‘FameLab reminded me of why I love science… which is why I do what I do now’
The British Council, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Science Festival and Cheltenham Science Festival, are bringing FameLab — the global science competition — back to Northern Ireland for February 2015 and they’re on the lookout for scientists or engineers who can communicate their topic to a wider audience.
Held annually in over 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, It last took place here in 2006 and has helped a number of our local scientists climb the career ladder – with a few now even presenting on TV and radio.
These include biologist, writer, science communicator and TV presenter, Simon Watt, who is encouraging anyone with a passion for science communication to take part.
Originally from Castlederg in Co Tyrone, the 31-year-old took part in the competition back in 2005, where he got through to the UK national final.
He now runs “Ready Steady Science”, a science communication company, has presented documentaries including the BAFTA winning documentary series Inside Nature’s Giants and the Channel 4 special, The Elephant: Life After Death, as well as heading up the comedy night, the Ugly Animal Preservation Society.
Simon says he largely has FameLab to thank for kick-starting his career.
He said: “When I entered FameLab, I didn’t really put a lot of thought into how it would affect my future — for me, it was just a chance to have a lot of fun and meet great new people.
“At the time I was studying for my Masters in Evolutionary Biology at Glasgow University and hadn’t really thought of science communication as a career path until my lecturer suggested I enter.”
For the competition Simon’s chosen topics were wide and varied, and included Why Sex is Fun and the process of Biomimicry — which uses nature-inspired solutions to overcome complex human challenges. He was fourth overall in the UK National final, but topped the online poll for popularity.
He feels anyone thinking of taking part should just go for it.
He said: “FameLab introduced me to a new way of thinking about science and my career — especially through the masterclasses that the British Council provides. The masterclasses involve an intensive media and presentation skills training course, which improves and hone skills, helps shake off bad habits and inspires new ideas — this I found invaluable.
“The competition also enables you to link up with scientists from around the globe, and if you get through to the FameLab International Final, make worldwide connections and friendships that could last a lifetime.”
Simon will return to home turf in February, when he presents three of his own shows at the inaugural Northern Ireland Science Festival — The Ugly Animals Roadshow at the Black Box, Belfast on February 20, Dr Death and The Medi-Evil Medicine Show at W5 onFebruary 21 and Why We Die, at the Black Box on February 22.
He said: “Like me, entrants could see themselves presenting their own science shows at the Northern Ireland Science Festival in the near future — ultimately, FameLab is on the lookout for the new face of science, so who knows where it could take you.”
Another Northern Ireland advocate of FameLab is Karl Byrne (34), who comes from the small village of Dromara, in Co Down.
He originally took part in the competition back in 2006, when he was studying for his PhD in Clinical Biochemistry at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Since the competition, he has gone on to write science shows, present on the Discovery Channel, train scientists and science communicators, lecture in science communication and design exhibitions for science centres. He is currently the Senior Programme Coordinator at Cheltenham Science Festival.
Speaking about the competition he said: “Before entering the competition, I’d started to dislike science, which was horrible for me, as I’ve wanted to work in this field since I was four years old.
“FameLab reminded me of why I love science — which is why I do what I do now.”
Karl, who produced talks on cloning and why viruses are good, won the Belfast heat and got through to the UK grand finale at Cheltenham.
About the competition, he said: “I initially entered FameLab as a friend told me about it and threatened to kill me if I didn’t come along. I had wanted to learn more about the media and how TV production works, so his bugging eventually convinced me to take part.
“I’m so glad I did – it might sound cliché, but FameLab is a life-changing experience and has taken my career in a completely new direction — you also get to travel, make new friends and connections — it creates endless opportunities.
“Most importantly, the experience has really helped me take complex science and make it understandable for the general public, which is so important. Science is something everyone needs to know more about and if we can get even a small amount of that across, we’re doing something right.
“The masterclasses especially, gave me the confidence to think outside the box and make science more engaging, fun and inspirational.”
According to Jonathan Stewart, Deputy Director at British Council Northern Ireland, there are many reasons to take part in this global communication competition.
He said: “By entering FameLab you will begin a journey with like-minded people, explore your own potential and, most of all, have a fantastic time. Globally more than 4000 individuals studying or working in STEM have taken part. The result is a vibrant network of exciting scientists and engineers engaging international audiences but also engaging with each other, broadening each other’s views of what it means to be working in science right now.
“If all that isn’t enough you could also win a place on an all-expenses paid communication master class, a trip to Cheltenham Science Festival, as well as various prizes if you make it through to our live final at the Black Box, Belfast.
“The British Council is proud to bring such a prestigious competition to Northern Ireland in conjunction with the NI Science Festival and we look forward to seeing how creative our scientific community can be.”
Entries for FameLab Northern Ireland are now open. To enter, you’ve got to be passionate about science, engineering, technology or mathematics and be able to communicate this effectively in less than three minutes. Contestants, who should be over 21 and working or studying in one of these fields, will need to upload a short video to YouTube which inspires, excites and engages the public with modern science. These submissions will then be whittled down to just 10 who will compete to be crowned the winner of FameLab Northern Ireland.
The final will take place at The Black Box, Belfast on Wednesday, February 25, 2015. The winner of FameLab Northern Ireland will then progress onto the UK National final, where they will compete to enter FameLab International.
Tickets for the final at the Black Box Belfast on February 25, 2015 are free and are available, along with a number of other pre-sale events, at http://www.nisciencefestival.com/.