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Efficient communication

Mathematician acquired new science communication skills after competing in an international tournament

Carreira_Perfil_290Eduardo CesarIn July 2016 mathematician Jackson Itikawa returned from a quick trip to the United Kingdom with 26 new telephone contacts, all researchers from other countries with whom he exchanges ideas on science communication. The group met during the international final of FameLab, one of the world’s largest science communication competitions, held on June 9, 2016 at the Cheltenham Science Festival in England. Itikawa competed with contestants from the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea to name just a few. He was the first Brazilian to represent his country at the event and had just three minutes to discuss the topic he chose: the importance of prime numbers in areas such as cryptography.

Before the audience and a panel of judges, Itikawa explained how prime numbers are used to compose coded language that renders virtually exposed confidential data secure, such as passwords and messages sent using applications like WhatsApp. “Even though I didn’t win the competition, the experience helped boost my enthusiasm for science communication,” says the mathematician who won the Brazilian edition of FameLab in May 2016, organized by the British Council and FAPESP (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 244).

Currently Itikawa is in a post-doctoral program at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Computation at the University of São Paulo (ICMC-USP) in São Carlos. It was there, last semester, that he began teaching optional classes to undergraduate students in information systems. “Using more accessible language has become a challenge that I find enjoyable.” Slowly but surely, Itikawa came to feel more at ease in the classroom. “I began to explain complex concepts using analogies and humor.” At the time, Itikawa received an e-mail from FAPESP inviting his grant recipients to take part in the Brazilian edition of FameLab. “I decided to register because it could be an opportunity to show that mathematics can be interesting and fun, as well as a way to allay the fears many have about mathematics.”

According to Itikawa, the experience helped him develop new science communication skills, including speaking confidently in public and making more concise presentations. “At FameLab you are not given much time to make your presentation. This requires researchers to choose their words wisely and use them correctly,” he says. Malcolm Love, a British specialist responsible for communication training for FameLab in different countries, made a few recommendations. “One of the exercises he conducted was facing the audience with confidence. This was important for me because it has always been difficult for me to look people in the eyes,” he says, and for him the recommendations will be useful not just for communicating science to the public, but communicating at conferences as well.