Look at me

For those of you unfamiliar with MAD TV, comedian Michael Mcdonald plays a recurring character that really resonates with me.

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For those of you unfamiliar with MAD TV, comedian Michael Mcdonald plays a recurring character that really resonates with me. This six foot plus actor plays a seemingly demure little boy named Stuart who has a vicious streak a mile long and has a pathological need to remain the center of attention.
To fulfill this need, Stuart will routinely walk up to total strangers—often clad in little more than his skivvies—and says "Look at what I can do." He then proceeds to do the same bizarre little dance he has done countless times before. I sometimes feel like I'm watching Stuart when I attend conferences.
I've attended a lot of conferences and trade shows in my day. Some were quite industry-specific—e.g., Drug Discovery Technology, Society for Biomolecular Sciences, Infectious Diseases Society of America—while others were more general in nature—e.g., AAAS, American Chemical Society—but all these shows share a number of common traits, not the least of which is the poster session. Hello Stuart.
Maybe this is just the grumpy old tech talking, but I swear there used to be a time when people presented a poster to tell the world about something they'd actually discovered or to add new insight to old problems. Now, as I walk the poster exhibits, I feel like I am looking at the scientific exploits of so many Stuarts, all asking me to "Look at what I can do."
To be fair, there is still some solid discovery being described on posters, and to their credit, most conference organizers are rewarding these efforts with a variety of prizes, recognizing that discovery—as opposed to exposition—requires a lot more skill and luck. But despite these glimmers, the field is increasingly being overrun by some very rudimentary work being presented as great discovery—work that in an earlier time would have been a footnote in a paper or a comment of "data not shown". (For a related diatribe, see The principle of proof.)
Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but I expect marketing to stay on the exhibition floor where it belongs. I expect hype there. It's exciting. It's eye candy that hopefully stimulates the mind as well as the senses. When I stand at the Drug Discovery News booth, I'm the first to cry out "Look what I can do." Too often, however, this hype seems to move out into the poster exhibit. Maybe it has something to do with the poster hall and exhibitors' showcase being in the same room…the company you keep, and all that.
I don't know who sits on the poster review committees of these organizations, or for that matter, if there even are poster review committees who act almost as a peer-review panel, but for the love of science, please let's be a little discriminating and try to keep the informercials—both commercial and academic—off the poster floor. And before anyone gets upset, I am not advocating the ban of vendor-driven posters, as vendors often present the most interesting science.
Maybe those show organizations that publish journals should ask themselves: Would we publish this poster in our journal? If the answer is no, what are you telling your conference attendees?
And on a lighter note…
SBS Fashion File
Hey there, this is your roving reporter talking to you from the catwalks of Montreal, where we are hanging out with only the most fashionable instruments and consumables to grace a lab. Dozens of companies have joined together to launch their summer lines of tips and tubes, robots and rotors, platforms and pistons, and the secret word for 2007 is "pastel".
That's right, folks. It doesn't matter what technique you're performing; if you're not sporting the latest in pastel-colored instruments, you're just not happening.
Why the pastel palette? Perhaps companies are trying to affirm a more sensitive side—of their instruments and assays, that is.
Whether it's the soft inviting greens of a high-throughput cell imaging platform or the luxurious lavender of a liquid handler, the SBS exhibitors' showcase has it all. Of particular interest was the dolphin-friendly deep blue seas of biomolecular bliss and the tantalizing teal of microplating heaven. And I tell you without a lie, anyone who can turn drab tan and gray into pastel paeans of perfection scores a 10 in my book.
Yes sir, walking the floor of the 2007 SBS exhibitors' showcase was like getting a warm hug from your best friend. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with in St. Louis.
And finally…
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I only occasionally get a chance to read this, even  on-line but you had me giggling out loud in my cubicle this morning, so thank you for starting my day off funny. Love your perceptions of the spring fashion designs in instrumentation! You are spot-on about posters – the last 2 conferences I have attended have been the same way. What's up with that Stuart?
Karen Stevenson, Lab Tech
World Kitchen
Once again you have hit on a topic that has annoyed me as much as you. So many posters are a reflection of previously done work, but with some "me" twist. With your own example of Stuart, it's like saying: "Well, I ran this experiment wearing a pink jump suit".  Doesn't make the work very novel, does it?
Good eye, and comment.  I agree, at the end of the day, the reviewers aren't setting the bar high enough. This steady degradation of research quality in turn dilutes the efforts of the truly innovative.
Michael Robinson
Q-Sense, Inc.
My congratulations on your recent editorial about poster hype. That has been one of my concerns when I attend scientific gatherings. I think that with all the general meetings and boutique conferences, one could easily attend a conference a week. This is a "good news and bad news" situation since while it creates more opportunities for researchers to present their work, there also exists the strong possibility that presentations get the retread treatment.
I have noticed other phenomena related to poster sessions: one being the absent author. Even when there are times when people are scheduled to be at posters, they do not show. The second of these phenomena is not only the absent author but even the absent poster. I too wish that there were a more vigorous poster review, and while I am surely not against vendor posters since they tend to underwrite many of the meetings, I would ask that they become a bit more vigilant since sometimes we see the poster and it is a new product announcement. Maybe it makes sense to have posters that are labeled as "new products".
Dr. W. Jeffrey Hurst, Sr. Staff Scientist
The Hershey Company Technical Center

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