We just took part in another FameLab competition in Troy, New York, at Rensselaer Polytechnic (RPI) Institute sponsored by NASA’s Astrobiology program in collaboration with the British Council. Lisa Brochu is one of three judges along with Cheryl Zook of National Geographic and Planet Science researcher, Dr. Alex Lockwood from Caltech. After the morning round of three-minute presentations, I delivered a two and a half hour training activity to the competitors on the interpretive approach to communication.
FameLab is an international competition in science communication, part of the Times Cheltenham Festivals in Cheltenham, United Kingdom. The best way to get a taste of recent competition is to watch Fergus McAuliffe from University County Cork in Ireland with his award-winning presentation in 2013. He shares how the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) blurs the line between life and death. Fergus recently took his story further at a TedX talk on “Sharing Science Through Story.”
These three-minute elevator talks given by early career scientists demonstrate the power of effective interpretation of scientific research. And it aptly simulates the real-life circumstance of having only a few moments to connect with a foundation executive, major donor, or program director when chatting at a meeting or catching the elevator at a conference hotel.
In just three minutes a scientist can put her or his listeners into a jargon-induced coma or light up their minds with the potential for wondrous new discoveries in science. FameLab provides a chance to practice and get training and feedback. The regional event in Troy, New York was won by Graham Lau, a field geologist, who had his entire audience ready to stomp their feet to assist him in a daring escape from a crumbling glacier during one of his field studies. He will compete in the U.S. competition as a result of his success in the regional event. Fifteen other scientists also took part and the quality of their work was amazing. You can see some of the presentations at http://famelab-eeb.arc.nasa.gov.
Several years ago, Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA, learned of the FameLab competition and realized what a benefit it could be to astrobiologists and other scientists in the U.S. She placed the management of the events into the able hands of Daniella Scalice with the National Astrobiology Institute. They gather postdoctoral students, graduates, some undergraduates and early career scientists at regional and online events and the winners and some runners up go on to compete in a national competition. The winner of the national event will be sent to Cheltenham to compete with the winners from 25 other nations.
We admire these brilliant young scientists who take the challenge to become powerful communicators with the public. Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman, another NASA astrobiologist and coordinator of the Pale Blue Blog, served as emcee of this event at RPI. Paraphrasing Shawn, we once had Dr. Carl Sagan speaking eloquently for the importance of exploring space on national TV on a regular basis but we lost his amazing personality and articulate voice in 1996. Now with the extreme fragmentation of television with hundreds of channels, and dozens of social media outlets on the Internet, we need hundreds of mini-Sagans taking their inspired work to the public in myriad ways. FameLab and NASA’s Astrobiology program are helping pave the way for the future of powerful science communication. We’re proud to be a small part of that movement.
– Tim Merriman