helena * jambor

scientist interested in RNA, genomics and science visualizations

Category: Data Viz

How to win a conference prize!

Or, at least, produce nice posters while trying.

Students on average author 1-3 papers and produce at least three times that many conference posters*. At large meetings, such as the ASCB, thousands of posters are presented each year. While presenting posters is popular, posters sessions evoke mixed feelings: they are often late in the evening, interrupted by special workshops, held in badly lit rooms far away from the bar, and many posters are subpar: they are crammed with details and text in small font, and presenters elaborate in great detail. Experienced conference attendees therefore excel in the brief scanning of the title while avoiding eye contact with the presenter for fear of being entangled in a never-ending run-down of experimental details.

While we can’t influence the conference organization, we can absolutely and with little effort improve the posters! Based on my survey data, I compiled the top ten tips to improve your poster:

  1. Legible title

Make the title and your name readable from afar. This means, not too many words per title, maybe 6 to 10, in a legible font – Helvetica Neue, Verdana, Calibri or similar. Refrain also from All caps as it becomes hard to read after a few words. – If you love all caps, why not try Small Caps with capitalization instead.

  1. Avoid abbreviations

Ideally no abbreviations in the title and as few as possible in the poster content. Only few abbreviations are so common that they became words themselves: DNA, RNA, some gene and protein names. You don’t want to turn audience away with jargon, and remember, even specialist’s conferences are attended by editors, journalists, and newcomers in the field – be welcoming to them all!

  1. Not too much text

We read maximally 100-200 words per minute – but in posters, with scientific data, terms, and charts our reading speed will be significantly decreased. Keep that in mind – I personally am more convinced by a figure than by you explaining and interpreting it.

  1. Clear section layout

Start at the top left and end at the bottom right. This is how we read text, and also posters! Alternative: arrange your content in 2-3 columns, similar to an article – make sure the columns are clear by leaving enough white space surrounding them! Please refrain from unconventional layouts – the chances are high that it will confuse your readers!

  1. Figure titles instead of legends

This is easy – try moving the figure legend above the image/chart, instead of showing it below as you would in a paper. Right away, this gives you a header for that section! Explanations of the color code, which are critical to understand a figure, can be sub-headers!


  1. Consistent color code

Absolutely keep the color code consistent across all figures! Nothing kills more time than figuring out the color code of each individual chart! Please, if your main experiment/mutant/condition is shown in “red” in the first figure, do not deviate from this in the next figure! And, of course, be color-blind friendly (no mixing red and green!)


  1. Simple pictures and charts.

There is likely fascinating detail in your data, but not everyone wants to know all of it during a poster session. Therefore, please consider removing unnecessary details from your graphs! (Also: avoid 3D, no bar charts for distributions (#BarBarCharts) and avoid unconventional graph-types: it’s already unlikely people understand them in a paper, and less likely they feel like deciphering them in a poster session.

  1. Poster-Etiquette: Have the elevator speech ready!

Give your audience a polite overview in 2-3 minutes that includes the big picture and key finding, but leave out experimental details. If they are interested in more, they will ask! (Also, it is convenient to have this 2-minute blurb ready in case you accidentally bump into the heroine/hero of your field in the coffee line, instead of at the poster session!)

  1. Rehearse whenever you can!

Find 10 volunteers, not necessarily your supervisor only, to test out your 2-minute presentation; while in the lunch line, when waiting for a measurement to finish, or when cleaning the bench.

  1. Tricks are allowed.

To get people interested in your poster, you can use tricks. Have handouts ready to take home, bring a laptop to show movies, I’ve seen people hand out sweets, and know someone that served beers – everything is allowed when trying to convince people to read your poster!


Further reading:

A really nice paper on how to give a poster presentation is here: “Producing punchy posters” by Bernard S. Brown, in Trends in Cell biology, Vol. 6, 1996. He mainly deals with text, and less with figures, but has been helpful for me for 20 years!


