Famous Last Words

FameLab Australia Final

MC Robyn Williams revs up the crowd at the FameLab Australia Final 2015 (Photo: OK White Lane)

My last post spoke of my experience competing in the WA State Heat of FameLab.  Although I was delighted to be voted the Peoples Choice by audience vote, unfortunately only the winner and runner-up of each state heat progress to the National Final.

Or so I thought…

But a couple of weeks after the State Heat, I received a phonecall from FameLab Australia organiser Chris Hodge, inviting me back to present again as the British Council Wildcard entrant.  So I made it to the Final by a fluke!

Sussing out the Competition

The FameLab Australia Final involved entrants from New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, Queensland and Western Australia.  A mix of PhD students, post-docs, and scientists-with-real-jobs we covered a range of subjects from coughing guinea pigs to spider behaviour, gut bacteria to brain function, biofuel to artificial intelligence.  A mysterious group of people at the best of times, especially when most of us had never met before!

I had the chance to suss out one of the competitors, David Farmer, on a radio interview with ABC Melbourne presenter Lindy Burns.  Ironically, when discussing the Australian competition, the station had managed to select two Scottish people to interview.  So this combined with dolphins, lasers and squishy brains made for some great banter in a pretty unique interview!

With competitors like that, it was obviously going to be some stiff competition…

Love and Science

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists (Photo:  OK White Lane)

The lead-up to the National Final included two days of media training with science communication guru Malcolm Love.  Chief Trainer of FameLab International, Malcolm was originally a freelance journalist in South America before working for the BBC as a producer on features and documentaries for over 20 years.  He is now a specialist in the public engagement of science, giving lectures on the subject at the University of West England and providing training for a range of science-stakeholders, as well as hosting his own weekly radio show “Love and Science“.  So this guy knows what he’s talking about.

In the training, we covered a variety of topics including body language, story-telling and interview tips.  But one of the best things about it was interacting with people who love science communication.  Many scientists still hold onto a fear of presenting to the public, and worry about “dumbing down” their research or coming across as boring.  But all the participants were obviously people who were passionate about their research, and it is hard not to get swept up in that kind of enthusiasm!  So it was an awesome two days of being a science geek with other science geeks and discussing how to turn other people into science geeks too!

The Final

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation...  (Photo:  OK White Lane)

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation… (Photo: OK White Lane)

A sell-out event with over 200 people in attendance, the final was a bit more nerve-wracking than the state heat.  But I always tell presenters that you just have to try changing the nervous energy into excited energy, so when I stepped up to the spotlight I tried to remember my own advice.  Unfortunately, I still felt my performance lacked the right mix of enthusiasm – even as I was speaking, I knew it sounded over-rehersed.  So although the crowd laughed in the right spots and seemed keen, I knew it wouldn’t be a winning presentation.  But that’s okay – there will be others!

Science is a serious business - need to work on that intense expression!  (Photo:  Ok White Lane)

Science is a serious business – need to work on that intense expression! (Photo: Ok White Lane)

The overall winner of FameLab Australia 2015 was Dr Sandip Kamath, with Dr David Farmer coming a close second.  Sandip is studying shellfish allergies at James Cook University, and spoke of his ambition to help people overcome these reactions – with the help of Mr Pinchy the lobster, his side-kick slash prop.  David moved away from squishy brains and lasers to give a fascinating description of his research at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, investigating the cough reflex and brainstem function.  To see photos from the night, check out the British Council Flickr Page.

And, of course, we all had fun celebrating at the FameLab after-party!  The official function was in the WA Maritime Museum, with some speeches and lots of well-wishers…  But the scientists and British Council crew headed out into Fremantle to celebrate afterwards!  After all, we’re twelve of the top young science communicators in the country!

So now, as Sandip flies to the UK to compete in the FameLab International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival, for the rest of us it is back down to Earth.  I’m back in a world of fieldwork, marking student assignments, and desperately trying to finish the first scientific paper of my PhD.  I can see all my new sci comm pals talking about the same reality bump on Twitter.  But to be honest, getting back to research is quite exciting enough… for now!

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Intro to Underwater Acoustics: Two dolphins walk into a bar…

One of the things many scientists find challenging is how to explain their research in an interesting manner.

