SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
17 December 2015
Volume 16 Issue 12

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Scientists, Here Comes the 3rd SETAC Europe Science Slam

Delphine Delire, Communications Manager, SETAC Europe

Have you ever thought of becoming a science slammer? Then take advantage of this fun opportunity and submit your video!

If you are enthusiastic about science and you want to share your excitement with the public by presenting your own scientific research in an entertaining way, come and participate in the next Science Slam at the SETAC Europe 26th Annual Meeting in May 2016 in Nantes, France.

Anyone can be part of this exciting approach to communicating science. It doesn't matter if you are a student, technician or a professor. Leave your study rooms, research offices and laboratories and surprise your audience on stage presenting your topic in a creative and unexpected way.

Òscar Aznar
Òscar Aznar Alemany, 2015 SETAC Europe Science Slam winner

Now let’s see how our past, courageous, SETAC Europe science slammers conquered the stage!

Òscar Aznar Alemany from Spanish National Research Council and Michele De Rosa from Aarhus University (Denmark), 2015 and 2014 winners respectively, shared their experience with SETAC Europe.

SETAC Europe (SE): Please describe your science slam.

Òscar: We studied if pesticides applied to farmed salmon against parasites reached the final consumer.

Michele: My slam was about Land Use Change (LUC) Modeling in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). My colleagues and I at both Aarhus and Aalborg University have been working extensively on this topic. Assessment, quantification and modeling of LUC and related environmental and social impacts are a fairly new scientific field, especially within the framework of LCA. Many people (including scientists in other fields) find it hard to even understand what I am doing and why it is important. I believe that if we as scientists are not able to communicate what we do, we have failed our primary goal: to be transforming agents of society.

SE: Why did you participate at the SETAC Science Slam?

Òscar: To have fun. I’ve always loved performing. Give me an audience and something will happen eventually. I also think that we are turning "professionally correct" into "complexly boring." The proof is that after delivering a 20-minute traditional presentation and a 10-minute musical on the same topic, the audience showed more interest and remembered more details from the latter.

Michele: I made communication and science divulgation to the general public a central part of my work, as much as the research I do.  To me, it is a duty of all scientists to engage in public discussions. I deeply disagree with those scientists claiming that we simply provide knowledge and it is not our responsibility what happens afterwards.

I believe we need to engage with politicians, companies and policy makers to make sure our work is correctly interpreted and ethically used. But we also need to report and explain to the broader public audience (and tax payers that kindly pay our salaries) why the knowledge we produce is relevant and what it means to society. Doing so we ultimately enable public opinion to influence politics and thus modern development patterns. Just think, modern democracies are based on information and information is based on knowledge, and often science provides understanding of this knowledge.  This lets us know how big our responsibility actually is to bring good science to the process!

SE: How did you come up with the idea of your video? Which ideas and elements did you use in your science slam?

Òscar: You can only have a Disney teaser for a Disney musical. It was supposed to be the abstract of my presentation, so it followed the same pattern with a spoken explanation to help understand the corresponding song.

Thankfully, pesticides in food are already an easy and catchy topic. I decided to make it a musical because of the entertainment factor, a Disney musical—rewriting the lyrics, to take advantage of a globally shared background. I added a couple of onstage dress changes and several cheeky comments and avoided unnecessary data and technical words.

Michele: I love cinema and I got my inspiration from movies. The video is divided in two parts, the first minutes aim to show contradicting scientific opinions often discussed in our community. It gives the idea of confusion, uncertainty, complexity, which is exactly what you often find in experts opinion. The second part focused on basic principles and ideas we already know could help in achieving a cleaner world and a more fair society. We know them already but they are not mainstreamed yet. The question the video asks is why? Is it because we do not have enough scientific proofs yet or because they do not have political support? I guess that is why at the end of the video, when Pete says, “Less talk and more action,” there was a standing ovation in the audience.

In short, what I am saying is that we do need research and science, but we (as scientists) also need to pay more attention to make sure the knowledge we produce is correctly interpreted and to ensure it is used in practice for the right purpose to emancipate society and free human kind as well as the environment from oppression, suffering, exploitation and injustice.
I decided to use metaphors to translate science into popular culture, something everybody relates to (gender issues, sexuality, fashion, but it could be anything else, for example Disney cartoons, as Òscar demonstrated last year).

SE: How many of you worked on your science slam?

Òscar: Three colleagues helped with the video—two acting and one editing—and at the end of the actual show I had two of them give away some visit cards as an excuse for the naughtiest and final joke. So I did have help at two key points of the process.

Michele: Just me, apart from the colleagues and friends that kindly acted in my video. My friend Pete “The Prophet” shows up twice in the video and both times the audience really liked his points, perhaps because he said something many believe, but nobody says, about the contradictions faced by the scientific community.

SE: How long did you take to prepare it?

Òscar: Devising the idea was a matter of an hour, recording the voice took several hours with many failed attempts. The song of the video contains extracts of the last five recordings. The shooting took two hours and my colleague spent a whole afternoon editing it. I also devoted an afternoon to find the Disney clips for the first half. To make it simple, it was the work of five or six afternoons.

