Three minutes doesn’t seem like a lot of time. In three minutes you could answer an email or two, write a tweet or make a cup of coffee. Three minutes in a PhD isn’t much either; I can capture a couple lines of data, transfer a few cultures to fresh agar plates and share a short conversation with one of the undergrad mentorship students in our lab. In three minutes it doesn’t seem like you could accomplish a lot… except when you’re competing in FameLab.
FameLab is an international science communication competition hosted in over 25 different countries. It gives young scientists a platform to entertain and engage audiences about STEM by deconstructing complex topics into just three minutes. This year I had the privilege of taking part in the South African FameLab finals and it was awe-inspiring!
Before one can compete in the finals, you need to make it through one of the several heats, hosted at various institutions across the country. I took part in one of 2018’s first heats at Science Forum South Africa, which was hosted at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). There, I was runner up after the very talented, Khavharendwe Rambau—a renewable energy scientist at the CSIR. In her talk, she used the metaphor of killing two chickens with one stone to demonstrate how her research is looking at converting waste material into energy. It was an entertaining talk; a real eye-opener and a testament to what young South African scientists are trying to accomplish to help tackle our energy and waste problems.
The FameLab semi-finals and finals were then held in Port Elizabeth, between the 7th and 9th of May, and brought together thirteen of the fourteen heat finalists—all incredible scientists with a passion to communicate their work. Before the semi-finals, we took part in a Master Class, a two day hands-on workshop with Karl Byrne—an award winning professional science communicator trainer. We were all nervous. Nearly all of us were from different institutions, working on very different things but Karl (very cleverly) had us start off by telling stories, not about our science but ourselves. This helped break the ice, calm the nerves and turned the stranger across from you into a new friend.
While FameLab is a competition, and we were there to compete, the Master Class and the build-up to the finals really became about getting to know one another, learning from one another and sharing our stories. From a physicist that loves playing rugby to a young biologist with her own company, we had a vibrant collection of people doing great things in science and outside. I have always considered myself an informed member of the scientific community but there are so many great scientists producing fantastic science, even just in the South African space, that I wasn’t even aware of. We need to change that.
I found FameLab to be a celebration of science, a bringing together of young people with a desire to share just how their good science is going to make a difference in the world. During the training and my engagement with the other semi-finalists, I felt the science barriers fade; we weren’t biologists looking to stop plant pathogens or physicists trying to develop a more efficient energy source, we were regular people with a dream of a better tomorrow. Our areas of expertise were the tools we chose to help us realize those dreams.
One of the tools we rarely use or use incorrectly (because we weren’t trained enough) is communication. Our strength as a society has been through the transfer of information. It is how we grow, evolve and adapt—our strength lies in community and the science community is no different. To grow and strengthen our community, we need to practice using our communication tools, more and more. At your own institutions, make your own FameLab stage; in the hallway before a departmental meeting, at someone else’s table during your lunch break, in a different colleagues lab, etc. and take three minutes to share your dreams (with a stranger), start a conversation, share knowledge and even build a collaboration (a friendship). When put into practice, over and over, those three minutes, put together, will change many people’s lives.
Congratulations to Emmie Chiyindiko, my friend and chemist from the University of the Free State, on winning the FameLab SA finals at the Future Earth Conference! The FameLab finals were recorded; you can watch the whole function here! Emmie gave an excellent talk that taught me more about catalysts. Good luck in the finals, I hope you blow them away! See you on YouTube soon!