Last updated August 22, 2017 at 4:16 pm
This young scientist couldn’t bee-lieve her story about honey research and the gut microbiome could lead her all the way from Sydney to Cheltham, UK. Dr Nural Cokcetin tied as the runner up winner in the 2017 International FameLab science communication competition. Here she recounts her brush with FameLab.
An Australian, a Frenchman, a South African and a Ugandan walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a great (or terrible) joke, right? Nope, just a typical afternoon for FameLabbers at the Cheltenham Science Festival this year.
My FameLab journey started one Tuesday afternoon with a three-minute speech detailing the four years of my PhD, some about-to-be-binned lab scales, two bits of cardboard, and a very encouraging (read pushy) supervisor (thank you Shona, really!). You have a great story to tell, she had said. People will want to hear it. But I didn’t enter FameLab because I had a great story to tell – I entered because it was my story to tell, and I’d never had the chance to tell it. I uploaded my submission video and vowed never to share it with anyone or think about it again. At least I could say that I had tried that science communication thing once.
A couple of weeks later I received an email, subject header ‘FameLab 2017: Congratulations’.
Part One – The NSW Masterclass and Semi-Finals
Armed with my new prop (upgraded the cumbersome lab scales to a coat hanger), an open mind, and a backpack full of nervous energy I headed to the Powerhouse Museum for our masterclass. Emma, our trainer, was the kind of person that demands attention from the room when she talks – yep, I wanted to learn to do that! She is also the kind of person that I try to avoid eye contact with for fear of being called on to do or say something (it didn’t work, I was called on a lot!). I learnt the importance of telling a good story, a sticky story. I may have made an awkward joke about having that bit in the bag because I worked with honey. Sticky… honey… geddit?
After the masterclass, we all gathered at the Transport Hall, under the planes and surrounded by trains for the competition. This bit is still a blur, but I do remember the fabulous Natasha Mitchell doing an amazing job MCing the event and the judges asking all the right questions to showcase and highlight our research. The presentations were fantastic as was the audience, they cheered and applauded and made every single one of us feel loved. It was a very special night, and I was stoked to be going home with the Runner-up award and the Audience Choice award. Next stop, Fremantle, WA!
Part Two – The Two-Day Masterclass and National Finals
We all had to prepare a second presentation with new props to take to the national finals. I used some of the comments from Emma and the judges to improve my pitch. I managed to sneak in a few excellent (some might say terrible) puns in there. After all, there is nothing more ‘me’ than puns.
I was psyched for the masterclass, I know it sounds cliché but the competition didn’t matter. I found the first one so inspiring that I couldn’t wait to see what tips I’d pick up this time. My fellow UTS buddy Naomi and I (along with some other FameLabbers we picked up in the hotel foyer) walked over to the (wrong) Maritime Museum (yes, there was more than one, and yes we used Google maps and also asked for directions – embarrassing).
The two-day training with Dr Emily Grossman, sci comm extraordinaire, was intense. There were a few highlights for me from this masterclass. Firstly, giving our presentations in front of 150 high school science students. I’ve never presented to a younger audience before, and the questions and feedback that those students had was incredible! They were so attentive and not afraid to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t understand. Secondly, playing the ‘critically supportive friend’ role. We had some exercises on how to give each other constructive criticism following some short presentations. Although we all felt uncomfortable and vulnerable, it was also very insightful to see the little quirks we had that added or took away from telling our stories. After presenting to the high schoolers, we repeated this exercise on each other. We each took on board all that feedback and every single one of us came out onto the stage that night with an improved version of our presentation. And then there were a couple of bits of advice from Emily that will stick with me: 1) Talk your talk, don’t write it – sounds simple, but usually we write what we want to say, instead of talking it into existence, and 2) Say yes now, panic later – my new life mantra. It does, however, mean that I am living in a constant state of panic. I guess it keeps things exciting?
The FameLab final event was incredible. I was excited to see some family in the audience that night, especially as it had been ten years since I’d seen some of them! We had an amazing panel of judges, the presentations were some of the best I’ve ever seen, the MC Alan Duffy did a stellar (hah, cos he’s an astrophysicist!) job of pumping up the crowd. It was a huge honour to take home the national title, and even more so to nab the Audience Choice award. My excellent/terrible puns had gone down a treat – PooTube FTW!
