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15.54 28 May 2019


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FameLab, the world's leading science communication competition designed to inspire, motivate and develop scientists’ and engineers’ public engagement, has been taking place over the last number of months.

Since its inception in 2007, the competition has seen more than 9,000 burgeoning science communicators participate from over 30 countries.

This year, the FameLab Ireland heats heard some fascinating and inspiring presentations touching on a broad spectrum of subjects - but it was UCD student, Hayden Wilkinson who won the right to compete for the title of ‘World’s Best Science Communicator’ at the international finals at the Cheltenham Science Festival, taking place between June 4th - 9th, 2019.

Hayden joined Jonathan on Futureproof recently to discuss his experience and took part in a Q&A with us.

How do you make science relevant and engaging to audiences?

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What field of research are you involved in at UCD exactly and what drew you to that area?

My research is in GlycoScience at the National Institute of Bioprocessing, Research and training at UCD. I look at different sugar molecules (called glycans) which are attached to proteins. By comparing healthy and diseased cells which contain these sugars, we can understand the biomarkers that accompany the disease.

How did you first get involved in FameLab?

I started in the UCD round of FameLab off the back of public engagement activities I needed to be involved in as part of my degree. I have always loved wanting to communicate science and facts. I love speaking and sharing (apparently I was abnoxiously loud as a child?) so thought as far as public outreach went, FameLab seemed to encompass exactly what I wanted.

On your path through the different stages in the competition did you talk about subjects that were directly linked to your work in UCD or did you expand areas of interest to cater to different audiences?

So my talks had nothing really to do with my studies! While I find my topic incredibly fascinating, I wanted to show people that I wasn’t just a one trick pony who could only speak about science that I had been doing day-in and day-out for years. I wanted to keep it fresh, keep it different and keep it topical and challenge myself with interesting scientific topics and discoveries.

Has communication/science communication always been something you were interested in or is it something which you came across in your time at UCD by chance?

It has been something I’ve always found interest in. Whenever I’d learn something new in school or in college it’d whet my appetite enough to go down these rabbit holes, finding out weird and sometimes useless facts to share with people. The more I do it, the more I want to share. On the other had, I think being surrounded by other scientists at UCD has made me realise as well that EVERYTHING they do is so bizarre and extraordinary and I want to start up a big conversation about it.

Communicating well takes a lot more work than most people realise. How have you found it and did you know you could do it so well?

Well, I think I’m my own toughest critic. I always know when I’ve forgotten something in a presentation or have spent too long trying to communicate something effectively. Also, my jokes fall flat which happens a lot. I think by making myself my own toughest audience member, it makes speaking to anyone who isn’t this hard on me a lot easier. I can then relax and take it easy. I also used to sing in a funk band so would often have to goofily stand front of stage and sing my heart out. All the experience has really helped.

What have been the biggest challenges that you foresaw on your journey through the competition and what have been those that you never envisioned?

Biggest challenges I’d say would be to find a balance between cramming information into the mouths of the audience, making it effective and making it short. I need to remind myself that by saying less, sometimes I’m saying more. One that I never envisioned, and I’m sure the other contestants would agree, is that coming up against some of the brightest minds with the most beautiful smooth deep tenor voices can be so intimidating. I’m still working on my radio presenter voice.

What is your presentation about and why did you choose to speak about it in particular?

So there are two talks that we need to give. One for the semi-final which cuts the contestants down from 25 to 9 and then a final. I have two talks. A modified talk on genetically engineered designer babies which I gave for the Ireland final and a talk about gut instinct, poo transplants and how our gut-microbiome can make us depressed. I picked these topics because I thought they’re so relatable. The poo one because lets face it, everyone poos and its funny, and the designer baby talk because it’ll get people questioning about the ethics of editing human lives.

How do you make this subject matter relevant and engaging to audiences?

Again I think by making it relatable. Give real life instances. Everyone has had a gut instinct. Everyone is told to listen to their gut. Similarly in such a contentious world of abortion and child autonomy, whatever side of the fence you sit on, there are huge ethical implications involved that have people questioning the whole thing. Is there a line to be drawn and where do you draw it?

I think as well, popping in a few jokes keeps the audience engaged. Even though we’re given 3 minutes, 3 minutes can seem like an eternity if you’re bombarded with five to six hundred words.

What have been the most valuable lessons that you've learned from your experience with FameLab?

The most valuable lesson for me is that I was shown that I can do whatever I set my mind to and come away leaving people happy and curious. I originally thought, oh I don’t have the voice for this, or my goofy nature isn’t what the people want. They want some buff, tan man talking science while flexing his pecks. That wasn’t the case and it’s allowed me to come out of my shell a bit more.

What advice would you have for anyone thinking about getting involved for next year's competition?

Totally do it. You won’t regret it. You’ll meet a bunch of friends even if you only make it to the first round and you’ll learn a lot about yourself, your public speaking abilities and you’ll learn a little about the different topics too. Sure it’s only 3 minutes. You’re not curing cancer, you’re not inventing the wheel. You’re standing there chatting for 3 minutes making people laugh, captivating them and leaving them hopefully with a little bit more knowledge about how great science is.

Main image: Jonathan McCrea and Hayden Wilkinson

FameLab is sponsored by the British Council and Science Foundation Ireland


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