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My FameLab SA 2014 experience

By Melissa Boonzaaier, former Coordinator, SAEON GSN Committee


As an enthusiastic participant in FameLab South Africa 2014, I would like to encourage all members of SAEON's Graduate Student Network (GSN) who are truly passionate about their work to go to the FameLab auditions next year.

We were fully sponsored for the week we spent in Grahamstown during the FameLab finals and semi-finals and all that is required of you is to talk about your passion ... which is not always as easy as one thinks!


Regional finalists at the Settler's Monument in Grahamstown, where the FameLab SA 2014 finals were held. (Top row, from left): Kgomotso ‘Faith' Mohatalle (North-West University), Raven Motsewanbongwe (North-West University and winner of FameLabSA 2014), Melissa Boonzaaier (University of the Western Cape), Itumeleng Lehupela (University of the Free State). Front row, from left: Sibusiso Biyela (University of Zululand) and Mabu Manaileng (University of Limpopo) (Photo: Melissa Boonzaaier)

"Pop Idols" of science

The international science communication competition, FameLab, also called the "Pop Idols" of science, started off at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2005, and has spread like wildfire across the globe, currently running in 25 countries.

FameLab aims to motivate and inspire young researchers to share their research and engage with the public. The contestants' speeches are judged on three C's - Content, Clarity and Charisma - ultimately a measure of the extent to which they can engage a public audience with a topic in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

This international competition first came to South African shores in 2013, when Michelle Knights (University of Cape Town) was crowned the winner. In South Africa the competition is run by the British Council in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF) through the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), and Jive Media Africa.


The winner of FameLabSA 2014, Raven Motsewabongwe (centre) with runners-up Gugu Mabuza from the CSIR (left) and Cornelis van Niekerk from the University of Pretoria


FameLab SA 2014

Auditions for FameLab SA 2014 were held during February, and 18 regional finalists were chosen from seven regions. The semi-finals took place on 13 March 2014 at Scifest Africa 2014, which was held in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.

The 18 contestants prepared for the semi-finals during a two-day workshop led by Malcolm Love, a presentation specialist from FameLab International. A former senior producer for the BBC, Malcolm now spends much of his time as a public communication skills coach, trainer and consultant. He taught the contestants the art of science communication and how to be relaxed and confident while presenting a public talk.

The semi-finals were held at St Andrew's College, where the audience learnt more about science topics that ranged from engineering, microbiology, sea turtles and viral infections to physics and artificial intelligence. The three judges - Gladys Magagula (from the South African National Space Agency's [SANSA] Space Operations directorate), Steven Lang (former executive producer at SAfm current affairs, currently editor of Grocott's Mail at Rhodes University, Grahamstown) and Michelle Knights (FameLab SA 2013 winner, from UCT) finally whittled the eighteen finalists down to the final nine.

On March 14, an excited audience filled the 800-seater Guy Butler auditorium at the Settler's Monument for the nail-biting FameLab finals. The judges – Prof. Janice Limson (Head, Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre), Dr Sandile Malinga (Chief Executive Officer, SANSA) and Dr Nadim Oozeer (of the SKA South Africa Commissioning team) - had a hard time selecting the top three contestants.

And this year's winner is ...

The moment of truth finally arrived, and the winner of FameLabSA 2014 was announced ... (drumroll) Raven Motsewabangwe, a microbiology student from North-West University. Raven will be representing South Africa along with 24 other country title winners at the Cheltenham Science Festival in London, UK, later this year.

I had a great experience participating in FameLab SA 2014, thanks to the organisers and sponsors - SAASTA, Jive Media Africa and the British Council. I met the top science communicators from seven regions and various institutions and I left inspired to continue sharing my research with a wider audience.

Melissa Boonzaaier is a second-year PhD student at the University of the Western Cape and assistant curator at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. She has just retired after her two-year term on the GSN Committee, serving in the Internal Communications Portfolio (2012/13) and as Committee Coordinator (2013/14). Melissa says the GSN has been a very special home for her. She hopes to continue her involvement and see the GSN members at this years' 7th Indibano Conference.

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