* Unpublished results from survey, H.Jambor



Scales in scientific images

I recently saw drawings by Maria Sybilla Merian at Kupferstichkabinett Berlin and the University Library Dresden. Merian, who lived from 1647 to 1717, is renowned for her exceptional illustrations of biological specimens and gained recognition as a scientist for her nature observations, for example, of insect metamorphosis.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – “Das kleine Buch der Tropenwunder”, Insel Verlag, Leipzig Wiesbaden 1954, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3319993

Merian evidently was genius in choosing frame and magnification in her drawings, but her pictures lack indications of scale*, which are essential in today’s science images. Scales give the reader the key for aligning the image content with reality. To my knowledge, neither Merian nor her predecessors from Antiquity, Byzantium, or Renaissance included scales in their medical and natural science images*. Even in the beginning of the 20th century, images were often considered a waste of space and scales unnecessary as scientists were familiar with each other’s apparatuses and objects. Today however we study invisible processes and structures that are unfamiliar to most of our colleagues and therefore have to include scales in our images.

Comment from Benjamin Moore in nature (1910) when reviewing a biochemistry handbook.

We often include in images a familiar object of a standard size for scale: a penny placed on a rock, a person standing beside a large animal or in a landscape, a measuring tape next to a fossil (or an Earth worm!).

Bar = 1cm (Earth worm lovingly raised by Jeff Woodruff).

Using familiar objects for scale isn’t possible for tiny things. We don’t have a clear mental image of the size of a salt grain or sesames seed to reliably use them to scale for instance cells**. We therefore include scale bars in microscopy images. With ImageJ/FIJI files from any microscope system can be read in along with their scaling information (shout-out to Curtis and Melissa and the Bio-Formats project!). By using Analyze > Tools > Scale Bar we can add the scale bar with a user-defined length, width, color, position, and label. Now the audience can calculate the actual size of objects and relate image with reality.

Four tips for superb scale bars

  • Length: Be kind to your audience and use simple units, such as 100um, 50um, 10 or 2um.
  • Color: Scale bars should have a high contrast with the background. Avoid red, green, or blue bars, as these colors might be considered part of the image.
  • Position: Lower left corner is a safe place. The upper space should be kept for important information like species, cell type, or gene name.
  • Add scale bar last: In the process of writing your manuscript you may re-think the figure size. Also images are re-sized for posters and slides. It is therefore easierst to add only a very fine scale bar with FIJI and then re-draw it in Adobe Illustrator (or PowerPoint, as I I know that about half of you out there use PowerPoint for making figures and posters!).


And finally, do not miss this article by Monica Zoppe with an interesting idea on how to communicate subcellular sclales better!


* I’d be delighted to stand corrected, and if you find old scientific images with scale bars, or interesting scales, send them my way for my collection!

** a great tool to update yourself in comparable scales in biology is here: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cells/scale/.

I never cease to be amazed at the relative size differences of cells and how they vary over so many magnitudes!


Recently a kickstarter project raised more than 3000 EUR in one month to campaign for banning all wrong usage of bar plots in scientific journals. This demonstrates two important points: a lot of the plots in scientific journals are somewhat misleading, and a growing number of people feel very uneasy about this!

What exactly is wrong about bar plots? Nothing per se, but everything goes wrong if you use a bar plot for statistical data – this kind of plot species is also infamous as the “dynamite plot”. We are talking about the famous vertical or horizontal boxes that often come in a dazzling array of colors or patterns, with big fat black outlines and overly prominent error bars.


Dynamite Plot                                                          Data Plot


Are they common? Very much so! My personal survey [i] of “dynamite plots” in scientific journals revealed that on average 30-60% of articles use them in journals covering a wide range of subjects that include physics, meteorology or psychology where authors typically have rigorous training in applied mathematics. The prevalence of dynamite plots increases as we go towards more life science journals, where 50- 70% of articles are accompanied by a dynamite plot showing a statistical summary [ii].

