UP students head to SA semi-finals of FameLab science communication competition

Posted on February 17, 2020

University of Pretoria (UP) students Johannes Christoff Joubert and Joséphine Queffelec have made it to the semi-finals of the South African leg of FameLab, one of the biggest science communication competitions in the world.

The competition is open to anyone aged 21 to 35 working in or studying technology, engineering, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics or maths. According to Darryl Herron, a PhD candidate at UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) who co-ordinated the heat at UP, the competition was brought to South Africa by the British Council. The council has  partnered with the South African Agency for Technology Advancement and Jive Media Africa to “give young scientists the tools to explain their research to a general audience in three minutes”.

2020 FameLab participants outside UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI)

Herron said that by participating in the FameLab competition students help to demystify science for the public and inspire young people to become scientists. Several universities participated in the 19/20 heats and the winner will represent South Africa at the FameLab International final in the UK.  At UP, 31 master’s and PhD students competed in the plant health-focused heat. A day before, they attended a science communication workshop run by Jive Media Africa which illustrated the main factors underlying good speaking and how to tell a good story.

Joubert, who won the heat, will be starting his PhD degree in Zoology this year. He told the audience that the point of his research for his MSc Zoology degree was to find out what attracted particular beetles to certain leaves, and what drove them away from others.

“My work focuses on identifying the constitutive Eucalyptus defence compounds, which mediate the host preference of Gonipterus sp. n. 2 (the Eucalyptus snout beetle). In a Eucalyptus plantation, many different genotypes of Eucalyptus trees are planted, and these beetles will feed on the leaves of certain genotypes while disregarding the others surrounding it.”

He had only three minutes to explain his research, so there was no time to speak of the tests he conducted. “So, I focused on the beetle, describing it as a monster, detailing damages and losses that this beetle causes, and how my research could help combat this monster. I used a jar of live beetles as my prop to contrast how I described them, showing that this horrible monster was in fact a tiny and somewhat cute beetle, but despite its friendly appearance it was still a devastating monster.”

Joubert pointed out that scientists speak in the “language of science, which is precise, analytical, detail-oriented and very boring to the general public, which leaves us talking only to our peers, thus alienating the general public”.

“They don’t understand our message, and they don’t see how it can help them or how they can help it.”

If scientists could speak in the common language of simple terms, “we could demonstrate our message and how it can help people, get public interest, help our research, and reduce the tension between scientists and the public”, he explained.

Winning the heat “was a massive surprise, as there were so many amazing speakers there”, he said.

Queffelec was a runner-up in the heat. Her PhD research focuses on an invasive species of wasp that is causing damage in pine plantations across South Africa. “My project aims at answering questions such as: Why do we find more males than females in the field? How do males and females find and chose each other before mating? Can we help control the wasp by tampering with reproduction?”

In her presentation, she talked about how objects such as shoes, plants and wooden souvenirs can transport deadly bacteria, fungi and insects around the globe. Explaining how these objects can have an impact on forests, she likened them with murder weapons as the species they transport can kill trees once they arrive in a new environment.

She said she entered the FameLab competition to learn about science communication and “to encourage people to take care of our forests”.

“Forests are an important economic and cultural resource that needs to be guarded and protected. A lot of people do not realise the impact they can have on forests but are ready to take the extra step to protect forests once they know how.”

Herron, a 2018 national FameLab finalist himself, said: “Johannes and Josephine will join many other young and talented researchers who have been sharing their science stories over the past few months. They will battle it out using their science communication skills for a chance to represent South Africa in the UK. South Africa won the competition back in 2017, and 2020 could very well be our year once more.”

- Author Primarashni Gower

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences