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For the last couple of years, I’ve been honoured with an invitation to join the judging panel on the Cambridge heats of FameLab, an international competition to ‘find the new voices of science and engineering across the world’. FameLab was set up by the Cheltenham Science Festival (in partnership with Nesta) back in 2005, and aimed to ‘find and nurture scientists and engineers with a flair for communicating with public audiences’. After developing a link with the British Council in 2007, FameLab has been intent on global domination, and with more than 23 countries competing in 2013, seems to be well on the way to reaching that goal.
To test the mettle of our aspiring science communicators, each challenger must prepare a three minute presentation. Time is tight, and there’s usually a strong incentive to stop at the 3 minute mark (in our case, the sound of an awful squeaky dog toy, drowning out your big punchline). As a judge, I’m asked to evaluate each presentation on ‘the three Cs’: content, clarity and charisma.
Everybody (well, almost everybody) who takes the stage is well prepared, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, so it can be hard to divide them. After all, who am I to tell a physicist that her ‘content’ on dark matter isn’t strong enough?
To try to balance out the personal understanding and subconscious biases, FameLab invites a number of judges from different fields, but even if that helps to smooth the content quibbles, the wildly subjective ‘charisma’ category can lead to heated arguments on the judging panel. ‘Clarity’ at least seems a fairly straightforward measure – how well did I understand you? But even that leaves questions – what’s an acceptable level of verbal shortcut before we start ‘dumbing down’?
Organised by the Cambridge Science Festival team, our local final is this week, and so far we’ve seen 20 engaging, thought provoking and entertaining performances from new and established researchers, covering topics including crystallography, materials science, stem cells, worm holes and ‘the planet that never was’. I’m really looking forward to the final, where the 10 best performers will have to face the judging panel again with brand new material, and we’ll pick a winner to send to the UK final later in the year.
Regardless of who will win this week, FameLab as a movement goes to show how excited, enthusiastic and skilled young researchers can be at telling the stories of their science.
If you think you can communicate science with flair, then keep an eye on the FameLab website for local opportunities. If you’re better behind the keyboard than on stage, why not apply for the Chemistry World science communication competition?
The Cambridge University science magazine, BlueSci, have created a playlist of the finalists so far:
And a public vote will put four of the remaining hopefuls through: