Ask the Expert: Making your papers and posters shine

Writing your first scientific paper, or making your first poster, can feel like a grueling process. But it gives you the chance to think about why you’re doing your study, and why others should care. Whether it’s by poster or paper, science communication is critical to your career, and that’s why you’re practicing these skills as an Amgen Scholar. 

Each Amgen Scholars Program host university has its own project requirements, which you should consult first. With that in mind, we asked Maria Dzialo, graduate student at UCLA, for some general tips on creating papers and posters. Here’s what she said:

 

Papers

Set up the background for a non-specialist. One major pitfall I see in student papers is the failure to properly set up the broader reasoning behind the experiments. It’s all too easy to get tunnel vision when you’re first starting out. The introduction should allow you to take a step back and explain — ideally, to a scientist within a different specialty — the logic behind your studies and the larger implications for understanding or improving health. 

Your PI may have given you a list of papers to read, but get familiar with PubMed and do your own literature searches on a regular basis. Current published papers in your field are the best resource for helping conceptualize the rationale behind your experiments.

Don’t underestimate how much time it will take you to write your paper. At UCLA, we ask students to turn in their introductions first. The introduction and discussion are the most challenging sections, and will probably take the longest. But you might consider writing the methods as you do them and the results as they come to help avoid a time crunch at the end of the summer.

Decide where and when to use active and passive voice. Although active voice is usually more concise and makes clear who is performing the action, there may well be sentences or whole sections in your paper in which it makes more sense to use passive voice. The answer also varies by field, and by journal. Your grad student or faculty mentors will have an idea about what to do. Be sure to ask, especially if the lab plans to eventually include your experiments in a journal submission.

Tell the story. When writing, you should think of how the experiments you’re doing fit together conceptually and build on one another to support a new or existing scientific idea. That means that the order in which you do experiments in your project may not be the best to follow in a written paper. Just something to keep in mind.

Plagiarism is real, even if it’s unintentional. Your paper will reference other scientists’ work, but taking someone else’s words, ideas or images can lead to devastating consequences, as we know all too well from news reports.  Start by consulting the definition of plagiarism in your university’s academic Code of Conduct. 

In cases where you’re unsure about whether you may have plagiarized, have your graduate student or postdoc mentor look at your draft. As a graduate student, you will likely take a research ethics course that delves into plagiarism and other sticky issues in greater detail — but until then, you’ll have to be proactive in learning about research ethics.

 

Posters

Less is much, much more. The biggest mistake students make with posters is too much text. If you can turn some of your background text into a diagram or picture, that will save space and make your poster more visually appealing. Your goal is to draw people to your poster. So, the more uncluttered your poster is, the better the chance you’ll have of capturing someone’s interest.

Related to that, you don’t have to show every experiment. Pick two or three experiments, and write about those. Once someone visits your poster, you can always tell that person about any additional data you’ve gathered.

Start early. As is the case with papers, students tend to underestimate how much time it takes to put together a streamlined poster. Start at least a few weeks before your printing deadline to pick out templates and colors. You can get ideas by talking to lab members or even by roaming the poster-lined hallways of your building. 

It’s okay if you don’t have results. Use any preliminary data you have or flesh out other areas, like the introduction or the methods. You can always cut these sections back if you do wind up getting additional data right before your printing deadline.

Amgen Scholars is an international program funded by the Amgen Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge.

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