Explaining "Eureka!"

Poster sessions highlight research

In the world of scientific research today, "Eureka!" doesn't count for much unless you can explain it on a 32-by-40-inch poster in the form of charts, graphs, bulleted points, succinct paragraphs coherently arranged, and maybe an eye-catching color photograph.

The poster session has become an integral part of the process of disseminating scientific knowledge, and thus an important part of Kenyon's prestigious Summer Science Scholar program. Every summer the students "do" real science by collaborating with faculty mentors on cutting-edge projects, and every fall, like real scientists, they present their work in carefully crafted posters that summarize not only the experimentation but also its larger significance.

The 2001 edition of the Summer Science poster session, held in late October, featured thirty-three students whose topics ranged from the genetics of pollution resistance to the mathematics of the infinite. While scores of visitors milled about, the students discovered that presentation could be no less challenging than research.

"The main thing is to gauge the audience," says Associate Professor of Mathematics Carol Schumacher, head of the science division and a summer-science mentor. The poster must serve as a clear, engaging summary and a point of departure for people with widely varying backgrounds and levels of sophistication. Because research is so specialized, a scientist from one subfield may not be able fully to understand a project in another subfield unless the poster exhibitor can explain the question under study and how that question fits into a broader context.

And this is true for professional scientists at conferences, as well as for students explaining their work to an audience of professors, fellow students, proud parents, and, this year, Kenyon trustees, who were on campus for meetings.

For a student who spent nine or ten weeks working full-time in the lab, the hardest part of creating a poster can be eciding what to leave out. "I attempted to synthesize about a dozen different compounds this summer," says senior Emily Cole of Smithfield, Rhode Island, who worked on light-emitting chemicals with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Scott Cummings. "For the poster, I had to choose just a few that illustrated basic principles. I needed to make sure that the poster wasn't too busy. I had to keep things very concise."

The process complements, as it culminates, the lab experience. "I had done all this work, but it was scattered throughout my lab notebook," says senior John DePowell of Cincinnati, Ohio, who worked under Assistant Professor of Biology Wade Powell, cloning a gene linked to the biochemical mechanism by which vertebrates resist the pollutant dioxin. "When I had to put my work in sequential order on the poster, everything clicked."

Posters used to be something of an arts-and-crafts project, testing scientists' proficiency with glue sticks, scissors, double-faced tape, and push pins. That's still the case some places, but at Kenyon most of the summer science scholars have learned to use the PowerPoint program to design their posters, which they can have printed on a single sheet using a large-format printer in the library.

"It's so much easier and looks so much more professional," says Cole.

And professionalism is very much to the point: the poster exercise is a key part of the students' apprenticeship in the practice of science. "Increasingly, posters are the way presentations are done at conferences," says Powell. "The poster session here is conducted in the fashion of a national meeting. We hold our students to pretty high standards."

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