Have Abstract? Will Travel.

The beginning of 2020 brought resolutions, refreshed to-do lists, and, somewhere in the rush of things drifting over your desk, the opening of Plant Biology 2020 abstract submission and registration. Some of you already know you will be in Washington, D.C. this July because you haven’t missed a Plant Biology conference since 1978. Or perhaps you are an undergraduate or new graduate student, among the newest members of the ASPB community, wondering if the experimental alligators you’re wrangling will be presentable by the summer. Maybe you have come to Plant Biology once or twice before, but you haven’t had the opportunity recently. And perhaps you used to attend regularly, until the Plant Biology meeting slipped off your desk to lie forgotten among the dust-bunnies and papers you’ll read when you get “free time.”

Whoever you are, you are welcome in D.C. this coming July!

Over the months since the doors closed on Plant Biology 2019 in San José, ASPB staff and the program committee have been crafting Plant Biology 2020. The plenary symposia topics are online; the workshops are set. To shift into the next phase of planning, we need abstracts.  I encourage you to register for the conference and then get to work crafting your abstract.

Abstracts are to science writing what villanelles are to metered poetry. A villanelle – exemplified by “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas – consists of five rhyming three-line and one final four-line stanza. The first and third line of the first stanza alternate as the last line of the three-line stanzas and conclude the poem in its final stanza. Abstracts announce what question your research addresses and its importance, explore your methods and results, then wrap that information up in revisiting the research question and its importance. Clearly. Convincingly. Telling a story. All within a finite word limit.

I cannot write a villanelle to save my life, and I find abstract writing almost as challenging.

Like many of the skills I’ve developed during my scientific training, writing abstracts a form I learned by being thrown into the deep end and dog-paddling my way to the side, 300 words clutched on a damp sheet of paper. It took embarrassingly long for me to realize that I could learn a lot from abstracts gone by. On the Program Committee the editor of Plant Direct broke down an example of a good abstract for you, which you’ll find on the “Submit Abstract” page of the website.  The PB20 website also has archives of poster abstracts from previous conferences for you to dissect yourself. And then, practice. Unlike metered poetry, which requires the ability to hear meter and rhyme words, abstracts are a learned skill. Writing your Plant Biology abstract practices that skill. And submitting your abstract practices defeating your own impostor syndrome, “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people, [who] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” (Technically, Anne Lamott wrote that about perfectionism, but impostor syndrome and perfectionism share a recent common ancestor.)

What becomes of your abstract? Well, of the 500(ish) abstracts submitted by February 20 (put this date on your calendars!), 90 will be invited to give a concurrent symposium talk, 30 will give rapid communication talks, and some will give oral posters. The vast majority of abstracts – and all those submitted after February 20 – will become regular posters.

In March, the program committee reads all the abstracts submitted by the February deadline to select concurrent symposium and rapid communication talks (so put that deadline on your calendar also!).  Talking about your science to a room full of people is exciting in all its forms, but here I will argue the virtues of the humble poster.

At my first Plant Biology meeting, the poster session was intimidating. It was not the first time I’d presented a poster, but it was my first experience with a thousand-poster maze. People mostly walked past me, and I wasn’t sure how to get their attention beyond very aggressive eye-contact. When a rare visitor stopped to chat, the response to my poster spiel was a baffled expression. How I had structured my poster and planned my explanation did not work. It wasn’t a poster session horror story, but it did not feel, in the moment, like a success story.

But that Plant Biology 2018 poster was the first time I’d gathered together the whole picture on the project in over a year. It forced me to sit back and think. Find gel images spread through eight lab notebooks. Finalize partially complete data analysis. The empty spaces on the poster showed where a hypothesis teetered without support. As I stumbled through presenting, I realized, around Visitor #7, that if I introduced X hypothesis and Y data first, the befuddled look cleared up. The story flowed better. Presenting that Plant Biology 2018 poster repeatedly in Montréal, then remaking and presenting it for Plant Biology 2019 in San José ironed out my arguments. The outline for the ensuing paper came straight from the spiel I finally settled on midway through Plant Biology 2019.

Not everyone who stops by your poster will be baffled. Some will be the researchers whose papers you pore over and whose methods you reproduce. These visitors will interrogate you about controls. Point out that a protein degraded to 20% of its initial level should have been 50% protected in that assay. Ask you about those teetering hypotheses, and – best of all – suggest the experiments you did not know were missing. No opportunity for intense critique should be skipped, so you should make the most of the Plant Biology poster sessions. Now, the chances of the perfect visitor encountering your poster by happenstance are about 1:1,500,000, so making the most of the opportunity requires some effort on your part. My strategy? Find, nag, and drag – politely! – the people I need to engage to my poster. Inelegant, but effective.

And, sometimes, one of those chance encounters, with your poster or someone else’s, reorients your mental PIN auxin efflux carriers, and from the resulting local auxin maxima emerges – lo and behold – a new idea.

We anchor ourselves to many things as scientists; first and foremost, perhaps, to our understanding of science itself. We send primary taproots down deep into our research area, but we also spread lateral roots, collecting inspiration and insight from disparate places. Our second, equally important, anchor is to people. At Plant Biology meetings, all of plant biology is at our fingertips, from genes to whole-plant physiology, and the full diversity of plant biologists.  I’ve talked with editors from The Plant Cell, Bayer and Corteva scientists, curators at TAIR, start-up entrepreneurs, PUI professors, research institute scientists. You will have conversations in the coffee line about the talk you just heard.  Drift in and out of conversation circles about how to foster diversity and inclusion in speaking panels. Attend workshops about how the FDA’s voluntary food safety consultation helps bring new crop varieties to market or about how culture changes can improve accessibility and support for LGBTQ+ scientists. As you meet people, you’ll discover those that you must drag to your poster to get their insight on your science.

Your Plant Biology 2020 journey begins with the abstract you write. This July, let’s test the hypothesis that writing a Plant Biology abstract is beneficial to your growth and development. I, N=1, find that it strengthens my science and connects me more deeply in our community. If you put Plant Biology 2020 on your calendar, what phenotypes will you see?

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