I talked so much that night that I lost my voice. Worth it! I also came home with 10 new incredibly supportive (and critically so) friends. I took the weekend off to celebrate with my west coast family, squeezed in a trip to Rottnest Island to see some quokkas, and a drive up to see the Pinnacles. Next stop, London baby! Well… Cheltenham.
Part Three – FameLab International and the Cheltenham Science Festival
After a phenomenal 30-hour (!!!) transit, I arrived at Cheltenham Spa. We had a welcome event in the evening and I met some of the 31 finalists from around the world – so many beautiful foreign accents! We didn’t have names, we were just countries. Hey Australia, I’m Switzerland. Hi Italy, I’m Azerbaijan. It was like Eurovision mashed with a world pageant. It made for some interesting conversations over the next few days: land rights (or lack thereof) in South Africa, setting things on fire in the bomb squad lab in Bulgaria, boarding schools and fresh water in Uganda, weather in Mauritius, vegetarianism in France, marriage and social status in India, climate change and what our respective countries were doing about it. We did find a universal language, and you’d think it would be science, but nope – it was food!
Our half-day masterclass was with Malcolm Love who taught us some more tricks to telling good stories, ways to handle nerves (that’s still a work in progress for me!) and left us with food for thought. Now I know to ask myself: what do you want to happen at the end of the day? And to remember when you’re on the stage: This is my floor. This is my turn to talk.
We had passes to lots of the Cheltenham Science Festival events. There were some incredible talks and a standout for me was ‘How does a hack work’ by cybersecurity experts FC and Jessica Barker. Note: I did change all my passwords and cover up my webcam with some masking tape as soon as I got back to the hotel that night. There were lots of interactive areas and some awesome displays of science and research.
The delightfully hilarious Quentin Cooper hosted the semi tremi-final event and from these three rounds, 31 finalists became nine. I am so glad I wasn’t in charge of judging which ones made the cut because I thought they were all outstanding… but if I was a gambling type of girl, I’d have put all my money on South Africa for the win (spoilers- she won!).
I hadn’t expected to get as far as I did, but I’d made it to the final-finals. Quentin hosted the night again and from him I learnt two things: 1)I ’m a melittologist (the scientific study of bees and honey is melittology); 2) Nural Cokcetin is an anagram of Reckon Lunatic. I bet Quentin is great at cryptic crosswords.
He also did a fantastic job at reminding us that while we were all winners back at home, tonight there would be one winner and lots of losers. It was weirdly encouraging. On stage, I forgot my lines momentarily and thought ‘what would Emma/Emily/Malcolm say’ and remembered that they’d say, just take a breath and keep going. Words will come out. So I did. And they did. And it was over before I knew it. The winner (and audience choice) went to the most deserving Tshiamo Legoale (aka South Africa) – and everything was right with the world. Nicole (Hong Kong) and I were equal runner-ups, or perhaps by Quentin’s terms… equal-first losers?
A few teary goodbyes later and promises (kept!) to stay in touch, we all left FameLab headquarters. I spent the next week exploring London and loved it. Although I never did get used to the taste of the water, or figure out what side of the footpath to walk on, and what is the deal with the sun still being out at 9.30pm?
On the whole, the FameLab journey has been a remarkable one. I feel incredibly honoured and humbled to have met so many great, young scientists who are passionate about doing research that has positive impacts in the world. But the journey isn’t over yet. There have been lots of exciting opportunities to come out of it since I’ve been back home including more TV and radio interviews about my research, invitations to give public lectures for National Science Week and even one for a TEDxYouth talk. Best of all, I’ve loved receiving messages, emails and tweets from people all around the world to say that they are having their daily spoonful of honey to boost their gut heath. I told a story. And it was a sticky one.
I am incredibly grateful to the British Council team in Australia for this opportunity, and for giving young scientists a platform on which to speak. I encourage all young researchers to give it a go. The training is some of the best you’ll ever receive, and the connections you make are invaluable. Finally, I must express my sincere gratitude to the NSW beekeepers because, perhaps unintentionally, you have helped me communicate my science more effectively by listening to me talk since I started research as an honours student all those years ago. I totally agree that my first presentation was too technical, with too many graphs.
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