Most of us are completely accustomed to dynamite plots and happily use them, that is, until we see the light. From then on it is impossible to not hate them! Because it is so obvious they are misleading and make reading of the data just harder than necessary! And, as scientists, we aim for clarity and getting information across concisely!

The top reasons to avoid dynamite plots

  • They hide the real distribution of the data. Do all samples cluster closely? Do they form two groups? Or is there one drastic outlier? Generally, we assume a normal distribution of the data around the mean where there might not be one! In my survey of dynamite plots per journal they were more or less normally distributed.
  • They hide the sample size. From the bar plot you would not have known that I probed one issue of Nature, two issues of Cell and four issues of Development! But for judging scientific data knowledge of the sample size is essential for a proper evaluation of the data! Too often we have to search for the n in axis labeling, figure text, the results, or the methods section to finally find this information. And sometimes it is omitted entirely. A clear understanding of sample size in my opinion is also critical for the review process of a paper and should be demanded by the reviewers! Not showing data, or only showing summary data, should be treated equally to cropping Western blot bands!
  • Many different distributions of data can lead to the very Bar! See the Anscombe quartet. Bar plots are not intended to show statistic distributions, they are for absolute numbers. By plotting the real data we also learn more about the biology!

Not quite convinced? Seeing is believing, check out this figure:


(c) Page Piccinini and the #barbarplots campain

For further information watch the video of the kickstarter campaign (British accent and humor alert!) – ideally with your entire lab and a discussion of this seminal paper on wrong usage of bar charts and this survey of their prevalence in biomedical journals!

Practical advice to avoid dynamite plots

  • Plot charts with statistical programing tool R. You have to either learn it, or be really nice to someone who knows it – if your PhD requires 3 boxplots, maybe invest in a friendly relationship with the bioinformatic geek in your department, a couple of coffees go a long way!
  • Learn how to make box plots in excel! (Here and here is how, but its a bit tedious).
  • Can’t be bothered to do either? Use one of the available web tools such as the boxplot maker from the Tyer’s lab or the plot generator from the University of Belgrade.


[i] I probed the top10-articles of Nature in July, the three most recent volumes of Science (August), four issues of Development (Vol 138, 1:3-2011 and Jan 2016), and two issues of Cell journal from 2016 (Jan and August). I was very relaxed and gave the benefit of doubt when I wasn’t sure. But I was rigorous when authors mixed right and wrong usage of bar plots. How does this even happen? Mix of co-authors and some know better than others?

[ii] Disclaimer: this does not mean the other articles have great figure design! I saw multiple uses of 3-dimensional pie charts, rainbow color schemes, other instances of unintentional usage of color, incomprehensible spider graphs and 3-dimensional heat maps! Maybe I will devote another blog post to those.

Color-blind people are your audience too!

This article is also on TheNode http://thenode.biologists.com/color-blind-audiences/photo/

Or, please stop mixing green/red

Color is a key aspect of graphic design, but for many years was not relevant for scientific figures that were largely black and white. Falling prices for color print and electronic publishing changed this dramatically and scientists now frequently produce multi-colored figures. Using color functionally is not always straightforward but few rules exist: do not combine red and green!

Already in 1939 Willard Brinton advised his readers to not use red letters on a green background as they become invisible to color-blind people (and are hideous for the rest of us!). [his great book on data visualization is available for free here]. A century later, when browsing through figures in scientific periodical, this message has not reached everyone.

In charts, it is very straightforward to avoid mixing red and green. If you want to use red, combine it with blue or cyan, if you want to use green, combine it with magenta or orange. That way also color blind people can distinguish the data points. A side note: try starting a chart in black and white, and only add color if absolutely essential.

