Over the past few weeks I have prepared for and competed in the FameLab competition, which aims “to find the new voices of science and engineering across the world.”
Essentially, you have three minutes to communicate scientific content to your audience while ensuring clarity and being charismatic.
There were a few reasons why I chose to enter the competition. Although I’ve been involved in science outreach for a while, I’ve never done anything like a competition or with such strict time constraints and I thought it would be a great challenge (and it most definitely was). But, I also really wanted people to realise that archaeologists actually do science! It was for this reason I chose the topics for my presentations, that I did (see more below).
On Friday February 7th, I competed in Heat 2 of the North West regionals at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). I was really pleased with my presentation, which was on the importance of teeth in studying disease (The ‘Tooth’ About Ancient DNA?). You can watch it below (I will put up a subtitled version or the ‘script’ in an update). [Update: It’s here, as a blogpost.]
After my presentation I answered LOADS of questions from the judges, which was really fun. There were some that I expected, but they really threw a few that I hadn’t anticipated. The questions aren’t in the video, but they ranged from everything to: how did they know the plague bacteria strains were distinct, to: how would you use this topic to explain evolution!
Later that evening I found out that I had made it through the heats. Yay! This meant that I would compete in the North West regional finals on Friday February 14th at MOSI (because we all love science). During the week I received great feedback from the judges, which I really should have taken to heart!
I spent some of the past week preparing for the regional finals. I chose to still speak on ancient DNA (aDNA), but this time about how the method of PCR (polymerase chain reaction), used to amplify the copies of aDNA fragments from samples, actually works (Ancient DNA: Back to the Future). I wanted to talk about this, because aDNA has been in the news a lot recently and you often get sentences like, “The researchers analysed the ancient DNA using PCR…” and no one ever actually explains what it is. It can sound very complicated, but it is actually a relatively simple method when you break it down. And it’s fascinating! It properly blows my mind.
I gave the presentation last night and it was definitely a learning curve! When I get a copy of the video I will update this post so you can see it and learn from my experience too. I was up first and although it went okay there are definitely things I will take away from the experience, so that in a similar situation in the future I could do things differently (read: better). More on this below.
I didn’t get through to the next stage, but I am really glad I took part. The winner of our regional final was Phil Bell-Young, who spoke about the sex pheromones of ocean worms! It was a brilliant presentation and Phil is a well-deserved winner. I am sure that he will do an amazing job representing the North West at the national finals in April. (Knock ‘em dead!)
The wildcard was Jo Pennock, who talked all about the genome and the ability to access a copy of your own genetic code. I love Jo’s presentation style; she is incredibly engaging and listening to her speak is like being wrapped in a comfortable blanket… knitted out of science!
The audience favourite was Ben Stutchbury, who told us all about designing drugs based on the London underground network. It was clear when he answered the questions from the judges that he is insanely passionate about systems biology, which was fantastic! I kind of want to learn more now.
In hindsight (ahh, hindsight, a wonderful thing) there are a few things I would do differently the next time I’m in a similar situation. My presentation didn’t go as well as I had hoped it would and I could have easily avoided some of the errors by:
1) not making the rookie mistake of putting in too much content (I ended up having to rush, which is never good. I really missed out on the delivery style I had during the heats and I think this is what really hurt my presentation. WHYYY? I KNOW BETTER!)
2) making sure my props are fool-proof (During the heats my only prop was a giant cardboard tooth and it’s really hard to mess up holding something like that… because you just hold it. During the finals I had an interactive prop to mimic DNA replication, but although the velcro tabs worked perfectly in all my practice-runs, they failed on the night, which threw me off. LESSON LEARNED!)
3) listen to the judges feedback (I had great feedback from the judges after the heats. I should have realised that what I was doing was exactly what I should have been doing, but instead I decided to try and add more content, which meant that I missed out on the ‘story’ this time around. All of the winners had presentations that were highly relevant, which meant you could really connect to their subject. MEGA IMPORTANT!)
4) practice my presentation in a variety of different ways (The setup on the night meant I had to adjust a few small things on the spot. If I had made sure I could do the presentation regardless of the space around me, I definitely would have been more comfortable. SNORTED!)
A few other things you can only gain from experience. During the finals we were at the front of a room with a spotlight on us. I found this completely weird, because I couldn’t make eye-contact with anyone! I think this is only something you can get accustomed to by actually experiencing it. Now that I know what it’s like, I would definitely be better prepared the next time I’m in that situation.
Now, this blogpost should probably end here, but I’m going to continue below on another learning curve which is perhaps a bit more personal. You can feel free to carry on or not, as I know this is now super long.
When I first started to lose my hearing, I had to learn to adjust rather quickly. I found myself pulling back from communicating with others, as it had become much more difficult. Thankfully I realised this early on and made a conscious effort to stop. I pushed myself to continue doing all the types of outreach and engagement I would have done before hearing loss – and the types I always wanted to try.
After getting hearing aids, I had to learn to adjust again. This is definitely still an on-going process. I found out while practicing for FameLab that presenting while wearing hearing aids is not the same as just speaking to someone in conversation. Because of the projection differences, I found myself distracted by my own voice, because it seemed so loud! I didn’t have enough time to get used to it (as I only realised this a week before the heats), so I decided to go the route of switching my hearings aids off while I presented.
This worked great in the heats! However, during the finals we used microphones. This meant, that even though I turned my hearing aids off, the speakers compensated and I end up once again distracted by my own voice (now I know how everyone else must feel). This is just something that I need to adjust to, which I can do through more experience, because it would be silly to keep turning my hearing aids off every time I have to give a presentation.
This became especially apparent, as when it came to feedback and questions from the judges, there was a bit of miscommunication between myself and the compere and I ended up not being able to turn them on before they started speaking – so I may not have hear everything they said. Sorry judges!
I am really proud of myself for entering FameLab and throwing myself into a completely unknown situation. I am especially proud of refusing to give in and give up when I realised it was going to be even more difficult than I had anticipated.
All of this being said, I know that if (when) I learn to adjust to my new reality, then once I quit making ridiculous content and timing mistakes I should immediately become a master of science communication (that’s how it works, right).
The level of competition was incredibly high and all of the other entrants during the heats and the finals were amazing (seriously, so many great presenters and fascinating researchers). I can’t recommend the experience enough!
Maybe next year, when I’m finished my PhD (so that I have more time) and have become a resident (so that the courses aren’t so expensive) this Canuck will finally get around to learning some BSL properly and I’ll re-enter FameLab… and really throw the doors open on the competition and my own science communication skills.
Oh… and if anyone needs someone to explain DNA replication or PCR with a workable duct-tape and velco demo, in slightly *more* than three minutes, then you know who to get in touch with, eh?