by Polly Bennett. Published: 17 February 2012

On the frighteningly cold and snowy morning of February 4th, 22 hopeful young scientists gathered at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation for the Swiss semi-finals of FameLab, an international science communication competition aimed at increasing young scientists’ public engagement with science.


Participants of the FameLab Semi-Final, gathered at The Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN

Participants had 3 minutes to present a scientific topic to the public audience gathered in the Globe. Some used props, some acted, and some used natural charm, but each was judged by an expert panel, including CERN’s own theoretical physicist John Ellis, on the content, clarity, and charisma of their talks. The young scientists were eager with nervous optimism. Their talks ranged from particle physics and cosmology, to immunology and climate change, and not all stuck to their field of research.

FameLab began in 2005 at the UK’s Cheltenham Science Festival, as a way to engage young scientists and science teachers, between the ages of 18 and 35, with the public. It has since been rolled out across 20 countries and has been adopted by the British Council. “The idea of FameLab is to involve practicing scientists [and science teachers] with science communication at the very start of their careers,” explained Paola Catapano, FameLab’s CERN project coordinator. 2012 is the first year Switzerland has taken part, with CERN hosting the semi-finals for the French-speaking region of Switzerland.

After their snowy arrival on the 4th, all the participants, mostly from CERN, the University of Geneva, EPFL, and the University of Lausanne, were given rehearsal time and training sessions with science communication professionals and previous FameLab national winners, to help them hone their communication skills. “By the afternoon auditions all the participants had already corrected their pitch,” Paola explained.

However, FameLab is not just a competition. The idea is also to create a group of young scientists committed to their research and science communication. In an email to the Swiss participants, Lyubov Kostova from the British Council explained, “FameLab is an international network. It’s about meeting people in science and engineering from across the world with a shared passion for science and wanting to reach out to the wider public.”

The atmosphere amongst the semi-finalists certainly reflected Lyubov’s values. They sat huddled in groups swapping stories, discussing tactics, and boosting each others confidence. One by one they took their turn on the stage. By the afternoon the audience had grown, and as the live webcast of the official semi-final loomed, nerves began to show. As participants prepared themselves for their final talks ALICE Matters was on hand to gauge their reactions:


Devika Ashok, an immunology PhD student from the University of Lausanne was one of the first participants to brave the stage. “I think being at the beginning has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages because the jury haven’t heard it all before but disadvantages because you don’t have time to really get used to the audience size or the time.”

She spoke determinedly about why she entered the competition and why science communication in general is important. “I really like the concept of simplifying science, it’s a very good concept and I think it should be done more often. There’s a lot of good research out there and I think people should have access to it. When I talk to my friends and family it’s really hard not to use technical jargon. So it was a good challenge for me, a good way to try and simplify what I do and explain it to the general public. ”

“The feedback from the jury was quite specific. One of the judges was an immunologist and she wanted more detail, but given the time restrictions it was difficult to do that. But I can use the feedback for future reference as well. Personally I speak very fast so I was trying to slow down, but the hardest thing to do was explain one concept because there are so many theories out there for one particular concept.”


Boris Lemmer, a PhD student from the University of Gottingen, is working at CERN this year for ATLAS: His first talk ‘Father and Son on the Highway’ saw him act out a conversation between his father and himself with a dry sense of humour that won over the judges and audience. “It discussed the day that every student fears, when the parents want to know what you’re actually doing.”


FameLab Finalist and Overall Semi-Final Winner Boris Lemmer with his Proton Prop

He sighed as he related his experience on stage. “It’s the worst before you enter the stage but as soon as you are there talking then it’s perfectly fine, especially when people start to smile or laugh. That happened quite fast so it was nice.”

“I like talking to people about what I’m doing and I made the interesting observation that you can talk to ‘normal’ people, as I call them, without making them run away. I think it [science communication] is definitely important. Many other scientists see it as a waste of time and say you should do serious science instead of this, but people pay quite a lot of money for us so that we can do our research and I think they want to know what happens to it. It’s our duty to tell them, but it’s also fun.”

Boris is one of the finalists going to Zurich in March but was also crowned overall winner of the semi-finals day. Needless to say he was excited, jumping around the stage after the announcement. “I would still like to jump around. It’s amazing and I didn’t expect it at all. It’s really, really great.” He grins at his friends sitting in the audience and adds, “It’s always the best [to have them here] and you cannot do it without them.”

“I’ve never been to Zurich and the nice thing about going there will be meeting people who are so enthusiastic and talk about their science. I will learn a lot.”


Chris Byrnes works on theoretical cosmology at CERN. His talk ‘How Far Away are the Stars’ impressed the judges with his successful audience participation. “The time constraint was a big factor. You’re always worried about over-running, luckily I didn’t. Once you’ve started it’s not that nerve-wracking. Waiting is the worst bit. I was quite happy with the feedback. They were quite sympathetic but they did ask for more. They were often telling participants that ‘you said this but not this’ and it’s always true, but maybe they could tell us what we should have left out. 3 minutes is a hard deadline.”


Chris Byrnes during his talk 'How Far Away are the Stars?'

“I think [FameLab] is a great idea. The public deserves to know what’s happening to their taxes. And scientific thinking is important for everybody. We get so much rubbish from politicians and think tanks saying we should do this, or that. If people had scientific thinking they would learn to be more critical and have better judgement. And I think this [competition] helps with that.”


Juan Lopez-Villarejo is a theoretical particle physicist at CERN but steered away from his research subject to instead discuss environmental degradation. “I think it is a really, really crucial issue that we should all pay attention to and I was very interested to bring this into the FameLab contest. I have a tendency to be scared very easily [on stage] and the biggest issue was really the content of my presentation. It was difficult to put forward.”

“I was very disappointed not to get short-listed [for the official semi-final] because the issue is a very important one, but it was really fun to participate.”


Barbara Alvarez Gonzalez, a physicist from CERN, was first up for the auditions. She talked about the ‘LHC and how wonderful it is’. “I was very nervous for the first 3 seconds and then once I started talking I felt a little bit better. But I talked too fast and I ended up doing my talk in 2 minutes.”

“I really like to talk about physics, what I do, what I work on and enjoy interacting with people. I am also a CERN guide. I thought it would be fun to meet people here doing the same thing.”

“I thought the feedback from the jury was a bit weak but I got positive feedback from one of them which I am very thankful for. It’s going to help me in the future.”



The FameLab semi-finalists with chief of the jury John Ellis, and Caroline Morrissey

The 5 finalists heading for Zurich in March are Boris Lemmer, Susan Johnson, Alexandre Fête, Rafäel Thézé, and Shruti Muralidhar. Find the winners here. They will attend the Swiss national final in Zurich on March 30th. The overall winner will join other national finalists for the international final at the Cheltenham Science Festival this summer. Paola adds “CERN is keen on taking part in the Famleab Switzerland organization next year too.”

Keep up to date with future FameLab events here.