My FameLab 2015 Experience

The power of communication is amazing. From a cryptic email from the postgraduate society at the University of Cape Town I was informed of an afternoon that would start with a single 3 minute speech and which ended with an international adventure to communicate science at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom. The cost: a 3 minute speech on anything in science and the courage to believe in yourself.

I decided that a Saturday at the Science Centre in Cape Town was well spent if I could meet others passionate about science communication and get some feedback on my public speaking techniques. In the regional heats I spoke about the neuroscience of play and creativity. Then I was given 45 minutes to make the speech for the next round! I spoke about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the effect it may have on the brain’s anatomy (my current research project). Suddenly, I found myself on an aeroplane to Grahamstown Science Festival and a grand adventure.

A gathering of all the best young scientific communicators from around South Africa for a 2 day science communication masterclass with the fantastic Dr Emily Grossman became a sort of emotional boot camp. Each person was exalted for their unique speaking style and talents and was introduced to their challenges - a very vulnerable spotlight indeed. However, I feel that this experience gave each person opportunities that were unique to their personal growth, despite how absolutely terrified of criticism I was. Not surprisingly, most of my negative critique was that I showed how nervous I was. My opportunity was the challenge to believe in my ability and live in the moment – enjoying each second in the spotlight. I had to empower my inner ham.

While the master classes were spectacular, I feel that the group staying at Jenny’s Guesthouse matched the classes with friendship - like a good wine with cheese. The six of us formed a bond of trust and respect and, between jokes, book recommendations and eating, we practiced and refined our speeches. We drew on the knowledge of the master classes and advice of our peers to make our communication skills as good as possible. During these practice sessions it was never a competition; it was a magnificent friendship. The opportunity to have met and befriended such wonderful people was a prize all in itself. I truly believe that it was this support that helped me to win FameLab South Africa and it is no coincidence that all three prize-winners (myself, Edgar and Natasha) came from this group. We even had a cheer, “Go Team Jenny!”.

I somehow found myself on the stage for both the national semi-finals and finals. Despite my conviction that I was just going to the Science Centre for a fun morning, I found myself winning the FameLab South Africa Finals. The 2014 FameLab South Africa winner, Raven, crowned me with his token “FameLab hat” and I can now say that the urge to cry that supermodels get when winning a title happens to scientists too.

The excitement of winning and attending the Cheltenham Science Festival was both overwhelming and magical. The feeling of leaving South African soil to represent your country, the FameLab sponsors, your university and your new-found FameLab South Africa friends was pretty amazing and utterly humbling. Realising that the people you will spend the next week with are some of the best young scientific communicators in the world was intimidating. Unfortunately, I did not make it to the final round of FameLab International 2015, but I did come away with a lovely certificate proclaiming me a “FameLab International Finalist”. I can also say that I was incredibly proud of my performance and that I embraced my nerves and truly lived the moment. All that I regret is that I could not have 3 minutes more communicating my passion. I only hope that I lived up to the expectations of my wonderful sponsors, friends and country.

Although I missed the opportunity to take to the stage once more, I gained the opportunity to use time that would otherwise have been spent rehearsing to explore the Cheltenham Science Festival with other FameLab contestants who had also vacated the competition. The opportunity to watch great science communicators and to absorb their knowledge and passion was magnificent and gave me the motivation that I needed to carry on this path of science communication, especially to the public! I had the wonderful experience of seeing Dr Micheal Mosley’s (a BBC science comminucator who I greatly admire) heart rate increase each time he had to take the stage. Although he was using this heart rate monitor to illustrate the health benefits of standing in the workplace, this was a simple message of “even the experts get nervous” to me.

Thus, although I am devastated that this experience has come to an end, I must borrow a quote from Dr Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” FameLab has given me wonderful memories, introduced me to prolific people and has simply inspired me. I will be forever grateful to all the sponsors, including the British Council, the NRF SAASTA, Jive Media Africa and the Cheltenham Science Festival, and to the spectacular, kind and brilliant representatives from each of these organizations. I hope to do much more with any or all of them in the future and will continue searching for opportunities in scientific communication; all thanks to FameLab.

I bought a memento of my experience – a silver charm of a lion wearing a crown. It represents both where I went (an English crown) and where I came from (an African lion). But, most importantly, it represents what FameLab was to me – the chance to be brave and share your passion. It is a lesson that I always want to remember and embrace. FameLab gave me the opportunity to inspire and be inspired, the courage to communicate with the public and myself and the bravery to share my passion for science.