March 2012

Doing your best at the ASBMB Undergraduate Poster Competition

Matthew King and Michael Brister of the University of Delaware both won awards at the undergraduate poster competition in 2011.

Several years ago at the annual American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting, a friend jokingly said, “I understand that (they) decided to exclude University of Delaware students from the ASBMB Undergraduate Poster Competition because they get too many awards and it would give students from other schools a chance.” This was the year after three of the four first-place awards and six of the 22 honorable mentions went to University of Delaware students. While that was an unusual year, over the past decade, University of Delaware students have received more than twice the number of awards in this competition than students from any other school. What is the secret? Is there anything different about these students that enables them to do so well? Perhaps, but there is no secret formula.

For much of its existence since its founding in 1743, the University of Delaware was a liberal arts college without a graduate program. Although it was not required, students often got involved in faculty research projects, and virtually all faculty members accepted undergraduates into their laboratories. As the school transformed into a Research I institution, it retained its tradition and reputation for promoting undergraduate research. In 1980, the university established an Undergraduate Research Office that provides an infrastructure, organizes campus symposia, oversees a large senior thesis program and coordinates funding from a variety of sources. As a consequence, the school attracts many academically strong students who want to do research. Because space in faculty laboratories is limited and faculty members are selective, competition for positions is significant.

Brister, who won first place, explains his work to an attendee at the 2011 ASBMB annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

In part because of its reputation and tradition, the university has attracted funding to support its undergraduate research programs from federal, state and private institutions and alumni sources. In a typical summer, more than 150 students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines engage in funded research on campus. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Science Education Program funds between 20 and 30 of those. The grant also pays for 10 to 15 students to attend the annual Experimental Biology meetings and participate in the ASBMB Undergraduate Poster Competition. Those students are selected from among all students, not just those who receive HHMI support.

During our summer undergraduate research enrichment program, students in molecular life sciences learn about the ASBMB poster competition, and it is held up as something they can attend if they have publishable results and the approval of their research sponsors. The program also includes a session on how to design a poster. Students present their first posters at a universitywide symposium celebrating undergraduate research in mid-August. There, faculty members talk with students about their research and give them pointers. In the fall, students who have made good progress are encouraged to present their research at a regional poster competition sponsored by the National Institutes of Health at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Students who do well there are encouraged to submit abstracts for the ASBMB poster competition.





By the time students present posters at the ASBMB competition, they usually have two years of research experience and have presented and revised their posters several times. They have interacted with faculty members and judges, who have critiqued their research and their posters. In addition, those students who plan to attend the Experimental Biology meetings receive final rigorous critiques of their posters and are expected to revise them once again.

Amy Styer, an undergrad at the University of Delaware who won an honorable mention at the 2010 meeting, describes her work.

Among the issues we address are the following:
• Posters are about visual communication. They are not manuscripts of linear text tacked to a board. Minimize text and make the text you have visible.
• Titles should be brief, readable, understandable, interesting and informative.
• Headings such as “Introduction,” “Materials and Methods,” “Results” and “Conclusions” are discouraged. Every poster has those topics. Why waste space? Instead, substitute headings that say something unique and informative about what you did or found.
• Include attractive conceptual visuals that provide focus and highlight your work. If the report addresses several issues, they can be color-coded and connected by color to data on other panels.
• If you are a cell biologist, be sure to include molecular interpretations and structures.
• Sections on future work can be eliminated, and citations can be in small print as needed.

With regard to the actual presentation, here is the advice we give to students:
• Dress appropriately.
• Greet the judge and find out his or her area of expertise so that you can adapt your presentation. Judges are not experts in everything. Remember, your judges are smart, but they may know less about your subject than you do.
• Don’t give a long speech. Give a concise summary and let the conversation be driven by questions.
• Know the background and history of your research. Read and understand relevant textbook chapters.

Certainly, there are faculty members and other schools that have been successful with their students at the ASBMB Undergraduate Poster Competition, and there are other schools that have excellent undergraduate research programs and would do well but choose to participate in other national venues.


Hal White ( is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Delaware and director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate program there.

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