Dispatch from FameLab 2006 finals.

Stewart McPherson sweats in a wetsuit to demonstrate a blue whale’s insulation. Credit: Nick Pattinson

Once upon a time scientists tinkered away in their labs, emerging infrequently in order to announce a grand discovery. Naturally, the majority of the public could not understand such clever stuff, so the boffins would repack their beards and return to the lab to continue their investigations into science mysteries

Nowadays scientists are not like this. They want to engage and communicate with the public about their work. What’s more, they’ve seen celebrity chefs, gardeners, nannies and designers on TV and they want a slice of the action.

Who can blame them?

And so FameLab was born, brainchild of the and the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Billed as science’s answer to “Pop Idol”/“American Idol,” FameLab is a talent hunt for the new face of UK science—“the next Sir David Attenborough or Susan Greenfield.”

In its second year, the contest, dubbed “Boff Idol,” attracted 150 competitors from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all vying for the grand prize of £2,000 ($3,700) plus the chance to work with a television producer to develop a show for the alternative TV network, Channel 4.

In early spring, the hopefuls competed in five regional heats across the UK, delivering three-minute performances on a chosen scientific topic in front of a live audience and judges. Ten finalists were chosen and then asked to offer the public a sample of their talents in the form of a 99-second podcast on one of three subjects: what makes an octopus different to other sea creatures apart from its “legs;” why water doesn’t burn despite being made from hydrogen and oxygen; and “the weird world of quantum mechanics.”

The FameLab 2006 finals took place on the penultimate day of the Cheltenham Science Festival. A panel of four judges—including Roger Highfield, science editor of The Daily Telegraph and festival director Kathy Sykes—selected a winner from the 10 wannabes, basing their decision on a five-minute talk prepared by each competitor.

By 5 p.m., the eighteenth-century Town Hall auditorium was packed with the would-be stars’friends and relatives, reporters and curious ticket-goers. Posters mounted on the walls screamed “No Nerds Allowed!”

The contestants’ bios in the event program seemed intent on proving that these 10, ranging from 22 to 35 years old, were no classic science geeks, despite their number including a parasite lover, a materials scientist and an astrophysicist. The program listed their interests in a way that declared, perhaps a little to eagerly, that all live exciting lives outside the labs. Three of them were described as keen dancers whose specialties including belly dancing and swing jive, one taught a pet cockatiel tunes, one is into motor sports and another enjoys solo flying.

The crowd got its first chance to match a face to the extracurriculars when finalist Sima Adhya, 29, took the stage. The London space mission scientist, who is working with the European Space Agency on a mission to deflect an asteroid from potentially impacting Earth, used balloons as props to illustrate how the Earth gets its spin from an ancient collision with what became the moon. Afterwards she faced a grilling from the judges. Fortunately there was no Simon Cowell cruelty and thus no tearful outburst, just a couple of academic questions on theories surrounding the Earth’s spin, which she answered competently.

Davina Bristow, 26, a neuroscientist from London, who appeared on stage in a crimson dress and, via descriptions of the luridly colored bottoms and testicles of various monkeys, explained how red-clad competitors are winners, including references to World Cup uniforms.

Sarah Curtis, 22, took a mouthful from a helium balloon, and then squeaked out English soccer songs in an attempt to explain how the gas affects a person’s voice. A chemist from Leeds, she impressed the judges with her bravery, if not her knowledge.

“I bought a whole tank of helium to practice,” she announced to the crowd.

Karl Byrne, 26, a biologist from Belfast, employed his soothing Northern Irish accent for a talk on black holes; David Loong, 29, an Australian chemist based in London, explained how the bird flu vaccine works.

The 3 winners. Credit: Nick Pattinson

Sarah Forbes-Robertson, a 35-year-old genetic biologist from Swansea, had already won a digital radio for her podcast when she came onstage encumbered by a giant cell nucleus and a chromosome, with which she explained, in a slightly schoolmarmish manner, how the ends of chromosomes determine aging.

Stewart McPherson, 22, from Durham, appeared on stage in a wetsuit and sweated through a description of the blue whale. Steve Robertson, 27, a fungus expert from Newcastle gamboled on stage while delivering a comedic monologue about charcoal.

Lindsay Stenhouse, 25, a Scottish parasitologist, bounced on stage energetically while wearing a green beard. After foisting some spare facial hair on the judges, she gave an impassioned explanation of selfish genes. She had no doubt garnered some of her theatrical manner in the previous year while helping to create a science fringe festival, called oneEighty, now part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Finally, the diminutive Jonathan Wood, 30, deputy editor of the journal Materials Today, came onstage to discuss spider web silk. His talk began with Spiderman and ended with genetically modified goats whose milk includes the proteins present in the silk.

While the judges deliberated, Quentin Cooper, host of BBC Radio 4’s “Material World,” invited the audience to vote via applause for their favorite communicator. They chose Adhya, who received a copy of the critically acclaimed book Mutants by Armand Leroi.

Unfortunately for Adhya, the judges had someone else in mind, and proclaimed Wood the winner because, according to Sykes, the festival director, he delivered both “passion and clarity.” Adhya shared runner-up honors with Stenhouse, described by the judges as “magical and passionate” even though they “weren’t entirely convinced by the green beard.”

“I only entered to see whether or not I’d be any good at communicating science,” said Wood.

Adhya agreed that she had been similarly motivated and added that had she won, she wouldn’t have re-ordered her life.

“I love science,” she said. “I’ll definitely stay a scientist even if I do get to go on TV.”

Originally published June 18, 2006


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