Monday, 18 November 2013 00:00

The Secret History of ASCB’s Poster Hall

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exhibit hall posters 2010The ASCB Council was split in 1973 over the value of
poster sessions. Today an ASCB Annual Meeting
without them is scarcely imaginable.
Photo Credit: ASCB
It's hard to imagine a scientific conference without poster presentations. There would be tumbleweeds rolling through the exhibit hall, company reps would be asleep in their booths, and grad student and postdocs would be hung-over every morning of the meeting.

Yet 40 years ago, the ASCB meeting in Miami had no posters, despite having 2,088 attendees. The ASCB poster had not yet been invented. In 1973, the Biophysics conference had just adopted the idea of turning results into wall posters, hanging hundreds of feet of data. Meanwhile, the ASCB Annual Meeting was facing a space crisis with more and more abstracts and an inelastic supply of speaker slots. But posters? This was science, not a county fair.

In a hotel meeting room adjoining the Miami convention center, ASCB Council members gathered around a large cloth-covered table to consider this radical poster idea. Many Councilors expressed reservations. Talks were the way to go, they argued, with face-to-face presentations followed by grueling questions. Posters were amateurish, a distraction from ASCB's high scientific standards. Others saw no harm in trying. The pragmatists won out: The 1974 meeting in San Diego would feature a poster "experiment."

The 1974 ASCB Annual Meeting received a record-breaking 770 abstract submissions. In San Diego, the invited talks droned on as usual while members flocked to the poster boards. The long poster alleys were filled with explanations, probing questions, and the occasional argument. Careers took off or crashed. Competitors met poster-to-poster. Collaborations formed. Theories arose. Attendees rushed from board to board, taking in the science as fast as they could walk and read. Yet the 1974 poster experiment was never evaluated as Council quietly moved on to new issues. The poster boards had spoken.

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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