Universiteit Leiden

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Spread the science, the road to FameLab - Lindsey Burggraaff

If there’s one thing that scientists can agree on, it’s that we feel our science is important. Some might feel like the next Einstein, while others are more modest. One way or the other, we expect our science to impact and benefit society. You can give your heart (and brains) to science to solve the most complex research questions, but to understand research often a lot of specialized knowledge of the field is required. This makes the research inaccessible to a wider public. That’s why being a scientist is more than just solving complex questions. It’s also about spreading the word about your science, not only to peer researchers, but also (or especially) to the general public.

This is what FameLab is all about. In this science communication competition you have 3 minutes to pitch your research without the use of slides. The catch: your pitch must be understandable to a laymen audience.

I entered this competition by participating in the heat held in Leiden. During this heat, 13 scientists from a wide range of research fields presented their research in a three minute pitch. Two were selected as winners and had the honor to represent Leiden in the national finals. As one of the winners, I also got the unique opportunity to participate in a 2-day science communication masterclass, given at the monumental KNAW (Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen) building in Amsterdam.

This training was given prior to the national finals, and was a good opportunity to pick up some extra tips and tricks, but also to meet the other competitors. With two representatives from each competing Dutch university, we reached a total of 16 finalists. Although we knew we were each other’s rivals, the atmosphere was surprisingly good and not hostile at all. By the time we said goodbye after two fulltime days of pitch-prepping, many new friendships were made.

The day of the national finals had come. We arrived early to Tivoli Vredenburg for a sound check and a joint dinner. Little did we know that we were assigned our own backstage room! (Unfortunately no color-separated M&Ms were brought to the room). While enjoying the tunes of my peer pitchers on the backstage piano, I rehearsed my pitch one last time and drank liters of water (it was recommended during the masterclass to drink lots of water 3 hours before the presentation). Next, we went to explore the building to find ‘our’ stage, or actually, trying to find the stage. (Note: when backstage, check what doors close behind you so you don’t get stuck in a tiny hallway). After our escape, thanks to a helpful Tivoli employee, we got to see the actual stage. Cool! This is where the science communication happens.

Before the show started, we had dinner in the artist restaurant in the Tivoli basements and did a quick sound check afterwards. Once hooked-up to the microphone, the nerves began to creep in. 

Slowly the audience started to enter the room (a bit later than expected as we did not account for the 9 stairs that had to be taken up to the top stage). I decided to quickly execute another masterclass tip: shake the nerves off –literally (jump and try to shake your shoulders - it is recommended to do this backstage as it looks a bit peculiar). Feeling glad that it worked, I took place in my designated seat, waiting until it’s my time to disappear behind the curtains.

While number 5 is on stage, I’m behind the curtains drinking some more water. And then, it’s my time to shine! I feel sudden empowerment while I walk up the stage. I greet the jury and take a glance at the audience. I feel amazing. I take a breath and start: “Let’s talk about my favorite movie, Charlie and the chocolate factory!”. While I continue my talk I feel confident and it really goes well. At one moment I suddenly felt like I had forgotten my words, but I breathe, and luckily the words pop back into my head. I continue my pitch and finish strong.

The jury listened to my pitch carefully and gave really nice feedback: they liked my positive attitude and especially appreciated the clarity of my pitch. I can leave the stage feeling satisfied.

After the pitches of the remaining contestants, the jury went into deliberation. Although only one candidate could make it into the international finals, we can all be proud on our performances. The quality of pitches was high and the audience enjoyed the variety of research subjects.

At the end I didn’t reach the international finals. However, it was an amazing experience to participate in the national finals and to present my research on a Tivoli Vredenburg stage. I loved the journey and all the people I met along the way.

This experience really showed me the importance and fun of science communication. It is feasible to step away from traditional science presentations and use vivid descriptions or analogies to make a clear point. To me, it seemed almost impossible to explain how to perform computer-aided drug discovery in just 3 minutes, but by translating it to the example of ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’, I needed to explain a lot less to address the point of my research: I’m searching for my ‘golden ticket’, the molecule that will make a good medicine.

Lindsey Burggraaff


(Photo: Joost Weddepohl)

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