The Seductive Power of the Poster Child

Mahi Patel remembers using romantic metaphors to explain effective scientific poster presentations.

I’m no Cosmo writer, but I recognize the laws of attraction and a journalism opportunity when I see them. And on July 6th, when I heard Dr. Ron Grunwald claim “A poster is a mode of seduction” in Gross 230 over raspberry-stuffed cookies, my pseudo-journalist senses were tingling. Far-fetched as it may seem, I’m here to convince you that Dr. Grunwald’s insightful seminar about how to create an effective scientific poster is a lot more similar to the world of dating than you think.

First Impressions Matter

Psychologists have proven time and time again that most people can tell if they’re attracted to someone within the first 90 seconds of meeting. Yes, if you ran into your future lover while groggy-eyed after spending the night in Perkins with a coffee stain on your freshman orientation shirt that doesn’t fit right, you might have a stellar personality. Or perhaps your partner was also in linear algebra (in that case, how’d the trauma bond work out?). There are billions of fish in the sea, but not all fish are created equal. Some are show-stopping blue tangs that always get mistaken for a certain amnesia-ridden cartoon icon, while others are … others are sleep-deprived you in your Project Arts shirt. The same principle applies to posters. In a buzzing hall full of cutting-edge research presentations, what will draw people to you? What impression does your poster make? If graphic design is your passion, you can do a deep dive on the psychology of marketing materials and human attention. There are countless resources on visual media presentation out there, but this article will focus on some key pointers from Dr. Grunwald that you won’t find anywhere else.

“You’ve reached the point of limited return where your auntie pinches your cheeks and asks how ‘you two lovebirds met’.”

The First Date

It’s 8 pm and you’re in a bustling restaurant fiending for some over-priced pasta that you can wolf down in a dimly-lit dining room where everyone is too fixated on each other to notice your ravenous eating habits. Your mind is buzzing. Did you lock the apartment door? Is there enough protein in pasta? When was the last time you called your mom? Are you actually passionate about anything? If you died tomorrow, would anyone notice? What is that droning sound coming from across the table rudely interrupting your thoughts? That’s when you realize you did not come here to savagely destroy some ravioli while having an existential crisis. You are on a date. And that rude droning is, in fact, your date blabbering on in obscure jargon about their obsession with 16th century Romanian politics (sorry Jared). When making a poster, remember that fly in your ear. In the words of Dr. Grunwald, “You do not want to scream at people, you want to seduce them”. Your audience will typically be educated, but hasn’t spent the months entrenched in your subject matter that you have. Avoid confusing jargon without sufficient explanation. And when tempted to fill your introduction with illustrious paragraphs (this is quite hypocritical in light of this piece), remember that we as a society have the propensity for around 7 seconds of a Tik Tok and not much more. Short, succinct, and straight-forward will always win. Perhaps the most critical part of the introduction is your problem statement and/or hypothesis. A poster without a salient, legible, and punchy guiding motivation is like a situationship who “isn’t ready for a relationship” but also wants to be exclusive in 3-5 business days. Intentionality matters.

All’s Fair in Love and Research

So you’ve gone on a few dates with someone and have a general outlook on the potential (or lack thereof) for a relationship. It’s time to pull out the big guns. I mean texting games, weird double dates, soft-launching, and other causes of stress that have become highly inefficient staples in the course of human mating. These are your strategies; we can humor this extended metaphor and claim they’re your methods. In this critical phase of learning each other, keeping records will save you in the long run. Karen could, at any point, pop quiz you on her zodiac sign, shoe size, least favorite pizza topping, or mother’s maiden name. In the world of research, your lab journal will contain these receipts. Just as you could remind yourself Karen is a Virgo from your notes app, you can create a compelling and accurate methods section informed by your lab journal. But since space and people’s attention spans are limited, suppress your Jared-like urges to drone on in detail here. Descriptive figures and diagrams will be your best friend and bullet points your favorite hometown sneaky link. The important distinction between methods in a peer-reviewed paper vs. on your poster is that the paper should be fully reproducible while the poster should be more succinct and goals-focused. You want to be a 10-second Tik Tok food tutorial, not a chapter out of a Martha Stewart publication. At the same time, however, don’t forget any big anniversaries. We don’t want to upset Karen.

In Deep

If you’ve made it this far, my friend, you’re in deep. You’ve reached the point of limited return where your auntie pinches your cheeks and asks how “you two lovebirds met”. As well-intentioned as this question is, it takes a true romantic (or an outrageous story) to really remember the answer. People tend to struggle with pinpointing exact origins, but are far better at remembering how things evolve over time and why they matter. In a relationship, this could mean glorifying every second together after your first audible fart, and although I would still judge you, this moment inarguably signifies mutual comfort and trust. Your results should not contain every data point or unimportant graph generated through the course of your research, but rather tell the story of the first fart. What findings were unexpected in their impact? What findings were troublesome, exciting, or otherwise consequential? If you had to convince your mom you did something useful this summer, what would you tell her? The conclusion is perhaps the most important part of your poster, closely tied to the problem statement. Dr. Grunwald, serving as our spirit animal, said “I read the title then conclusion”. Put your energy into what your audience cares about.

Your Friend Steve

Behind every occasionally forced couple photo is an enthusiastic photographer. Behind every text message is the best friend who knows how many y’s to put at the end of “heyyy”. Behind every dinner for two is the day one whose culinary repertoire consists of more than instant noodles. Give photo credits. Send a thank you message. Save a bite. In a cruel, selfish world, do not sleep on the light that are third-wheels. Do not sleep on your friend Steve. Every good or at least half-decent researcher knows credit must be given where credit is due. The acknowledgements on your poster should be accurate, respectful, and inclusive of every mentor, funder, and over-worked grad student that helped you reach your research goals. Throw on some appropriately-placed university department and lab logos, and you may also be able to sell your poster for an egregious amount at the Duke Store. That being said, I want to end this reflection by taking some time to thank our Steves this summer. Buz, Bill, Ron, Travis, Ben, Clare, and everyone at Science & Society who made this experience possible: thank you for helping us grow in ways you will never fully realize.

Diya Patel, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian AppleMahi Patel is a first-year student from Houston, Texas intending to pursue a double major in Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science.