It’s one thing preparing your research for academic publications – there is a recognised structure to follow, certain items to always include, and feedback from co-authors and reviewers to improve your writing.  But presenting that same information to the general public is a whole other ball game.  How do you keep a class of undergraduates interested for a whole 2hr lecture on underwater acoustics?  How do you encourage community volunteers to develop scientific thinking skills?  How do you explain your research to media personnel in a way that makes it exciting and worth sharing?

These are problems that I find really interesting.  Obviously traditional science communication (academic publications and presenting at scientific conferences) is important.  But I’ve spoken before of the importance of also becoming a virtual scientist, and learning new science communication techniques to promote your research.  So I was pretty chuffed last week to find myself at a day-long workshop on “Science Communication and Presentation Skills” as part of FameLab Australia.

Bringing Science into the Spotlight

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition to discuss underwater acoustics

FameLab is one of the world’s leading science communication competitions.  It aims to get people “talking science” by mentoring young scientists and engineers to turn them into awesome communicators.  Similar to the 3-Minute-Thesis Competition (3MT), speakers are given only 3mins to explain their area of research – no powerpoint, no labcoats, no jargon!  Organised by the British Council, there are over 45 countries participating in the event, having their own national finals to determine their competitors for the final FameLab International Competition in the UK.

I was encouraged by Curtin University to enter, so went along last Thursday to the workshop, which culminated in the WA State Finals that evening.  The workshop was held by three local science communicators – Emma Donnelly (Science Outreach Coordinator; Curtin University), Sarah Lau (Communication Managed; ChemCentre), and Renae Sayers (Theatre and Events Coordinator; Scitech).  We spent an amazing day bouncing around between flaming hands, personal brands, communication platforms, and vocal toolboxes.  It was like a step back into my former Science Presenter life…  If I could find a way to incorporate explosions, liquid nitrogen, and / or flaming limbs into my dolphin presentations, I would be complete!

Like Taking a Keyboard from a Baby

For my talk, I really wanted to get people thinking about underwater soundscapes.  To do this, I wanted to use an example that people could relate to – and since I knew my audience would majorly consist of young to middle-aged adults, I figured comparing the underwater environment to a bar would be a pretty nifty metaphor! Almost everyone in the audience had probably experienced the masking effects of background noise in a pub at some point, so it nicely familiarised the problem faced by dolphins.

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

But how to illustrate this on stage?  FameLab requires the use of a prop, which I struggled with for a while.  I got a friend to record some bar sounds from his weekend exploits, but playing them on stage quickly became a logistical pain.  The rules didn’t allow me to use the FameLab sound system, and bringing my own wasn’t feasible.

But a brainwave on the treadmill (I often problem-solve whilst walking) reminded me of the last time I was babysitting.  Owen wandered over to the electric keyboard, switched it on, and pressed the ‘random filler’ option to churn out some beats before dancing around in circles for ten minutes.

Random cheesy filler music would make a great bar-sounds alternative – loud enough to make the point, whilst being tacky enough to be funny.  Win!

Two Dolphins Walk into a Bar…

The resultant talk wasn’t filmed as part of FameLab, but Phil managed to catch the talk on his phone.  The volume is a bit low, but still gives a pretty good video of my performance!

"Tursiops Wins Again!" - Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People's Choice winner

“Tursiops Wins Again!” – Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People’s Choice winner

I was delighted to be awarded People’s Choice by audience vote, but unfortunately I didn’t make it through to the Australian Finals.  The judges consoled me afterwards by saying that it was my lack of results rather than my performance which hindered my progression to the next round, and strongly encouraged me to come back next year.  Although, as a friend kindly pointed out, it means I got the votes of 200 audience members as opposed to 3 judges!

Regardless, I still enjoyed the whole experience!  I always enjoy the chance to talk about dolphins and get people excited in science!  And it was a wonderful opportunity to meet some fellow science enthusiasts whilst flexing my science communication skills.  Plus applause isn’t something you get often in research, so that was pretty appreciated!

A massive congrats go to Amber Beavis (WA Museum) and David Gozzard (UWA) who were the winner and runner-up for the WA competition.  I can’t wait to see you guys at the Australian final down at Fremantle in May!

Any More Talks?

But looking at the birthday card I got from the department this week, perhaps I should be focusing more on my research for a while – I appear to be getting a bit of a reputation 😛

Sarah's Birthday Card 2015