your choice (and size) consistent throughout the poster.

You may want to draw readers to you by making your poster a bright color, or adding patterns or some other loud visual cue. There’s nothing wrong with a little color in your poster, but keep it professional (avoid neon hues, unless they’re relevant to your research), and keep it readable by making sure the colors contrast well—if you want a navy blue background, your font color should not be deep magenta.

Now that you’ve settled on the basic font, size, and color choices, it’s time to lay out your poster. Break your presentation into logical sections that easily flow from one to another, to help your reader follow your research. Start in the top left, moving vertically first, then left to right. Make sure to include any additional authors towards the beginning of your poster and any relevant references towards the end—it is very important to give credit to everyone involved!

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With your poster finished, it’s time to prepare your actual presentation. You’ll want to stick around near your poster for as much time as you can to engage with readers, answer questions, and of course meet and network with other scientists interested in your research. Definitely plan to camp out by your poster for at least the hour that you are scheduled to present. Keeping in mind that most people will only stop for a moment, and even those who linger will only do so for three to five minutes, put together an “elevator speech” with the top points you want to make and practice it! To help develop your presentation, test it out on a colleague or labmate to get feedback on your clarity and delivery.

Engage curious parties in conversation, but be careful to not badger anyone, or to be too engrossed in any one conversation (thus ignoring everyone else). You can always schedule a follow-up with very interested individuals if needed. If you have them, bring business cards (or paper and pen) to share your contact information with anyone interested in follow-up.

If you come prepared with a well-designed poster, a few key talking points, and copies of any necessary ancillary materials, you can hang your poster and then let your science speak for itself!

Pennsylvania Regional Networking Meeting Takes Off

The BPS Networking meeting took place on Friday 11-11-11 at The Pennsylvania State University, College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. The meeting was extremely well attended with representation from throughout the Mid-Atlantic and East Coast Regions including PA, NJ, NY, MD, VA, DC, and NC.

Kurt Andresen presenting his research.

A total of 65 people attended the meeting in which participants enjoyed four 15 minute platform talks, a keynote address, and over 30 poster presentations. The group was quite diverse and included high school students, undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and principle investigators from both academia and industry. The discussion periods after the talks were quite lively and the poster presentations offered opportunities for scientific discussions and networking. The meeting was supported by sponsorship from several companies including Fisher Scientific, VWR, LabRepco, Optical Apparatus Co., B&B Microscopes, Andor, Chroma, and Photon Technology International.

One of two poster sessions that took place during the meeting.

Following the meeting, the participants discussed the possibility for future events and networking opportunities. A group of three participants expressed an interest in organizing a regional meeting next year:
William Hancock – Penn State University (wohbio@engr.psu.edu)
Ekaterina Grishchuk – University of Pennsylvania (gekate@mail.med.upenn.edu)
Damian Thevenin – Lehigh University (damien.thevenin@lehigh.edu)

Thank you to all who attended and made the meeting a success.

Christopher Yengo, BPS Member

Biophysical Society member Christopher Yengo (Penn State College of Medicine) organized this session with help from a BPS networking mini-grant. To view the full program, visit the Pennsylvania networking event page of the Society website.

Want to organize a networking session in your area? Visit the networking events page of the BPS website to submit your mini-grant application.