When up-and-coming scientists leave their research labs and venture onto the stage, when comical clay figures replace conventional Powerpoint presentations and technical jargon is taboo, it can only mean one thing – FameLab! The Saxony round of the international “FameLab – Talking Science” competition attracted hundreds of spectators to Leipzig’s Moritzbastei centre at the beginning of March to experience fascinating and off-beat presentations of science-related topics. Young scientists from eight countries used humour and creativity to explain their highly complex research projects in just three minutes. You could call it stand-up comedy with a mortar board. An expert jury assessed the presentations and chose the best at the end.

A guitar and sombrero make environmental research entertaining

First prize was taken by a Dresden resident with Bulgarian roots: Liliana Malinovska from Dresden’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. She will go on to participate in the national FameLab competition in Bielefeld in May. The audience award for the most entertaining performance went to Otoniel Carranza Diaz from Mexico, who works at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig. The 31-year-old burst onto the stage accompanied by a potted plant, because plants play a very important role in his day-to-day research, which looks at how plants can be used to treat waste water. He provided the highlight of FameLab when he donned a large sombrero, picked up his guitar and sang “La Bamba” with the song’s lyrics reworked as “treatment by plant”. The audience cheered enthusiastically.

Cute characters: animated figures as cell proteins

For her performance meanwhile, FameLab regional winner Liliana Malinovska enlisted a cheery and colourful bunch of animated characters: the Barbapapas. The biochemist is engaged in researching the structure of proteins in cells, or more precisely, identifying which mechanisms maintain this structure. The Barbapapas are pear-shaped figures who can adopt any shape they choose. Liliana made a range of posters depicting the animated figures to help her explain the protein processes in a way that the audience in Leipzig, who were completely unfamiliar with the subject, could understand. She said: “The Barbapapas are an ideal model for my area of research because, just like them, what proteins do is determined by how they look. However, proteins can lose their structure and when something like that happens, perhaps as a result of stress or heat, the cells collapse or die.” Structural changes like these in brain cells cause illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease.

FameLab: a high-profile format for communicating scientific ideas

The “FameLab – Talking Science” competition has become established internationally as one of the best-known formats for communicating scientific ideas from all branches of science. It encourages young scientists to practise their ability to explain complex issues in an accessible way. Saxony has been successfully involved for two years now as part of an initiative organised by Leipzig University and UFZ Leipzig. If Liliana Malinovska is successful in Bielefeld, she will qualify for the international final in the UK. “That would be a dream come true,” she says, and adds: “I think it’s important to be able to explain science. Communication brings understanding. That’s why I’m taking part in FameLab.”