Saturday, 15 April 2017

FameLab Ireland Finals

Leon and I went to the FameLab Irish Final this week in the Science Gallery as a break from studying (not particularly well-deserved, admittedly). 

FameLab is a science communication competition where competitors distill a scientific topic in three minutes. Competitors went through local university heats to the national final, and the winner of this week's event will go on to the international final in Cheltenham. 



A big reason I went was because I know Niamh Kavanagh, last year's national winner, from speaking on the stage beside her at TY Expo and saw her Tweeting about it.

The event was presented by Jonathan McCrea, a radio host I met a couple of years ago when he came and talked to us at BT Bootcamp. Aoibhínn Ní Shuilleabháin, whom I met at the Women on Walls launch and who introduced me to Shane Bergin for that antibiotic resistance workshop, was one of the judges, and that's about everyone I knew there. 

So onto the talks. 

1. Aaron Ridgeway

Aaron is a Guinness spokesperson but talked to us about light and how its finite speed means we're seeing distant objects as they were in the past. He connected this to the death of his partner's grandparent and how the light from a certain star that started travelling to us when the grandparent was born is just hitting our eyes now. He mentioned a site where you could find a star like that for your birth but I couldn't find the one he mentioned. I did find a similar one here

He was a nice speaker but I would've liked more facts (I didn't learn anything new apart from that a site existed) and less emotional appeal.

He did have some funny quotes, though! These included:

  • "Y'see, light's fast."
  • "Every time you look at the sun, which you should not do."


2. Marica Casserino

Marica is a psychologist and talked about how curiosity is good for your health as you age. Obviously I'm into the whole curiosity thing, but I think my enjoyment of this talk was hampered by thoughts about replicability problems in psychology and a lack of strict laws/hard science, as well as the difficulty of determining causation as opposed to correlation. I liked that she cited studies.

3. Shane Browne

Shane talked about Beer's Law (Absorbance of light = (molar extinction coefficient)*(path length)*(Concentration), or "The amount of light a sample absorbs is proportional to its concentration."

I did a Chemistry lab last semester using spectrophotometry and that equation so this was nothing new. I was frustrated that he was making such a big deal out of this law ("Beer's Law may sound complicated"), especially since he didn't even include path length and molar extinction coefficient, because it seems pretty simple and common-sense, but he did have a really cool way of explaining calibration curves. 

He said he loves dark chocolate and give that a 10/10, that milk chocolate is just okay so he'd give it a 5/10, and that he hates white chocolate so he'd give it a 1/10. Then if a friend gave him a new kind of chocolate he could figure out how much he'd like it by using its colour to interpolate between the standards he has. 

I also liked when he talked about how an abnormal ratio of proinsulin to insulin is indicative of Type 2 diabetes, because I read a bunch of papers about prediabetes before changing my nanosensor to one for attractin->glioblastoma. 

4. Deirdre Robertson

This talk was cool because I learned something new and it helped me finally understand why my Outbox pal Edel's Parkinson's tool works. Apparently people with Parkinson's have trouble with unconscious movement like walking without paying attention to it, so shining a laser in front of their feet (like Edel does) or using beats through headphones (like Ciara Clancy from Inspirefest does) brings that to the conscious part of the brain and helps with gait freezing. Also, an interesting reason a study concludes it doesn't work for everyone is that it depends on a person's ability to count beats.

She used the metaphor of a computer running two programs; one can still work while the other has crashed. That was maybe unnecessary, but was quite nice to listen to anyway.

5. Pat Ryan

This was my favourite talk. Pat came on stage with a prop and said "This is what a fig looks like, if you make it out of papier maché for under a fiver". He told us about a conversation with his vegan friend, who wouldn't eat fig rolls because wasps often die inside them. He researched this and told us about what he found out, which is that figs have an obligate mutualism with wasps. One thing I either missed or he didn't explain properly was which sex it needs to be, but the wasp needs to go to a certain sex of the fig and if it gets the wrong one it'll never find the place it needs and will just die and be digested in there by the enzyme fycin ("Figs eat wasps"). It's an interesting mechanism, especially since it happens lots but only one species of figs will do per species of wasp. He did reassure us that it probably wasn't happening in Ireland because of the climate.

6. Will Knott

This guy, who's Maker-In-Chief at Tyndall (cool job) started out well with "Ladies and gentlemen, fans and trans" and had a cool T-shirt slogan (Science is Real, Denial is Deadly). He brought whiskey on stage and said it was to do with saving the planet because something about carbon dioxide and capturing it instead of just letting it get out. I didn't really get his point, I don't think. May just have been my issue with people bringing on alcohol when it wasn't crucial to the message.

7. Ana Panigassi

Ana went from being military police to an ob-gyn, and I just wish one of the judges had asked her how that happened because I'd love to know. She talked about how ob-gyns use science and play an important role and had cool lines. She said things like "we're able to predict at x weeks whether the mother will experience a blood pressure spike at birth", and that was cool, but I would've loved to know how -- what the tests are and what the physical/biological principle behind them is. 

Her cool lines included that people think "the baby will come out and you catch it", "I'm not just a goalkeeper for catching babies....or Deliveroo". I did find it cool that you could do so much science with an ultrasound and the genetic sequencing possibilities, but again would've loved more detail. Probably difficult in three minutes!

8. Rob Cross

This guy spent his entire talk on alcohol. He talked about why the bubbles seem to be going down in Guinness sometimes -- apparently something to do with a liquid nitrogen widget at the bottom of cans. Didn't know beer was so high-tech. It was funny when he said "wasn't allowed bring an entire pub on stage".

9. Ross Murphy

Ross talked about how our cells change throughout our lives and what it means to be us. He did say that some of our heart cells actually remain the same throughout our entire lives, which I didn't believe. This article, from the Karolinska Institute, says they don't, but honestly I haven't researched it deeply and there are probably some cells that stay the same. This means, according to Ross, that we're the same person, as opposed to a brush that's had its head and stick alternately replaced many times. 

10. Joanne Duffy

Joanne talked about vaccination, and how when it started, for whooping cough, it involved formaldehyde. She said vaccines are safe and talked about how they're made using e.coli. 

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In short: I think I may not have been the target audience for this because it really annoyed me when people talked about a science topic  vaguely and then made some sweeping, grand statement like "this connects us to the universe". This is one of the reasons my favourite talk was the one about wasps in figs -- it was new information, pretty well explained, and didn't pretend to be more than it was. I find science interesting in the details, so I would've preferred if people just gave me some more information -- I learned at least one new thing from most of the talks, but there could definitely have been more. I didn't like the props, metaphors and simplification. Science communication is not one size fits all, it seems!

That said, it was an enjoyable 90 minutes, and good for learning some snippets of other parts of science than my own. The speakers were all good on stage and had good technique, including pleasing voices and good pacing. 

Deirdre came first, Joanne second and Ross third. Congratulations to everyone involved, and good job for getting up there and spreading your love of science!

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