What is FameLab?

Conor describes the fantastic science communications competition FameLab. This years finals will be held in Science Gallery in Trinity.

On the 9 April 2016, the FameLab Ireland final is coming to the Science gallery in Trinity College Dublin. An event which hosts the most enthusiastic and riveting three minute speeches in science. FameLab is one of the biggest science communication competitions in the world. It is an initiative run by the The Times Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK. Famelab Ireland is organised by the British Council in Ireland. FameLab is also run in 25 other countries where the winners of each competition battle it out at their grand final in the Cheltenham Science Festival. The equivalent in the USA is run by NASA.

Do you consider yourself a wicked storyteller? Pride yourself on the clarity of your delivery and the accuracy of your descriptions? Or have found out about a topic that’s so interesting that the public just has to know about it? Well go ahead and enter!

Partaking in FameLab will offer the opportunity to engage with people outside the scientific community and to enthuse people about your field of science. Not only do you get to introduce to the beauties of the topic you have devoted yourself to, but also can justify the importance of it. For example, Niamh Kavanagh a PhD student in UCC, entered the competition in 2013. Researching in the field of optics, her goal is to “increase fibre usage at home” which is hugely relevant in the technologically advanced society we live in today. While devoted to her PhD she makes sure not to overlook the subject of science communication, saying “it is equally important to ensure that research is communicated to a wider audience and that people understand the work of scientists”. As well, many PhD students realise that their research is important, after all they did get funding for it, and this inner belief drives them on to send in an application.

There certainly is an art to science communication, its popularity on YouTube is in the tens of millions for the most popular channels. MinutePhysics, ViHart, Vsauce, Veritasium (And no, your channel doesn’t need to start with a V to be popular in the science section of youtube). Infact what your channel needs in order to make a successful video is to accompany some descriptive explanations with some good visuals. MinutePhysics and ViHart consistently doodle while they speak, making little cartoons to illustrate their points, while Vsauce and Veritasium like to speak to the camera, there would definitely be more colour and animation in these videos than would be on an equivalent television science documentary. A similar technique is often explored by many FameLab speakers who are often armed with props as a storytelling device.

Speaking at the event offers you the chance to improve your confidence and public speaking skills. All the FameLab Ireland finalists who make it through the regional heat get to attend a “communication masterclass’. Run by some of the best science communicators in the world, at it the finalists learn why public engagement is important, develop invaluable media and presentation skills, and get the opportunity to network with scientists from many different scientific fields.

By getting involved with FameLab Ireland you will also become part of an increasingly exciting network of scientists and engineers able to clearly and imaginatively explain their science to the general public. While scientific language can be high-tech and jargon-filled, FameLab stresses the value in trying to break down the main message of your talk into simpler language so the a general audience can understand. As Albert Einstein says “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”, a message I’ve painfully learnt whenever my dad asks me “What’s group theory about?”

Irish scientist Padraic Flood won both FameLab Ireland and the International FameLab final at the Cheltenham Science festival in 2014. Padraic’s talk first took the audience into the leaf and told them about the mechanics of photosynthesis, then moving onto global population growth and the challenge this poses for agriculture, proposing a way we can combat this by improving photosynthesis. He was praised by judge Professor Alice Roberts who said “Padraic was successful because he offered incredibly elegant explanations of his science. We also thought he described the impact that scientific research can have on our lives exceptionally well.”

The Irish art of storytelling was again prevalent one year previous in 2013 when Fergus McAuliffe from University College Cork also won both events. He spoke about the North American wood frog who “blurs the line between life and death” by making its own antifreeze to protect its cells come winter. In fact this was not his own field of study, he actually researches about the use willow trees in wastewater treatment. From first hearing about the frog through a nature documentary, he “decided to use it in the final as [he] reasoned that it was a powerful but simple talk, and that it would be easy to remember afterwards.”

When thinking about our best teachers, it is often the best communicators that we rate most highly. Many TCD professors are making big strides in this area of education. Prof Shane Bergin and Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin were instrumental in the “Dart of Physics”, a programme run before Christmas which planted science themed guerilla pop up art around the city as a way to kickstart a conversation about physics in daily life. Prof Shane O’Mara of the Institute of Neuroscience is one of the curators of the science gallery’s current exhibition Trauma and has also just released a book called “Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation”. Also Prof Aoife McLysaght of the Department of Genetics in TCD has made talks TEDx talks, written for New Scientist as well as The Irish Times and spoken about Science at Electric Picnic. The FameLab Ireland final 2016 will be held in the Science Gallery in Trinity College on the 9 April 2016. Videos of the FameLab Ireland final can be found its website.

Dee Courtney

Dee was Online Editor of Trinity News and a senior sophister History and Political Science student.