In laser-microscopy green and red fluorophores are widely used, often in combination. But: Simply because a wavelength of your fluorophore is 488nm this does not mean you have to use green for its display! The camera output doesn’t have color anyway, so you are at liberty to choose a suitable lookup table. Why not be color-blind friendly and choose colors visible to your entire audience. Options that still preserve a little information on the wavelength are green/magenta or cyan/red. Again, consider if two black and white images instead of a composite color. In fact, the contrast is usually higher in greyscale which benefits the display of structure details and subtle intensity differences.

*Rm62 RNA in Drosophila egg chambers part of my postdoc project, find more subcellular RNAs on the Dresden Ovary Table.

Helpful tools:

  • Test color-blind visibility for your images here
  • Choose color for categorical, quantitative and diverging data in charts using color-brewer.

Comment suggesting more tools very welcome!

Teaching Figure Design and RNA in Israel

When PhD students invite to a retreat, it is an honor and obligation to go. They primarily invited me to teach about my research on RNA and its cellular localization, but I convinced them that visualization of biological data,  my recent passion, is as important. I ended up teaching both!
I am now somewhere in the clouds on my way back and am left truly impressed: by the wonderful program put together by the PhD students of the SignGene program; by the excellent organization headed by Dhana Friedrich Alon Appleboim, and their devotion to making an interesting, interactive and innovative program; and I am impressed by the scientific excellence and intellectual curiosity of all SingGene students!

I left Israel mesmerized by its cultural blend. The WinterSchool (held in a pleasant 25C sunshine environment) took place in a modern resort hotel in Elat. While we conferenced, we were surrounded by an orthodox Israelis, American families, Russian tourists, Arabs, Poles, Germans, African families, and Japanese travel groups. After an exhausting day of seminars, we gazed from the Israeli beach into Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, underneath us the African and Arabian continental plates touching and slowly sliding along each other, remembering all those that were here before: Moses, the Nabateans, the Romans, the silk road traders…

The trip was also personally touching for me. My beloved grandmother, Alice Jambor, had worked for the Israeli embassy in Bonn. She traveled to Israel countless times and loved it passionately. As I loved her passionately, I had long wanted to visit Israel too. While traveling, I kept her close to my heart by wearing a necklace she gifted to me as a child saying “love” in Hebrew.


I wish love to this beautiful region. I wish the bonds between Germany and the state of Israel remain strong, and those in Germany questioning this will remain a minority. I believe personal friendships strengthen these bonds and that scientific exchanges, such as for example the SignGene program, are fantastic starting points!

What’s next after you postdoc?

Part 2 of “Pie or no Pie”.


In my last blog I discussed why pie charts are hard to read and therefore better to be avoided. Today, I offer a real life example and answer the question of all scientists in training: What’s next after my postdoc? And I have the answer! (at least for those of you working at the Max Planck in Dresden!

According to the numbers collected in the fifteen years since the institute was founded most of you, as you suspected, will not become professors, but most, 74%, will remain closely connected to academic science, by being a staff scientist, on a second postdoc or entering the administration. If you came to MPI to go into industry, bad luck!, your chances are low, as only 11% end up in Pharma (maybe because the tech industry in Dresden is not very strong yet?) Many that work in science-related business become editors or consultants. You don’t fall into any category? Me neither, and we are in the category “other”, which really is a miscellaneous category of people on parental leave or unemployed, working at a bank or freelancing.

So let’s think of how to present the data best. The default to show percentages of a whole is often the pie chart. But – we immediately see a problem: we would like to show the three large categories, academia, science-related businesses, and “others”, but we also want to split up each category into its subgroups, and there are 12 of them! This means, the pie chart has way too many categories to really comprehend them. And, to help the reader, each subcategory therefore must be labeled, resulting in a pie chart completely cluttered with category names and data labels, none of them nicely aligned.


Let’s try the column or bar chart. From last week you might remember that it is easier to use horizontal bar if you have long category names: this gives you plenty of space for the labels, which really is a plus in this case!

