International project aims to show popularising science is “money well spent”

FameLab - International Echoes 2018, photo: Tomáš Belloň

One of the events showcased during this year’s open week at the Czech Academy of Science’s was a contest where young scientists pitted their presenting skills against each other in a bid to entertain and educate the audience about important scientific questions. The event was presented by a man who lies at the forefront of popularising science in the country.

FameLab - International Echoes 2018,  photo: Tomáš Belloň
That the Czech Republic boasts a proud scientific history is well known fact and, with inventions such as the soft contact lens and polarography behind their belt, it comes perhaps as no surprise. Yet how does one ensure that upcoming generations remain as excited about science as their forbears?

Dr. Michael Londesborough believes he has at least part of the answer. He is a British chemist who works at the Czech Academy of Sciences, specialising in inorganic chemistry. Yet he has also become quite famous across the country as a populariser of science. And no wonder, his schedule would put many CEOs to shame.

“I have a rather diverse spectrum of activities ranging from scientific shows where I take a particular topic and make it as full of demonstrations and interactivity as possible. That ranges from matters such as energy through to my own research work in boron chemistry and lasers all the way to light, sound, music, love and Shakespeare - all sorts of different outlets. And I collaborate with various brilliant people, who add things to that.

“Apart from these live performances I have also worked with Czech Television. Since 2007, more than 300 episodes have gone out through Port, a weekly magazine programme on ČT2, where I had my little slot, showing experiments kids could try at home.“

I caught up with Dr. Londesborough while he was moderating another activity he has long been involved in. FameLab is an international competition that was first introduced to the Czech Republic through the British Council in 2011. As the Council’s Country Director, Denise Waddingham, proudly announced, FameLab now stretches across 33 countries in five continents. The competition is primarily aimed at popularising science through discovering talented scientists that have a knack for explaining scientific problems in a simple and entertaining way.

Michael Londesborough,  photo: Tomáš Belloň
The contestants themselves, who go first go through a regional and then a national round, also have much to gain, as Dr. Londesborough explains.

“After the final, the overall winner then goes on to represent the Czech Republic at the international final at the Cheltenham festival, and gets all the subsequent opportunities afforded to them. Apart from that, the four runners up also get prizes from the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Thomas Baťa Foundation and Czech Centres. These range from iPads to book vouchers and opportunities to travel to England.

“I believe however, that the biggest prize is entering into an international community of very talented young scientists from all around the world and all the different branches of science. It is very exciting to see how that family is growing in strength and in today’s age of social media and cheap flights it is amazing how they keep in contact. That leads to all sorts of subsequent benefits both in their professional lives, expanding their network of colleagues, but they also get invited to talk about their science at different venues around the world and that is such a wonderful opportunity for them.”

That friendships forge in the competition was quite clear through the communal atmosphere among the FameLab contestants who gathered to promote the competition as part of the Czech Academy of Science’s – Week of Science and Technology. Titled International Echoes in Prague, it was a gathering of successful contestants from countries including Spain, Turkey and the United States.

The winner of the Czech competition, Lucie Doležálková, says that almost all of the Czech contestants are students, even though FameLab is open to anyone over the age of 21. UK winner Lucy Guile, agreed that it is also mostly students who take part in the competition in Britain, but having entered as a young doctor in the NHS, her success is proof that professionals can gain a lot as well.

Lucie Doležálková,  photo: Tomáš Belloň
With only three minutes to engage the audience, the young scientists get straight down to business, explaining complex structures such as black holes and virology in hilarious and often gruesome ways.

The presentation of American Maureen Williams, whose research brought her to Ireland and the local FameLab competition, was a case in point.

“My three minute talk was about Guinea worm, which is a parasite that causes a disease called Dracunculiasis. There is a huge eradication effort going on at the moment to get rid of it so that humans are no longer infected and I talked about the methods that we came up with which are filtered straws and monitoring to help us stop Guinea worm and help heal people. “

I understand the Guinea worm has a rather gory way of showing itself.

“Yes. The Guinea worm actually travels from your intestines in your stomach into your foot, so it responds to gravity moving downwards tunnelling through your body at which point you usually put your foot in water to get a bit of cooling relief. That is when the parasite strikes! It tunnels out through your skin and lays its eggs into the water.”

You said we are eradicating it. If you had to give us some stats, what is the current situation?

“We have gone from 3.5 million cases in 1986 down to 30 last year. There are only two countries with active infections and four countries that have not met the criteria for full eradication.”

FameLab - International Echoes 2018,  photo: Tomáš Belloň
Apart from curious facts, the contestants also employ whatever devices they want to bring to the stage. Dr. Londesborough, who sits in the panel of judges that ultimately picks the winner for the Czech Republic, says that there is one particular example that left an imprint in his mind.

“There was a young scientist who was interested in butterfly wings and how the microstructure of the wing creates illusions of colour. They are illusions of colour because they are not colourful it is just the way in which these structures reflect light. He was using his knowledge of that to grab the attention of girls and was using the knowledge of these butterfly wings to do so. He had constructed this amazing contraption that he brought on stage, which enabled him to get into this wing suit and flutter. It was just an amazing piece of engineering. It was genius.”

FameLab may be a clever way of bringing scientific problems into the public eye, but where do projects like it lie in the greater context of popularising science in the Czech Republic? And why do we need to make science popular anyway? Dr. Londesborough says there is a long way to go, but the payoff is more than worth it.

“If you consider science popularisation as the public relations wing of a multinational organisation, which by the way science is, then the amount of money going into that effort I think, is considerably lower than what is spent on the PR of private or other public organisations. So since I came to the Czech Republic I still there is a lot more that can be done.

Denise Waddingham,  photo: Tomáš Belloň
“There is a duality to the benefits. Not only is there a necessity to inform the public about the research work being done at the expense of the tax payer. That means we need to be engaging with the public far more effectively, so that they understand that their money that is being spent on science in the Czech Republic and internationally is very well spent indeed, leading to all sort of important discoveries.

"Secondly, this sort of transmission of information should be entertaining and fun as well. There is no reason for it to be dull. Science, to a large extent, is an expression of talent and skill, similar to art. So I think that as in any other form it is a spectacle and that therefore science has huge potential for providing the general public with a form of intelligent entertainment.”