Away From the Bench: Absolutely FameLab-ulous

Jonathan Lawson reminisces on this year’s FameLab, a competition for science communication

Caroline Shenton- Taylor won the UK Competition

In June 2005, Cheltenham Science Festival played host to the very first FameLab competition, a talent show-like science communication contest, which challenges participants to explain a scientific topic to a general audience within three minutes. Just two years later, FameLab became an international competition, and now in its ninth year, FameLab 2014 brought together 23 national champions from 25 different countries. The FIFA World Cup was around for 50 years before it had that number of countries.

The hopeful contestants represented the full diversity of young scientists from around the world, ranging from undergraduate students to lecturers, and were discussing the full spectrum of scientific research. Over two intense semi-final evenings, the 23 hopefuls were whittled down to just ten by select panels of expert judges. Their
three minute talks covered assorted topics from the psychology of smiling to rivers and quantum mechanics.The following night the lucky ten returned with new performances to vie for the FameLab International title. You’d be forgiven for expecting FameLab International to have a tense, competitive atmosphere, with everyone’s eyes firmly on the prize. However, this gathering of science communicators was a surprisingly relaxed and enjoyable affair.

Each one of the competitors in FameLab International had already won the national FameLab competition in their own country. As far as they were concerned they’d won their prize, and a trip to Cheltenham, complete with a master class from FameLab’s public speaking expert, Malcolm Love, was simply part of the reward. All had come together to learn from each other and share a mutual enthusiasm for science more than to compete.

The grand prize was awarded to Pádraic Flood, representing the combined Benelux states of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, for his talk on the possibility of developing more efficient methods of photosynthesis. As the host nation and one of the front runners in science communication, FameLab in the UK is a great challenge for anyone over 21 that wants to take a shot at talking about science. You need at least two three-minute speeches prepared, possibly with props. You’ll need these for the regional competitions held around the country, including here in Cambridge. The winners, and one wildcard runner-up, get given a special master class in communication, and are invited to the national final in London.

This year, the lucky wildcard UK finalist was BlueSci’s own Robin Lamboll, who won his place in the final with an astonishing performance of a three minute poem explaining ocean ecology. The eventual UK champion was physicist Caroline Shenton-Taylor on ‘How a Cup of Tea Stirred up Science’, an exploration of how we can learn about atomic structure using nuclear magnetic resonance by stirring our samples. Caroline went on to win the FameLab International alumni award alongside Joanna Bagniewska for FameLab Poland, who showed how to train bees to detect explosives.

FameLab 2015 starts soon and with more countries than ever before. Whether you love talking about science, or have yet to give it a go, you can find out more and register to get involved online at famelab.org.

Jonathan Lawson is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Genetics.

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