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FameLab Groningen: The Force in your cells and kind chickens

14 March 2017

FameLab gives young researchers just three minutes to inspire people to see the world from a different perspective. This global science-communication competition not only fights the scientist stereotype but also demonstrates why research needs support and funding. The regional qualifier in Groningen was on 9 March.

The jury | Photo Science LinX
The jury | Photo Science LinX

Since its inception at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2005, FameLab has become perhaps the most important science-communication competition in the world for young scientists. Partnership with the British Council allowed the competition to go global in 2007, and it now has over 5000 entrants from some 25 countries. The international final traditionally takes place at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June.

The Groningen regional qualifier was on 9 March in the large auditorium of the Groninger Forum cinema on Hereplein. During each presentation, the only thing on the big screeen was a timer counting down the three minutes – the maximum time for a FameLab presentation. Furthermore, entrants were not allowed to use PowerPoint, and could only bring props that they could carry onstage themselves.

Cookie cutter

This challenged the scientists to be creative. Ajay Chandgude, for instance, cut proteins out of cardboard to show how they do and don’t fit together during reactions in the body. And Piermichele Kobauri conjured a cookie cutter out of his trouser pocket to explain the concept of molecule ‘docking’.

Madhushankar Bettadahalli Nandishaiah also used everyday objects (a deck of cards and sticky tape) to show that complex problems can sometimes be very simple indeed. He used the sticky tape to lift a single card from the deck. He uses the same sticky-tape method in the lab to peel off a single atom layer of material. This ultra-thin material can be used to make even smaller electronic components for computers and mobiles.

FameLab winners (with chair of the jury and presentor) | Photo Science LinX
FameLab winners (with chair of the jury and presentor) | Photo Science LinX

Jade Heister took a different approach and used a mix of emotion and humour to win over the jury and audience. Speaking very openly about her father’s heart problems, she had everyone rooting for her when she said how she wished her father could be there. But there was a twist in the tale: it was his work that had kept him away, she revealed. His heart was working again and so was he.

Some members of the audience found the joke a bit unsettling, but almost everyone laughed anyway. Heister’s research is even stranger than her sense of humour. In future, we might be able to send some of our cells to the US and receive a fully grown heart in return that can be transplanted when we need it. The ideal solution.

Bullies

With her research into the DNA of chicken bullies Tessa Brinker showed that scientists are also concerned about animal welfare. Poultry farmers trim chickens’ sharp beaks to prevent them from pecking each other to death, but it’s not a pleasant procedure.

Having studied chicken behaviour and DNA, Brinker can say whether a chicken is friendly, a bully or a victim. If you don’t select the bullies and victims when breeding, you’ll be left with kind ones that won’t attack each other, which means you won’t need to trim their beaks anymore.

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Winners

Two presentations stood out, and these received the most jury points. The first of the two winners, Vakil Takhaveev, established a link between biology and Star Wars. He explained how in the film a special sort of particle, the midichlorian, gives special powers (The Force) to Jedi knights. He linked this to the force that mitochondria invest in our bodies. Mitochondria are the energy factories of the cells. They make efficient use of oxygen to convert food into energy. Takhaveev described how billions of years ago these mitochondria were independent organisms, until at some point they took up residence in other cells. Since then they have grown and evolved with us and have thus become part of the human body (and many other bodies too).

The second winner, Linda Dijkshoorn, calls herself a ‘bacterial engineer’. She grows and tends bacteria in her lab. These bacteria have special properties: they are cells that can ‘eat’ methane. Methane is a big problem, because it is one of the causes of global warming. Cows in particular produce a lot of this gas. Dijkshoorn imagined a future in which we feed the methane produced by cows to her bacteria. This would reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Takhaveev, Dijkshoorn and the other young scientists are living proof that science can be interesting for all. They were able to explain terribly complicated research projects in the space of three minutes. Not just the winners, but all entrants proved themselves worthy ambassadors of science.

Takhaveev and Dijkshoorn will appear in the national final on 3 May at Tivoli Vredenburg in Utrecht.

Report: Natascha Koelewijn

Last modified:21 March 2017 11.07 a.m.
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