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Meteorites and gut bacteria are the winners of FameLab 2019

Report of the Groningen heat of the science communication competition
04 April 2019

The University Museum was the venue of this year’s Groningen heat of the international science communication competition FameLab, which took place on 28 March. The event was, as usual, organized by Science LinX. In a packed auditorium, ten contestants tried to convince the jury that they had mastered the three Cs: content, clarity and charisma. The night was filled with talks on a wide range of subjects, from how we could be living in a black hole to how our gut bacteria could make us happy.

The contestants came from different areas of the natural sciences and were at different stages of their careers: Master’s students, PhD students and postdocs. The common denominator was that they all wanted to hone their skills in talking about science to a lay audience. Each contestant had three minutes (and not a second more) to explain their research to a jury, who would afterwards select two winners.

Contestants and jury of the Groningen heat | Photo Science LinX
Contestants and jury of the Groningen heat | Photo Science LinX

This year’s jury, made up of three members, was chaired by Catherine Rigollet , Assistant Professor at the KVI Centre for Advanced Radiation Technology. The other two members of the jury were Marc van der Maarel, director of the Graduate School of Science and Engineering and Iris Sommer, Professor of Cognitive Aspects of Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders. Bart van de Laar moderated the evening and tried to put the contestants at ease. The infamous ‘time’s up’-horn was also present, but rarely needed to be used, as most contestants stayed well within the allotted 180 seconds.

Gut bacteria

Medicine and physics were prominent themes. From CRISPR babies and nano-capsules that target cancer cells to knots in high energy physics; it all made for a very interesting science-filled night. After three rounds of talks and about 15 minutes of deliberation time, the jury was finally out. Kateryna Franstseva and Anouk Willems had delighted the audience and convinced the jury that they had mastered the three Cs to a T.

Willems’ talk was about the gut-brain connection. ‘A change in diet can improve a patient’s mental and physical wellbeing. My research is citizen science in the sense that you can all participate by eating for science,’ she explained. She even has a website for this: etenvoordewetenschap.nl ! But signing up to her experiment has a special requirement: ‘Of course you also need to send a stool sample.’

The winners: Kateryna Frantseva and Anouk Willems | Photo Science LinX
The winners: Kateryna Frantseva and Anouk Willems | Photo Science LinX

The mention of poop is of course bound to make an audience laugh, scoring charisma points. With her FameLab talk, Willems hoped to bring her research to the attention of a wider audience. And she wanted to learn more about science communication. ‘I firmly believe that science communication is very important,’ she explained afterwards. ‘I also work as a teacher at a university of applied sciences in Leeuwarden, which is kind of related to communicating science. Her take-home message: ‘Everyone can help the research by eating for science’

Dirty snowball

Physics, especially the cosmos, was also a hot topic. Gideon Vos amazed the audience with his explanation of how we could all be living inside a black hole and how there is no way of finding out whether, in fact, we are. But ultimately, Kateryna Frantseva managed to sway the jury with her study of meteorites. ‘Meteorites and asteroids can deliver the building blocks for life on Earth, but major impacts can also wipe out life,’ she explained during her pitch.

Chair of the jury Catherine Rigollet and moderator Bart van de Laar | Photo Science LinX
Chair of the jury Catherine Rigollet and moderator Bart van de Laar | Photo Science LinX

Frantseva is a postdoc in planetary science and an FSE Fellow at the Kapteyn Institute. She spends 70 percent of her time conducting research. ‘For the remaining 30 percent of the time, I teach at the University. But I am also involved in the Institute’s outreach activities,’ she adds. Her work does not directly involve looking for meteorites: ‘I analyse meteorite composition data to look for water and organic molecules. Using this information, I can make a theoretical model that will help us to further understand the distribution of carbon and water in space.’

She is often asked what the difference is between asteroids and comets. ‘Both are composed of rocks and water, but asteroids tend to be rockier and comets are icier, like dirty snowballs.’ Her take-home message: ‘Next time you see a space rock, remember it can be on its way to create life or wipe it all out.’

Feedback

To young researchers thinking of having a go at FameLab next year, both winners say: ‘Go for it!,’ as both agree that it was a great experience. Willems: ‘You get a lot of help and useful feedback during your preparation.’ And Frantseva adds: ‘Win or lose, you gain experience and meet amazing people.’

Want to find out more? Read about the experiences of a participant on her blog.

Report: Mónica Espinoza Cangahuala

The jury, Marc van der Maarel, Catherine Rigollet and Iris Sommer | Photo Science LinX
The jury, Marc van der Maarel, Catherine Rigollet and Iris Sommer | Photo Science LinX

FameLab Netherlands takes place at six universities and is organized by the British Council in partnership with KNAW, the VSNU and TivoliVredenburg. The Groningen heat is organized by Science LinX. At the regional heats, two winners are selected to go on to the national final. The winner of the national final will go on to the international final, which takes place during the Cheltenham Science Festival.

Last modified:02 May 2019 3.30 p.m.
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