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FameLab: young scientists take the stage

In FameLab contestants explain their research to the public in a three-minute presentation – without using PowerPoint or other presentation tools. The Leiden heats of this international communications competition will be held on 7 March. Anyone is welcome to come and watch!

Fifteen young scientists have been selected for the heats at Leiden University. They will be drilled in delivering a presentation before they enter into battle in the Academy Building on 7 March. The best two will go through to the national final. We asked some of the entrants why they entered, and talked them into giving us a sneak preview.

Victor Geraedts – is researching Parkinson's disease

‘My research involves people with Parkinson’s disease. They may qualify for deep brain stimulation, a form of brain surgery that can reduce their symptoms. But this operation can be counterproductive and exacerbate the symptoms if they already have advanced memory problems. The trouble is that it is difficult to determine whether this is the case. I am researching whether we can do so with a recording of the brain, an EEG.

‘PowerPoint takes the leading role in many presentations nowadays, with the researcher’s story in a supporting role. I’d like to see the opposite. FameLab is a fun alternative: give a presentation with only a prop as support. The presentation is for the general public, which makes it extra challenging. What is more, the patients who come to my consultations aren’t usually researchers either. If I’m able to get my research across to the FameLab audience, I’ll get better at explaining things to my patients.’

Lindsey Burggraaff – is researching how computers can be used to discover new medicines

‘My research is about developing new medicines and how computers can be used for this. If we had to test everything by hand in the lab it would take forever and cost huge sums of money. We can screen millions of molecules with computers, and these molecules could be potential medicines. This is faster and cheaper too. 

‘What I like about FameLab is the challenge of using everyday concepts to explain abstract ideas. This can be difficult, but it’s what makes it so appealing. I can also show the general public how challenging research is. By explaining how my research affects everyday developments, I can spark people’s interest and enthusiasm in my research.’

Thijs de Vos – is researching a disease in which pregnant women produce antibodies that attack their baby

‘I’m researching an unusual disease during pregnancy in which the mother produces antibodies to the platelets in the baby’s blood. Platelets are important to blood clotting, so the antibodies prevent the blood from clotting properly, which can lead to bleeding such as a brain haemorrhage in the foetus. 

‘It’s fun to explain your research to the general public because people ask questions that you can’t yet answer, which gets you thinking. I hope that FameLab will teach me the best way to share my enthusiasm for science and research. That enthusiasm is one reason why people should come to the heats. I also think that it’s fun to see the kind of research that is being done at the University, for researchers too. We all work so hard in our own groups, but it ’s really inspiring to listen to others for a change. How do other faculties do research? Why are they doing certain research?’

Barbara Scalvini – is using microscopic tools to research proteins

‘I’m doing research into how proteins are folded in the body. I’m using certain physics technology, such as optical tweezers – the technology that recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Some diseases are caused by misfolded proteins and my research can increase our understanding of this. 

‘I entered FameLab because I want to learn more about what makes communication effective and want to get better at this. And I want to challenge myself: I’m always quite nervous if I have to stand in front of a group. I think it’s important that we researchers learn to explain our research to the general public. That will generate more understanding for and of research, which in the long term can be a counterbalance to dangerous unscientific views.’

Jury member Julia Cramer – is also doing research, into science communication

‘As a jury member I’m going to make sure that the presentations have a clear message and that they are entertaining and creative but not too “easy. ” I’ll also look for charisma: the contestants’ passion and enthusiasm should be contagious. The audience should leave the room feeling inspired. They should have learnt something or want to find out more about the topic. As a jury member, I have the luxury of being able to listen to all sorts of entertaining pitches. I wish everyone could go through to the next round. I’m sure it’ll be difficult to decide who does!’

I would tell everyone to come and watch the heats. It’s fantastic to watch short pitches by people who are so thoroughly prepared. Their stories are well structured and educational. But you can also learn something from the form: what makes for a good presentation? You may be able to use this technique in your own presentations in the future. And you’ll definitely learn something new!’

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