FameLab, National Geographic’s science communication competition, stops at WUSTL Saturday

FameLab challenges WUSTL scientists and others to present their work in engaging, entertaining ways

Science that won’t put you to sleep — that is the promise of FameLab, the science communication contest where young scientists from Washington University in St. Louis and across the region share their research and theories in brief, engaging presentations.

Sponsored by NASA and National Geographic and hosted by WUSTL, FameLab is modeled after TED talks and “American Idol.” A panel of judges will determine the winner. The top prize — a trip to the FameLab Finals in Washington, D.C. — goes not to the smartest contestant, but to the best communicator.


Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad, PhD, National Geographic 2011 Explorer of the Year, will host FameLab and discuss his work studying underwater caves. Broad is a professor at University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, director of the university’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Broad shared with the Record about the art of science communication.

Q: The best FameLab presentations are their own breed of performance art. Why are today’s scientists embracing new ways to communicate their work?

Broad: There has been a shift in the mindset of scientists. They are morally driven to get their science out there. It’s not about working in a small corner of your lab for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It’s about addressing big issues that impact our world. It used to be somewhat negative if you went public with your science or made it funny and fun. That’s changing.

How is communicating with the public different from communicating with peers?

You have to simplify your science. You don’t have to show the audience, ‘I am so smart because I’m using giant words and jargon.’ In fact, the audience may only get three simple points from what is a nuanced argument, but a good communicator will make sure they understand those three points. That’s a tough thing for some scientists to do because we are trained to highlight the complexity and connections.

Your job is really dangerous. But there are those of us who would rather get lost in an underwater cave than stand in front of a crowd.

You’ve heard that people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking and that their second-greatest fear is death. I think it was Seinfeld who said people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. It hasn’t always been natural for me, but the main thing is to have fun.

So, master communicator, communicate why we should spend our Saturday at FameLab.

It’s described as “American Idol” meets TEDx. You’re getting entertainment. You’re getting information. You’re getting it in a beautiful, fun venue. And you’re getting a sneak preview of what’s probably going to be proliferating in our lives 10, 15 years down the road. These are kids working on cutting-edge issues — stuff that may sound like science fiction but may someday come true.

FameLab Finals

When: 7-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22
Where: 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Ave.
How much: Free
More info: International FameLab (nasa.gov)