Dare you enter the fame lab?

29 April 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

Dare you enter the fame lab?

2017 Entrants to FameLab
2017 Entrants to FameLab. Photo: Pubic Engagement Team, University of Sheffield.

By Caroline Wood

In today’s fast-paced world of short attention spans, effective communication depends on getting your key messages across as quickly as possible. But could you explain your research to a public audience in just three minutes?

This is the challenge of FameLab: an international competition originally conceived by the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2005. Contestants have just 180 seconds to explain a scientific concept of their choice – but without PowerPoint or audio and using only the props they can carry on stage. Each presentation is followed by two minutes of questions from a judging panel who award points for content, clarity and charisma. Despite these limitations, FameLab has proved amazingly popular, having grown larger and larger each year. Over 5000 scientists from 25 different countries have participated so far, each hoping to earn a coveted place at the international final at Cheltenham in June. The competition is now recognised as a golden opportunity to develop skills in public engagement and FameLab alumni have gone on to forge careers in science communication as writers, TV presenters and science comedians, including Simon Watts, who says: “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.”

Stage fright or fight

This year I decided to see if I had what it takes to enter the FameLab and registered for the Yorkshire heats, compered by Simon at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Although this was a serious competition, with a panel of distinguished academics and media experts, I was struck by the very supportive atmosphere. 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.” An informal icebreaker session helped settle my fraught nerves and I appreciated the opportunity to get some feedback on my pitch. When the audience started to arrive, it was heartening to see how many members of the public were prepared to give up their Thursday evening to hear about science – even if it was delivered at lightning speed!

Going down a storm

As the pitches got under way, the true key to FameLab’s success became clear. The minimalist, pared-down approach, without any slides to hide behind, forces you to develop your own unique presence and style to capture the audience’s attention. For my talk on the science behind hurricane formation, this meant a lot of gesticulating and waving my arms around, which apparently earned me top marks for charisma! The other talks involved bursting balloons to illustrate how antibiotics act against bacteria: papier-mâché models of poo in an exploration of the gut microbiome, and the workings of lithium batteries explained through aeroplane-crash scenarios. There was plenty of humour and the cracking pace meant there wasn’t an instant to get bored – perhaps all science conferences should be delivered like this?

Grand finale

In the end I didn’t make it through to the regional finals. But I picked up a lot of ideas through watching the other competitors, including how props can be used creatively to simplify complex ideas. Overall winner, Ashley Carley, cleverly used balloons and papier-mâché ‘eggs’ to demonstrate the concept of mitochondrial donation and three-parent embryos. “I was in disbelief when they announced my talk as the winner as I had nearly dropped out several times,” she told me. “I’m really looking forward to seeing all of the other amazing talks and meeting more passionate people at the regional final.” So the next time you have three minutes to spare, why not set yourself the challenge of explaining your research without the aid of slides … you might be surprised at how liberated you feel.

For more information about FameLab here.


Category: Science Communication
Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog