FameLab was a whirlwind experience for Tim Gordon, a marine biology PhD student at Exeter University, UK and winner of FameLab 2019. Over the course of four days, Tim found himself winning the FameLab UK competition, before taking the stage the International Finals at Cheltenham Science Festival alongside 24 science communicators from around the world.
Tim’s engaging talk about his research on the impact of climate change on coral reefs wowed both judges and audiences alike, and Tim was crowned the competition’s overall winner - in doing so he became the first UK representative to win FameLab since it went global in 2007.
‘The whole FameLab experience was very exciting to be a part of because there was the chance to meet brilliant scientists and science communicators from all over the world,’ Tim enthuses. ‘Hearing so many different ideas and seeing so many great ways of engaging people with science was really inspiring, and gave me all sorts of ideas for improving my own science and communication.’
He continues: ‘Initiatives like FameLab are really important because they bring people together in a unique way. The networks that develop across countries and across disciplines can be really inspiring and productive, and full of opportunity.’
Tim believes that it’s networks such as these which are vital enablers for international collaboration and mobility: ‘Maintaining an international research community is essential - my research group has collaborators, funders and colleagues from around the world, and sharing knowledge and insight within this global community really speeds up progress. In an age where the world’s problems are increasingly global, solutions must also be global, and international collaboration is where that starts.’
Public engagement through storytelling with authenticity
The wonder of oceans and seas is a subject that’s always been close to Tim’s heart: ‘Some of my earliest memories of the sea are of snorkelling over coral reefs in East Africa, where I grew up,’ he reflects. And he wants to share his message about the importance of preserving marine life ‘because ultimately it will be the public that decide whether we have coral reefs at the end of my lifetime or not.’ He continues: ‘Scientists can study them to the best of our ability, and we’ll make a difference. But what will make the most difference is whether as a world we get control of CO2 emissions.’
On the FameLab stage, Tim engaged both judges and audiences by showing a real passion for his subject. His winning talk, ‘Helping Nemo Find Home’, evoked the glory of an underwater ecosystem in a lyrical and emotive way: ‘We study coral reefs by listening to them – eavesdropping on the sounds made by fishes and invertebrates living on the reef can tell us a lot about the health and functioning of the whole ecosystem. Healthy reefs can be recognised by a joyful chorus of pops, whistles, grunts, snaps, clicks and chatters, as the many animals living there go about their daily lives. Degraded reefs, on the other hand, are characterised by a haunting emptiness; the silencing of that biological symphony speaks volumes about the life that has been lost…’
Developing skills as a science communicator
As well as through storytelling, Tim has developed his skills as a science communicator by focusing on authenticity. ‘I was given some great advice that was to try as far as possible to be yourself when you talk about your science. Rather than practicing clever techniques to master a false persona, I was advised to just share my science and the emotions that go with it as genuinely as I could. That’s sometimes quite a difficult thing to do, but I think the integrity of it can be very powerful.’
Tim’s own advice for aspiring science communicators? ‘The only way you can improve is to get out and do it - it really is the case that the best way to start is to go for it’, he implores. ‘Get in touch with a school, do a school assembly talk. You could even go to the pub and find ways to go and talk about your science and get involved!’
Over the next few months, Tim will continue carrying out fieldwork recording and analysing the sounds of reef restoration projects in Indonesia. ‘Hopefully they will be raucously loud – the crescendo of an ecosystem recovering!’ he says with optimism. ‘After that I’ll be back in Exeter to finish writing my PhD - whatever’s next will involve some sort of environmental science and sharing it with people as far as possible.’
Follow Tim on Twitter @timacgordon
FameLab is a global competition started in 2005 by Cheltenham Science Festival to find and support the world's most talented new science communicators. Participants have three minutes to win over the judges and audience with a scientific talk that excels for its content, clarity and charisma.
Through a partnership with the British Council since 2007, the competition has grown into the world’s leading science communication competition, with more than 10,000 young scientists, mathematicians and engineers participating to date.