Poster competition woes

One topic of this blog is the graduate student experience, with the aim of passing on a little advice to prospective graduate students. The lesson for today is: stand up for yourself. 
Today was the Seventh Annual Norman Borlaug Lectureship Poster Competition For Graduate and Undergraduate Students. I was very excited about the competition this year, because my research is very important to world food issues. The poster is: Characterizing seed storage proteins in teosinte and tripsicum, with the objective statement “To find unique seed storage proteins in relatives of maize that might be used to improve maize nutritional qualities.” I like to imagine that Norm Borlaug would approve. I purposefully chose a table at the opening of the room, just as I did last year, so I would be easily noticeable. I even brought samples of the seed so people could see for themselves how different teosinte and tripsicum are from maize, because everyone likes hand-on science. I thought I did all the right things to make a good showing, even if my poster wasn’t the best. Unfortunately, the judging was less than smooth.

Each poster was assigned two judges from a pool of about six judges. My first judge, who I’ve interacted with before, read my poster and joked with me for a bit. I was concerned that he didn’t ask many specific questions about my research. His last question was “how would this affect food policy?” I talked about intellectual property, and how we should somehow compensate people who “own” wild plants or at least not profit from the commons, but I’m not a lawyer, policy maker, or ethnobiologist. I did my best and felt fairly confident. 
At some point, one of the judges came by to talk to me about my poster, but he specifically said that he wasn’t my judge. We talked a bit about protein identification (he’s a protein chemist) and he gave me some great tips on how I might be able to better separate my proteins with SDS-Page.
Then, I waited. For over an hour, I waited for a second judge to come by. Multiple times, I commented to the poster competition coordinator that I had only been judged once, and asked if she could tell me who my judges were. She sort of politely walked away, but never told me who my judges were. Finally, I noticed the judges sitting down together, presumably to compare results. I again reminded the coordinator that I was only judged once. She walked away. 
At the end of the event, I asked the coordinator what I could do next year to ensure that I was judged by two people. She said that two people did judge me, she saw their score sheets. I asked if I could have their comments, so as to learn from them, and she said she didn’t think so because the judges left and took their score sheets. 
My husband says that I wasn’t forceful enough, that I should have walked up to the judges’ huddle to ask why I wasn’t judged twice. He says that I should talk to my major professor about this and ask him to intervene on my behalf, to ensure that this doesn’t happen to another student (or to me next year, if I decide to enter). I’m not sure what to do, or if I should do anything. Should I have been more forceful at the competition? Am I being a push-over? Advice on this would be appreciated.
Maybe my poster is terrible, maybe I’m just horrible at presenting myself and my research. Maybe I’m just not a winner. Ok, I can work on those things, if necessary. I’m not really concerned about that, though. What concerns me is that I was ignored, and what concerns me even more is that this isn’t the first time.
Last year’s poster was Bioavailable iron in maize endosperm can be increased with overexpression of maize hemoglobin. Here’s what I wrote in my LiveJournal on Oct 16th 2007 after the poster competition:

I presented my first poster tonight at the World Food Prize Lecture. Overall, it was nice. I got to explain this really awesome research to people, and they understood. They walked away having learned about something totally new, something that could really impact world health. My major professor thought it was good, and so did the project leader professor. The judges, however, not so much. We were supposed to be judged by two people. The first asked me to explain my poster. Unfortunately it was the first time I’d been through it, so I was a little awkward. I don’t think I was terrible, though. Then he asked how I thought the research would affect policies on GMOs. I really felt like he was baiting me, even though he has similar ideas about it all. I mean, how are my personal feelings on these issues relevant to the research? Anyway, I was trying to explain that RoundUp Ready is fundamentally different from our high iron maize because ours improves nutrition while RoundUp Ready encourages the use of additional pesticides. He told me that RoundUp is not a pesticide. I said a pesticide is any chemical that is used to kill pests, such as fungicide, algicide, etc. He said that I needed to go look up the definition of pesticide. Dude, I gotta tell you, I’ve been a DoD Certified Pest Controller for 8 years. I think I know what a pesticide is. I told him that I agree that technology such as BT actually has a huge environmental benefit but that I believe our research would be more palatable to laymen. He didn’t get it. The second judge listened to a few minutes of the pesticide conversation, then left without returning. I feel discriminated against. Most of the poster winners had posters about growing gardens in African villages. Horray for the villagers having eggplant (I still don’t understand why the eggplant, as it has no nutrients, according to Alton Brown, but whatever) but this is not research. Yes, you proved that people with food are better off than people without food. Good job. The project I’m working on will take time, yes. However, the results are really promising. Alleviating iron deficiency in the world would be massive. As far as I’m concerned, they were being short-sighted. Oh, and just to clarify, I’m not bothered by not winning, I’m bothered by having my intelligence insulted by one judge and by being ignored by the other. Whatever.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

2 comments

  1. Hopefully the reaction of the other people who saw your poster was more enthusiastic. Often professors at these events are more interested in posters that are related to their own research than picking out the overall best projects.

    “Horray for the villagers having eggplant (I still don’t understand why the eggplant, as it has no nutrients…) Yes, you proved that people with food are better off than people without food.”

    I’m going to remember that eggplants have no nutrients, I’m sure it’ll come in handy to know, and it gave me a good laugh tonight.

  2. Very weird. I wonder what could cause such a string of bad luck with poster viewing. My first experience with postering was not research-related, but about my video project.

    I wonder, what would be the best way to respond to a judge who is telling you something that is obviously wrong, such as in the first case? Maybe you could have joked with him that if he’s so sure that roundup is not a pesticide, would he be willing to bet your score? Perfect score if you’re right, zero if he’s right. 🙂 If he responds that you’d get a zero, call him on his bluff (or ignorance). Being wrong (and staking your reputation on it) can be a hard pill to swallow, so it’s hard to know how to respond when upsetting the person connected to your score might negatively adjust your score. Especially as this person sounds like they were lookin’ for an argument.

    In all seriousness, what I think I would have done is (assuming each judge is supposed to identify their self to you) approach the coordinator to ask when my second judge is coming because I’ve only been judged once. Next, you could approach the first judge or the judge group to tell them that only one person identified as a judge, and you had no opportunity to interact with a second judge. If they say that you did, then it would seem that the judge who explicitly said that they were not your judge was probably your second judge. Perhaps it is a way to put the grad student at ease, or catch them casually presenting their poster rather than formally. If there are a lot of posters, I don’t imagine any judges would spend much time at posters that they’re not assigned to.

    I would assume that everyone’s your judge, especially given that one of your judges from last year just watched the conversation and thought that was sufficient to give you a score.

    It may just be that judges are looking for something that sparks their particular interests and it may not reflect on your performance or preparation. Keep entering – don’t give up!

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