In 2005, towards the end of the second year of my PhD I presented a poster at a conference in Dresden, Germany. My eccentric colleagues and I stayed on a huge canal boat moored on the Elbe for no discernible reason other than it seemed like a laugh at the time. In reality I was the second worst snorer of the three of us and it also turned out that our room was right underneath the gang-plank and every morning at six the person who made breakfast would stomp across it.
The conference was a big deal for because I, the tender footed conference virgin, was presenting a poster. That thing was difficult to make. I made it in LaTeX, an amazing mathematical typesetting language that I have neglected in the past few years. I wish I still had a copy of the PDF so I could show you the result of all that toil. I’m also glad I don’t have a copy to show you as it was full of mistakes and if you think I write terribly now, you should see how I wrote then.
A year later I presented a poster at another conference. I was determined that the second time would be easier, so I “cheated” and used Adobe Illustrator. It handled the bulk of the heavy lifting for the layout. I used a little program I found online to take equations typeset in LaTeX and produce transparent png files. It still took ages to make, because I am a perfectionist. I really wish that I could show you that one, mistakes and all.
Throughout my PhD the department would scoop up all the postgraduate students and deposit us in the corporate facilities of a golf course near Bath to make us do “away day” type stuff. We’d discuss team building, career paths, how to write like every other goddamn scientist… stuff like that. One year, as someone getting close to the end of their PhD and needed to look like they’d learnt something, I was asked to give a talk on how to make posters.
My talk trotted through my experiences before and at the conferences in Dresden and Tilton. I was grateful for the experience, it was the first time I felt completely in command of what I was talking about. It helps to have a story to tell and a passionate belief that the thing you are talking about should be done well. I summarised all the LaTeX code that generated the first poster and put it on my website. The PDF file about making conference posters with latex got picked up by someone at Oxford University. It was used for a while to educate some of their PhD students about how to prepare conference posters with LaTeX.
After that something amazing happened. I got asked to look at some posters that had been made by MSc students and first year PhD students who were studying MSc units. I’d reprised my talk for them earlier in the semester and pointed them toward my materials and my example posters. I was genuinely touched/amazed then to discover that most of the posters produced were fantastic! Someone even used LaTeX to recreate the look of the poster I had made with Illustrator. So not only did I inspire people to approach producing posters in the same way that I had, I’d also managed to make them do it better.
Up until then I’d had plenty of pleasant experiences teaching undergraduates the ins and outs of Calculus and Mechanics, but it was at that point I realised what a buzz teaching can give you. I also miss the part of myself that used to experiment with things and not be happy with it until I was right. I have lost that in the last five years and I am not entirely sure how to get it back. However, with that memory of how things used to be rattling around in my heart, you can be certain that I will try.
The hero image is me standing on the platform of one of the stations on the Prague Metro (I’m on the left) the weekend before the conference in Dresden. We flew out to Prague and stayed in a hostel there before taking the train on to Dresden. That train journey is beautiful and I’d recommend it to anyone.