Then, when using a bar chart we add another layer of information, and this for instance can be done using color. To visually group subcategories into the large categories, we use three distinct colors for ‘academia’, ‘science-related’, and ‘other’. Need help on choosing color? Colorbrewer is a fantastic resource! (For our plot: we have three data classes and they are all qualitatively different). Now, with one glance we can see the large categories and all subcategories! In addition, I have added a little more text to indicate the name and overall percentage of the three large categories.


One reason people love pie charts is that they visually present parts of a whole (although our eyes more often than not struggle to make that out!). To allow the audience to clearly make out parts of a whole, we can use a little trick and extent the bars to 100% (or here 50%) and fill the bar with color according to its percentage. I personally think there are too many categories and that the empty bars create lot of lines clutter on the right hand side. Another possibility is to show stacked bars, but one looks a bit lonely. I’d use this to compare for example the data per year.

Finally, here is a wonderful compilation of atrocious pie charts, and I hope you NEVER use one again.

Pie or no pie?


Favorite Pie!

“Death to the pie chart” is a battle cry of the data visualization expert Cole Nussbaumer working in the bay area mainly with business clients. I learned a lot about visual communication of data from her blog, after all, it does not matter if plots are about business revenue or bacterial growth!

While pie charts are not outright wrong, they are very, very hard to read accurately. In my classes I ask students to estimate the percentage of categories read from either a pie chart or a bar chart – invariably, they do better with getting the information from the bar chart!* And very often, the error when reading from pie chart is 10% or more! Would you want to force your audience, be it your busy boss, readership of your paper or of the next grant, to have to make guesses about your numbers or rather be sure they easily grasp it from a well executed bar chart? The longer it takes your audience to understand your figures, the less likely he/she will be to want to continue reading.

I have an exercise for you! In the pie chart below, is blue or red bigger? How long did you take to figure it out?x_Pie_bad

Now double-check your result using the bar chart – and monitor how much faster it was reading it! And there you already have the answer: in the pie chart you actually have to guess while in the bar you will be able to pretty precisely read of the answer from the provided axis!


And, surprise surprise, if I turn the bar chart by 90 deg, the category names are right next to the bar and we can read names with the bar length just like we read text. This helps the overall readability tremendously and is of course way more interesting if categories have more complicated labels such as “Wildtype animal treated with DDSX5 (5mM)”.



The real numbers are A = 18%, B, C, E = 20%, D = 22%. Please comment how close you got, I am collecting the data, after all I am still a scientist!

Come back for my next blog on a re-vamping a real example and also how to nicely show percentages with bar charts!


PS Cole’s blog on pie chart can be found here

* of course, in each class is one person who is really good at reading pie charts and this invariably leads to a lot of discussion. It is wonderful for that person to be good at pie charts, but it still shows that most people have difficulties reading from pie. Since figures are targeted at as many people as possible, I recommend making the figures as readable as possible to as many people as you can! And this includes, do not use the pie chart!

This week’s DataViz on twitter

This was a great week on twitter for a RNA-scientist moonlighting as data visualization expert. There are a couple of mantras that I keep on repeating and they all came up this week.

1) In praise of drawings!

A simple drawing is better than a complicated diagram. And these days, it is super simple to draw on the ipad – even unskilled artists can go a long way! Or use whiteboard and include this as a picture in your talk.

This is a wonderful drawing of expansion microscopy by Christophe Leterrrier (@christlet):

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 11.32.01

2) Avoid 3D!

Unless you are making an interactive web-based animation, 3D is very hard to read and way too often results in confusion or even misleads the reader! Avoid it at all costs. See my recent blog-post on one possible work-around. Here is a recent example that circulated in the RNA-twitterverse by RNAseqblog about usage of RNAseq.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 11.45.41

3) Time = line.

If you want to show changes over time, the time almost always goes to the x-axis! A line graph works best if you have many time-points. When dealing with only two time-points like in this case the go-to chart is the slope-chart!

