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Communicator talent show

Science communication competition held in 32 countries arrives in Brazil

The mathematician Jackson Itikawa won the first edition of FameLab in Brazil

Eduardo CesarThe mathematician Jackson Itikawa won the first edition of FameLab in BrazilEduardo Cesar

No PowerPoint presentations or audiovisual resources such as videos or photos were allowed.  On a stage set up at the Brazilian-British Center, in São Paulo, the voice, body and imagination were the only resources allowed to the nine researchers when explaining sometimes-complicated scientific concepts in three minutes. The oceanographer Manoela Romanó de Orte, of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), described the relationship between the increase in the acidity of the oceans and climate change on Earth, and showed how this could harm fishing. Cybele dos Santos Borges, a doctoral student at São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Botucatu, compared sperm to runners and explained how the strongest, and not necessarily the fastest, succeed in fertilizing the eggs. João Victor Costa Cabral, a master’s student at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB) of the University of São Paulo (USP), compared the brain to a computer when describing how it works, and showed how physical exercise can influence the plasticity of synapses. The explanation by mathematician Jackson Itikawa was the favorite of the audience and the panel of judges, which included scientists and communication professionals. The subject was the most abstract of all: the set theory developed by Russian mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918), especially the concept of infinite sets.

To explain the surprising properties of these sets, Itikawa appealed to Hilbert’s Grand Hotel paradox, a mental experiment proposed by the German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943).  He imagined a hotel with an infinite number of rooms that, although fully occupied, would always have a room for a new guest. “By moving guests to rooms with room numbers twice as large as the rooms they had been occupying, that is, to even-numbered rooms, there would be an infinite number of rooms free in the hotel, corresponding to the odd numbers.” Itikawa’s presentation was the winning entry in the Brazilian edition of FameLab, one of the largest science communication competitions in the world. Held in Brazil for the first time by the British Council in partnership with FAPESP, the event showcased nine finalists, from a total of 20 candidates, in the last stage, which took place on May 11, 2016.

FameLab was begun in 2004 at the Science Festival in Cheltenham, England, and in 2016 there were editions in 32 countries.  The objective is two-fold: to encourage the development of communication skills among researchers and arouse public interest in science. “Communication should be seen by scientists as part of their work,” says Julia Knights, director of Science and Innovation at the British Embassy in Brasília. “It is increasingly important that researchers improve their communication skills so that knowledge can have a greater impact, for example, in the decision-making process in public administration. In the UK, young researchers receive specific training on giving lectures to the lay public,” she says.

Cibele dos Santos Borges, from Unesp Botucatu, gave a presentation on the behavior of sperm during the FameLab final in São Paulo

Eduardo CesarCibele dos Santos Borges, from Unesp Botucatu, gave a presentation on the behavior of sperm during the FameLab final in São PauloEduardo Cesar

The idea of bringing FameLab to Brazil arose at the FAPESP Week Barcelona symposium in May 2015.  “I attended the presentations of two FameLab participants in Spain and found it to be a lot of fun,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP scientific director. “When I returned, I sought out the British Council and proposed holding the competition in Brazil.” In this first edition, seen as a pilot, only FAPESP master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral grant holders participated.  Beginning next year, researchers from around the country will be able to participate, says Claudio Anjos, British Council Director of Education and Society in Brazil. “We are involving foundations that support research in other states,” he says. “We are interested in establishing a partnership with a television station, for a live broadcast of the final, like FameLab Egypt,” adds Anjos.

The format of the competition does indeed remind one of a TV talent contest.  However, instead of singing or dancing, competitors explain scientific concepts in the clearest, most attractive way possible. First, participants submit a six-minute video with one explanation in Portuguese and another in English on a topic they research. The videos may not have special effects and background music, and only portable objects may be used, such as a ball to represent the sun. In the national final, presentations are oral, before an audience and a panel of experts that evaluates the clarity, content and charisma of the candidates. The winner goes to the international final in England, scheduled for June 7-12, 2016. Brazil’s representative at the event, Itikawa, says that his objective is to awaken the public’s interest in math. “This field of knowledge allows us to see the world with different eyes. Set theory, for example, influenced the sciences and philosophy. Even religion entered the debate, due to the idea of an infinite God,” states Itikawa, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Computation (ICMC-USP), in São Carlos. This year, Itikawa is teaching a course for undergraduate students, as a volunteer professor. “Teaching certainly helped me loosen up a bit and practice my speaking skills,” says the mathematician. “With Malcolm Love’s tips, I improved a lot.”

Itikawa is referring to the British specialist responsible for FameLab science communication training in different countries.  A professor at the University of the West of England and a radio and TV producer and presenter for broadcasters such as BBC, Malcolm Love was charged with preparing the Brazilian candidates for the competition. During two days of intensive training at FAPESP headquarters, the Englishman had participants do exercises to improve their communication skills, such as looking directly at the audience, using body language, speaking concisely and making analogies that stimulate people’s imagination.  “One must know how to face the public directly,” explained Love during training.

International FameLab final at the Science Festival in Cheltenham, England, in 2014

Flickr International FameLab final at the Science Festival in Cheltenham, England, in 2014Flickr

One of the finalists, biologist Ingrid Regina Avanzi, a doctoral student in environmental science at USP, says Love’s advice encouraged her to prepare a playful presentation.  A drama student during her teens, Avanzi played the role of a bacteria traveling in a spaceship in order to explain the ability of bacteria to break down heavy metals contaminating rivers. “Nice to meet you, I’m a micronaut, and now we will explore the world of bacteria,” she said at the start of her presentation. “Each species of bacteria has its own toolbox. The tools are its genes, used as needed. For example, if a bacterium lives in a contaminated area, it will reach into its box for something to help it feed off the contaminating substance,” she said. “I wanted to counteract the idea that science means staying behind a lab bench and writing articles,” says the biologist. Physical educator Leonardo Coelho Rabello, a doctoral student in human development and technology at Unesp, Rio Claro, spoke about the performance of muscle fibers during physical activity, making reference to Olympic sports. “Sports science shows that if a volleyball player does squats during preparation, he can improve the height of his jumps by 5.7%,” says Rabello, who used light strips on his legs to simulate muscle movements.

Videos and vans 
During the days preceding the FameLab final, the candidates met and got to know each other.  “One began to give another suggestions,” recalls Avanzi.  They still keep in touch through WhatsApp. One of the topics most discussed was the idea of creating a YouTube video channel (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 243). “Today, Internet video production is a good science communication tool and we believe that it could be an opportunity to practice what we learned through FameLab,” says Avanzi.

A similar experiment took place in Spain in 2013, when the first edition of FameLab took place there.  During the final, the winner, mathematician Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón, suggested that remaining participants do a presentation together in a bar, like in a stand-up comedy show. The initiative worked and the group was asked to repeat the experiment in other cities in Spain. Then they had the idea of calling the show The Big Van Theory (TBVT), an allusion to the nerdy TV show The Big Bang Theory, created in 2007. The group’s logo is a VW bus, of the type used by itinerant artists. Today the group consists of 19 researchers from areas such as biology, chemistry and astronomy. The presentations, which include comic skits and music, have already been given in several European countries and Latin America.

Team of The Big Van Theory, a scientific communication group formed in 2013 after the Barcelona FameLab

FIL/Paola Villanueva BidaultTeam of The Big Van Theory, a scientific communication group formed in 2013 after the Barcelona FameLabFIL/Paola Villanueva Bidault

Since 2007, when the competition became international, more than 7,000 researchers (or FameLabers) from different countries have participated in the event.  This network formed thanks to partnerships between the British Council and scientific institutions. The British organization was responsible for internationalizing the competition. In the United States, for example, the event is organized together with NASA, and specific topics are defined for each season. In 2012, it was astrobiology. This year, it is exploration of the Earth and the space surrounding it. The winner was Ilissa Ocko, a climate researcher at the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-governmental organization based in New York. She spoke on the relationship between greenhouse gases and cancer.

In other countries, such as Egypt, Turkey and Bulgaria, partnerships were formed with TV stations, which broadcast the FameLab final live to thousands of people.  “FameLab has been shown to be a model for presenting scientific content to large audiences in the form of entertainment,” wrote George Zarkadakis in an article published in 2010 in the journal Science Communication, in which he analyzed the impact of the competition in 2007-2010.