Scientists show off their communication skills
June 01, 2016
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – How can you explain a complex scientific concept in a mere three minutes? And to make matters even more difficult, your audience is made up of non-specialists, you can use only your own voice and body language, and you’re not allowed any audio or visual aids, let alone PowerPoint.
Mathematician Jackson Itikawa succeeded in performing this feat so resoundingly that he won the Brazilian edition of FameLab, one of the world’s foremost scientific communication contests. Held for the first time in Brazil by the British Council in partnership with FAPESP, the event culminated on May 11 with a final in São Paulo.
Asked by one of the judges how he would explain to a lay audience why academic research is as important as applied research, Itikawa replied that theory lets you see the world differently and can even make it more beautiful.
“One of humanity’s greatest goals when we created the arts was to see the world in an unusual way. When we perform theoretical research, as in mathematics, we have an outstanding opportunity not only to learn science but to see the world with different eyes,” he said.
To explain the concept of infinite sets created by Russian-born German mathematician Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor (1845-1918), Itikawa resorted to Hilbert’s Hotel Paradox, a thought experiment invented by David Hilbert (1862-1943), another German mathematician. Hilbert imagined a hotel that had an infinite number of rooms but could always accommodate one more guest even when all the rooms were full. This could be accomplished by moving each guest to another room whose number was double the number of the room they previously occupied, so that the hotel would have infinitely many spare rooms available.
“This theory of infinite sets was the basis for other mathematical theories, which affect quantum physics and philosophy, for example. When Cantor showed that some infinities are greater than others – for example, the infinite set of real numbers is greater than the infinity of natural numbers – he was criticized by many people at the time, including the Church, which saw his theory as a challenge to God’s absolute infinity,” said Itikawa, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of São Paulo’s Mathematics & Computer Science Institute (ICMC-USP) in São Carlos, São Paulo State, with a scholarship from FAPESP for the project “Uniform isochronous centers in planar polynomial differential systems of degree 5”.
Itikawa will represent Brazil in the FameLab International final, which takes place during The Times Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK on June 12-16 and will feature 32 finalists who won the contest in their home countries.
“FameLab fulfills one of FAPESP’s objectives. In addition to supporting the best scientific and technological research conducted in São Paulo State, FAPESP also strives to create opportunities to advance science communication and public engagement,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP Scientific Director, on opening the Brazilian final.
FameLab was set up in 2005 by Cheltenham Festivals to nurture scientists and engineers with a flair for communicating and to promote public engagement with science.
The idea behind the competition is to encourage scientists to engage international audiences and to engage with each other. As a result, they have an opportunity to further their careers, open up new possibilities for cooperation, and help surmount communication barriers between science and society.
“We want to get researchers out of their ‘boxes.’ They often think they don’t need to communicate because they’re academic specialists, but it’s very important for them to learn to show what they do in an entertaining and educational way, reaching different audiences with the right message for each one,” said Eric Klug, Deputy Director of the British Council in Brazil, during the FameLab opening ceremony in São Paulo.
The aims of FameLab are to improve researchers’ communication skills and help make them good science disseminators, according to Fernanda Medeiros, Deputy Director for Education of the British Council in Brazil.
“Communicating science is fundamental today, not least to justify investment in research,” she said. “That’s why many countries are asking researchers to improve their skills in this area so that the public can understand the importance of the work they do. It’s also an important way to attract future talent.”
Medeiros recalled that the idea of holding a Brazilian edition of FameLab arose from the realization that there were no initiatives designed to train Brazilian researchers’ oral science communication skills, in combination with the increasing visibility of the science produced in Brazil.
“Brazilian science has gathered momentum and gained increasing international recognition thanks to growing numbers of partnerships and cooperation agreements with UK universities and research institutions,” she said. “We concluded this was a suitable time to bring FameLab to Brazil.”
To select the participants for the Brazilian edition of FameLab, in March, the British Council and FAPESP issued a call for proposals targeting masters, PhD and postdoctoral students with scholarships from FAPESP valid until at least June 30. They had to be conducting research in the exact sciences, life sciences or engineering and were also required to be fluent in English as well as Portuguese.
Applicants were challenged to make two three-minute video presentations, one in Portuguese and the other in English, on a topic in science or technology without editing or special effects.
A committee of researchers, communication experts and journalists appointed by FAPESP and the British Council selected nine candidates based on the content, clarity and charisma of the video presentations.
The finalists took an intensive training course in English at FAPESP on May 9-10. The instructor was Malcolm Love, a British public communication skills coach, trainer and consultant. As chief trainer for FameLab and FameLab International, Love’s job was to prepare the candidates for the Brazilian final, to be held at the British Council in São Paulo.
In his other life, Love is a lecturer at the University of the West of England (UWE). He is a former BBC producer and presenter of features and documentaries, and he also taught science communication for 13 years at Birkbeck College, London. In São Paulo, he led the FameLab participants through a series of exercises for two days to improve their oral communication skills and help them face the audience in their presentations at the final.
“FameLab is a very interesting exercise for researchers because it encourages them to look people in the eyes and speak directly to the audience,” Love said.
Among other tips, he advised the finalists to use body language effectively, to “say more about less,” and to use analogies to stimulate the public’s imagination.
Love’s advice was taken very seriously by Itikawa, who won the public vote and was the judges’ favorite. The panel of judges was as follows: Flávia Rodrigues, a coach for Researcher Connect, a British Council professional development course in multicultural communication skills; Henrique Pereira, winner of the Entrepreneurial Award in the British Council’s 2016 Education UK Alumni Awards; Julia Knights, First Secretary of the British Embassy in Brasília and Head of its Science & Innovation Section; Mayana Zatz, Full Professor of Human & Medical Genetics at the University of São Paulo (USP) and Director of the Human Genome & Stem Cell Research Center (HUG-CELL), one of the RIDCs supported by FAPESP; and journalist Mônica Teixeira, Head of USP’s Scientific Communication Unit.
The winner of FameLab Brazil was announced by Joanna Crellin, UK Consul General in São Paulo.
For more information about FameLab Brazil, visit www.britishcouncil.org.br/famelab.
The other eight finalists included the following individuals:
Bianca Assis Barbosa Martins, a postdoctoral fellow at USP’s Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture (CENA)
Cibele dos Santos Borges, a PhD student at the Botacatu Bioscience Institute of São Paulo State University (UNESP)
Gisele Antoniazzi Cardoso, a PhD student at USP’s Bioscience Institute
Gustavo Satoru Kajitani, a PhD student at USP’s Biomedical Science Institute
Ingrid Regina Avanzi, a PhD student in USP’s Environmental Science Graduate Program (PROCAM)
João Victor Cabral Costa, a masters student at USP’s Biomedical Science Institute
Leonardo Coelho Rabello de Lima, a PhD student at UNESP’s Rio Claro Bioscience Institute
Manoela Romanó de Orte, a postdoctoral fellow at the Health & Society Institute of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP)
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