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 11.31.40

Solution: turn bars into lines, shift 90deg and simplify by using colors strategically and finally, make straightforward labels! PS I hope Dan Graur does not mind me using his graph as an example 🙂  slope_dangraur

4) Faceting is always a solution.

If you can’t solve a problematic graph, try faceting aka small multiples aka many little similar graphs. I used it for example here. Faceting is really easy for people using R, but it is, like so many things, also possible in excel. I am not an evangelist for either, both have their value, – it is most important that you try making better graphs regardless of the program you use to create them! Have a look how to do faceting with excel:








By all means: avoid 3D!

You have so much nice data you want to show, but sadly only one flat piece of paper. Are 3-dimensional graphs a good solution? Quick answer: No, never, ever. Why, I will explain and show a recent example that I worked on.

We often have the trouble of wanting (or having) to show a lot data at once: let’s say the body temperature of mice over time, RNA expression in cell differentiation. If the data points diverge (and are color-coded!) this rapidly results in a highly cluttered graph. As a consequence the audience has to really “read” the data to decide for themselve what the main message is. PLot_spagettiWe also have a problem if the data is similar and partially overlaps. Again, the resulting graph is highly unreadable.

PLot_overlapWhat to do? To avoid such overlap in data points we tend to use 3-dimensional graphs: each data series can then be read individually. However, a 3-dimensional plot create more problems than it solves:

  • A reduction that is shown further along the z-axis (green data!) is visually heightened – and consequently cannot be fully appreciated. Vice-versa, if you wanted to show an increase, it would look much more dramatic if shown in the background – both are: misleading!
  • It is almost impossible to faithfully read the value of the y-axis correctly. What is the size of the first green peak? I’d have to use a ruler to asess where the peak would cross the y-axis (3rd tick) and then substract the height of where the green baseline crosses the y-axis (0.5 ticks). Quite a lot of work! PLot_3D


Show data individually, dare to show it small, the main point will still be clear! And make use of the power of showing multiples – here the reader has to read axes only once, but can apply this knowledge to all of the individual plots at once!

Note: the resulting picture is not bigger than the orignial and could possibly be further reduced in size while still being fully readable!


PS. To increased clarity I mute the colors of the y-axis and gene-model and show them in grey (there is no need to show each exon in a different color!). I then use color ONLY to highlight the main message: a strong reduction of RNA expression in homozygous mutants. By separating the data into three plots I circumvent the problem of having to show them in individual colors.

Evolution and the hourglass

Today, 134 years ago, Darwin died. A suitable day to share a data visualization on evolution!

In the early 18-hundreds, Karl von Baer made a couple of observations that lead to what is now commonly known as Baer’s laws of embryology. These state that while embryos of various species look strikingly different in the beginning of embryo development and as adults, there is one time-point when the variation is at its minimum that typifies a phylum, the phylotypic stage. Baer’s observations were later developed further and became known as the developmental “hourglass” (Sander 1983?). *see FOOTNOTE*

The hourglass model states that there are developmental constraints that work against variation – but this lacked, as many evolutionary models, experimental validation. How should one recapitulate or test an experiment that in nature took billions of years? I fondly remember my teacher Ingo Wallat’s classes on evolution and was therefore delighted when joining Pavel Tomancak’s lab that a team around Alex Kalinka was collecting the first molecular proof for the developmental hourglass and van Baer’s 200-year old theory!

Their paper was published in 2010 (also available here), but I must admit the nature of the evidence was initially hard to grasp for a RNA biologist like myself! I therefore decided to create an illustration of their findings to explain the science to a wider audience – and maybe also high-school students!





* Haeckel beautifully illustrated a similar idea of his own, that embryonic development is a recapitulation of evolution. In fact, his drawings are most often used to illustrate the developmental hourglass – a great case point for the power of a wonderful scientific illustration!