One of the best things about doing a research PhD at the University of Sheffield is that there are so many opportunities to present your work to the public. And perhaps one of the most exciting is FameLab – an international competition that was originally launched at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2005. Contestants have just 3 minutes to explain a scientific topic of their choice to a public audience – but here’s the catch: no slides are allowed, or PowerPoint, or audio – in fact, you can only use the props you can carry on stage. And even if you manage that, you then face a 2-minute grilling from the judges.
I was always the one who was too scared to speak in front of the class at secondary school – let alone the public! But this year, I decided to tackle my fear and signed up to the Yorkshire FameLab heats, held at the Crucible Theatre on Thursday 2nd February. Although it was a serious competition, with a panel of academic and media experts, I was struck by how supportive and encouraging the atmosphere was. Fellow competitor Ciarán Mc Inerney agreed: “Events like FameLab can really boost your motivation and quash your anxieties because you are surrounded by likeminded people” he said. However, as the audience started to arrive, my nerves began to fray and I could feel the panic building up. Fortunately, our compere for the evening, Simon Watts, was on hand to calm me down. Now a science comedian, writer and TV presenter, Simon took part in FameLab during its early years and is just one example of how past competitors have gone on to have enthralling careers in science communication. “Famelab shows that it is possible to cram good content into a tight space. Bite-sized science does not have to be dumbed down, but it does have to be arresting and engaging” he said. I took his advice and stood at the front of the room until I became habituated to the audience’s presence.
And it was just in time as we were soon underway! My chosen topic was the science behind hurricane formation – which involved lots of wild gesticulating to demonstrate the positive feedback loops that cause such strong winds to develop. The hours of rehearsing paid off and I managed to gallop to the end without stumbling and finish just before the buzzer rang. I was even able to give a reasonable answer to the judge’s questions (thanks to the World Met Office’s “FAQ on Hurricanes” webpage!) and suddenly it was all over, at least for me!
I could now relax and enjoy the other presentations, which were about as diverse as you can get. Everything from “Why is Poo brown?”; the link between lithium batteries and aeroplane crashes; why the BigMac hamburgers of the future may be grown laboratories and what bursting balloons have to do with antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The humour came thick and fast, and there wasn’t a spare second to get bored. I wish all science conferences were like this!
In the end, I didn’t get through to the regional finals, to be held in Manchester (despite all my arm waving earning me top marks for ‘charisma’!). But the overall winner of the evening – Ashley Carley, a Masters in Science Communication student at the University of Sheffield – certainly deserved the title. Using carefully-constructed ‘eggs’ made of balloons and papier-mâché, she ingeniously demonstrated the concept of mitochondrial donation and three-parent embryos. “I’d nearly dropped out several times due to anxiety, but I held on and I’m really proud of myself for sticking with it – it paid off in the end” she said. “When Simon announced my talk as the winner I was in absolute disbelief! I’m really looking forward to seeing all of the other amazing talks and meeting more passionate people at the regional final.”
Look out for FameLab next year – even if you don’t take to the stage yourself, it makes for a brilliantly entertaining evening of fascinating science, delivered at lightning speed!