Emma takes on FameLab

Posted in: Events, Public engagement

Second-year CSCT student Emma Sackville made it to the UK final of this year's FameLab competition at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. Emma has written this blog about her Famelab experience, including the FameLab bootcamp she took part in! You can watch the whole FameLab final - Emma's performance is at 1:14:40.

It seems unlikely that doing the Macarena on stage would be fun. Especially when it’s:

a.  Without music,

b.  In front of a couple of hundred people,

c.  By yourself.

But anything goes in the name of science, and it was thus that I found myself in this exact situation at the National Finals of a competition called FameLab. First started 10 years ago as part of Cheltenham Science Festival, FameLab is an international science communication competition often described as being like ‘the X-Factor for Scientists’; competitors have 3 minutes to describe any science, maths or engineering concept in a fun and accessible way.

All together... Eyyy Macarena!
All together... Eyyy Macarena!

Whilst it doesn’t have a Simon Cowell equivalent ("I didn’t like it. I LOVED it") or even a Louis Walsh ("Yer loike a yung David Attenborough") FameLab does have an associated bootcamp a month before the UK Nationals, although with a lot less tears. This year’s bootcamp was held in a conference centre in the Cotswolds and was led by some experts in Science Communication. It was in equal parts amazing, funny, exhausting, intense and incredibly useful. We critiqued each other’s presentations, had a go at radio interviews and filming (which was typically awful to watch back) and did a talk where everyone else pretended to be annoying 5-year-olds (with surprising accuracy). We also played ‘Karl’s Evil Anti-Jargon Word Game’ where I had to describe Electron Orbital Theory without saying the words: electron, orbital, energy, level, atom or neutron and also cramming in ‘danger bicycle’ and ‘up the duff’ (don’t ask); surprisingly I actually managed it! In short it was a lot of fun but a definite challenge and I've found the things I learnt during it to be applicable even for formal academic presentations.

The finalists at the UK final with the judges
The finalists at the UK final with the judges

From my experience of doing FameLab I’d say there were a couple of main things I’ve taken away:

  1. "If at first you don’t succeed…’"– I only got through to the regional finals on my second heat attempt after encouragement to reapply from one of the judges. I nearly didn't put myself through it again; needless to say I’m glad I did!
  2. Everyone involved in Public Engagement seems to be genuinely lovely. Even in an apparently competitive environment it felt like 10 friends having a laugh rather than a competition.
  3. Think about the narrative of your presentation – academic talks tend to follow "Here’s a problem, but what can we do about it?! Oh look I have a solution" (once you start noticing this for conference talks it can get quite repetitive!). One of the reasons it’s used so much is because it works really well, but is there a better way to structure your piece than following this format?
  4. The human brain is wired to pick up patterns – if you start every sentence with ‘so’ people pick up on it and it gets really annoying for the listener.
  5. When you’re presenting it’s really good to know your talk backwards and inside out while appearing to be off-the-cuff and informal. But make it work for whatever your own personal style is – if it doesn't feel right for you try something else!

Whilst in some ways I’m glad it’s over (4 months of writing and rewriting talks and waking up from dreams where I forgot everything on stage can be kind of draining!), I now have a FameLab-shaped hole in my life. The whole experience was just great fun and I feel like I’ve really developed my presenting style as a result, as well as making friends, contacts and pursuing other opportunities that have followed. And hey, if the PhD doesn’t work out at least now I can always be a 90s dance instructor…


Emma's day job is working towards her PhD on "Molecularly defined electro-catalysts for energy conversion and biomass valorisation"  with Uli Hintermair and Frank Marken

Photo credits to McPhersonStevens.com

Posted in: Events, Public engagement


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