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Finding the face of science communication

FameLab Final at Cheltenham

Jennifer Rohn 28 June 2006

Bespoke science: Wood (center) is victorious, though Bristow's red dress made an impression

We still managed to attract a substantial number of people willing to embarrass themselves in the name of science communication

The young female contestant, wearing a daring red dress, steps onto the stage and flashes the expectant audience a nervous smile. She is desperate not to get voted off in the final round by the no-nonsense judges and the whimsy of audience opinion; the previous contestant’s performance received a wildly enthusiastic response and is a tough act to follow. The silence reverberates. She reaches for the microphone, opens up her mouth, and –

Begins to talk about the mating habits of monkeys. Welcome to FameLab, a British competition to unearth researchers with a talent and passion for speaking to the public about science. Modelled loosely on musical talent-seeking TV shows such as American Idol and Fame Academy, FameLab whittles down a shortlist of candidates from regional heats and pits the top ten against one another in the tense, action-packed final (held recently in Cheltenham, UK), where each has only five minutes to present a scientific topic while walking the fine line between accuracy and engagement.

This is not as easy as it sounds. The seconds seem to fly by as each contestant sketches out a complex scientific scenario and tries to make it sound plausible and exciting. Props and gimmicks are entirely allowed. Davina Bristow, a Ph.D. student in cognitive neuroscience, eventually reveals that the color red is perceived by many mammals to be the hallmark of winners; the audience begins to chuckle when they realize why she has chosen to wear such a lurid crimson dress. Stuart McPherson, an undergraduate with a passion for marine life, takes the stage in full diving gear and throws fake krill at the front row. Sarah Forbes-Robertson, a postdoc studying the effects of radiation on cancer, wrestles with six-foot high chromosome as she explains how telomeres work. And Lindsay Stenhouse, midway through graduate studies in molecular parasitology, not only wears a green beard, but persuades one the judges to do likewise to help her make a point about selfish genes.

But in the end, understated eloquence won the day. Jonathan Wood, who did his Ph.D. research on virus assembly and is currently in science publishing, impressed both the crowd and judges with a no-frills, enthusiastic account of the wonders of arachnid silk. The talk started with Spiderman and culminated in current attempts by biotech companies to engineer goats to produce spider silk proteins in their milk, with the ultimate aim of producing flexible material with the tensile strength of steel.

A few weeks after the final, I asked Wood whether he knew after he’d finished his talk that he’d given a winning performance.

“I was a mess of nerves before the final began,” Wood confessed. “So I was just relieved that I hadn't fallen up the steps to the stage, relieved that I had got through my talk without forgetting crucial bits, and relieved that I hadn't looked a complete fool answering the judges' questions. All the other contestants had produced such a variety of arresting, engaging talks that I didn't being to think about winning until my name was being read out.”

Wood told me that his stint as ‘The Official Face of UK Science’ has already begun, with interviews by the local radio and newspapers. “There seems to be genuine interest in why I think science communication is important and how science issues could be better covered in the media. It's really positive and gratifying.”

Roger Highfield, science editor of the Daily Telegraph and one of the judges on the night (renowned, according to compere Quentin Cooper, for always asking “the geekiest questions”), said by email: “I have to admit that when we launched FameLab I was a bit doubtful. But last year we were blown away by the response and this year, even with tighter entry criteria, the standards remained high and we still managed to attract a substantial number of people willing to embarrass themselves in the name of science communication."

Some might wonder whether the format might select against genuinely good communicators who might not take to the five-minute format. But Highfield said: “I think was a big improvement this year was the way that more emphasis was placed on encouraging people who could shine in various media and in various ways, not just TV. The judges are asked in the regional heats to record whether we thought that people will work better in some circumstances, such as schools or on radio, so we are building up a database of talent of various kinds."

In addition to a schedule of talks and appearances, Wood won a master class in science communication, the chance to appear on television and a cash prize of £2000.

“I think FameLab provided great entertainment and really got the audience involved on the night,” Wood said. “You could feel the crackle of tension as each finalist got up on stage and gradually warmed to their theme under the harsh lights, only to be challenged on what they had performed by expert judges. It forced all of us to focus on what it was we wanted to say and how best to connect with the audience and get that across. And those are key elements of whatever format you choose, whether it be a presentation to a specialist conference, a school lesson, museum exhibition, or magazine feature.”