Michele: Two weeks.

Òscar Aznar
Michele De Rosa, 2014 SETAC Europe Science Slam winner

SE: What were the challenges in the preparation of it? Was converting your scientific topic into a science slam a challenge?

Òscar: Well, it’s tricky to prepare a live musical when you can’t sing. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m above average at a karaoke, but I’m not a professional. I sang the whole show twice a day for three months before the SETAC meeting to identify and improve the worst parts.

Contaminants in food are something everybody can relate to and understand. Moreover, my research was a matter of whether pesticides could be detected in farmed salmon and if the detected levels would be harmful. Those were two simple yes or no questions. This allowed me to focus on the entertaining aspect with few restrictions.

Michele: One definitely needs some courage and self-confidence to step up on a stage in front of hundreds of scientists and act as a stand-up comedian, especially if you have never done it before! But preparing the performance does take some time as well, both the application video and the talk at the meeting. I think the capacity to be able to improvise on stage is important because it allows you to exploit situations you couldn’t predict (often problems) and to take advantage of them. But nothing can be improvised without a solid background plan.

Science Slam

Converting my scientific topic into a science slam was not really a challenge. As I said it took some time but it was also fun and ideas came mostly from talking with colleagues (that I need to thank once again) and making jokes with them about our work. For example, to reflect the obscurity of some scientific acronyms to the public, in my slam I said that I Googled LUC (Land Use Change) and the result was Lubricant Ultrathin Condom. It is of course not true, but the idea came to my colleague Massimo Pizzol during the flight to Basel, the conference venue, just three days before the slam! I should actually credit him for that. Thank you Massimo, that was a hit!

SE: Did you feel nervous to present it in front of the audience?

Òscar: If you care about getting your message through to a big group of people, you have to be nervous at first. But when I see they are into it, I relax and enjoy it.

Michele: Yes, but only until I actually started my performance. Tension vanished once I started! And I actually had lot of fun with the audience. It is amazing to see (and feel) how the crowd participates and reacts to every single thing you say or do. They give feedback as the performance is happening. Once you are on stage the audience is like a unique body for you, not hundreds of people. If you can imagine the crowd as a she, once you understand that you have her attention then you can start flirting with her. You read into her eyes how far you can go. I can tell you, the same happens between the performer and the crowd!

SE: How did the voting go?

Òscar: The audience had to make some noise for their favorite contestant and my friends are really noisy.

Michele: In Basel there was an electronic voting system. I think this is the best and most fair voting system but I understand that is not always available.

SE: What did you feel during the voting time?

Òscar: I was confident in my show. I had planned it to be something special. And judging by the reaction of the audience to the different presentations, I was quite optimistic. It did feel great, though, the moment it became real.

Michele: Actually, I was just so curious to know the results.

SE: What feedback did you get on your science slam?

Òscar: What can I say? I won the first award! During the whole performance the audience was clapping and laughing, even in bits I wasn’t expecting them to. That was extremely reassuring and encouraging. The following day some approached me, others acknowledged me with a smile.

Michele: In general, very positive. People enjoyed my performance but in general they all enjoyed the very idea of slamming at a scientific conference. Many people were curious about how I prepared the slam and why, basically the same questions you are asking me now. But almost all the people I talked to, ended up asking me questions about the scientific work behind the presentation. I am not sure they would have ever done it if I simply gave them my business card.
I have to say that I also got very few nasty comments: somebody thought a slam (and the slammers) was too clownish and diminishes the importance of scientific work, one comment went even further questioning my actual scientific work, based on the slam performance, which is somehow ridiculous!

SE: What are the benefits of presenting a science slam?

Òscar: Apart from the ego boost? I learned that our job is as fun and interesting as we make it and that we need to get rid of unnecessary details to convey the relevant information.

Michele: Assuming popularity is a benefit, this is something you definitely get by participating in a science slam (at least in your scientific community). But I believe scientists would also learn a lot about themselves, by reflecting upon how their work can be explained in the simplest way, one that could even make kids laugh (and maybe remember a simple key message).

In general, it grounds the scientific community as some of my colleagues perhaps take themselves too seriously. I have often been misunderstood about that: what I think is that we should not confuse taking our work seriously with taking ourselves seriously. After all, wasn’t even Einstein a funny guy?

A slam is also one of the few chances many scientists would ever have to present their work in front of such an enormous audience and it may help them gain confidence. Once you participate in a slam you won’t be scared of any other presentation or lecture!

SE: What did you enjoy the most about your science slam preparation?

Òscar: I felt like a mischievous kid who knows he’ll get away with what he’s planning. And although I teased my lab mates with bits of information, I kept most of it secret. I reveled in their anticipation and final surprise.

Michele: Preparing the video I sent to apply for the slam was definitely fun, because it involved some colleagues and friends (and some of them knew little or nothing about my work themselves).

SE: What is your advice for future SETAC Science Slammers?

Òscar: In my opinion, science slammers need to have fun themselves and forget about sounding clever in favor of a comprehensible message. They should have fun because the audience won’t enjoy someone who doesn’t enjoy their own self. And they must give a humble speech because the whole point is to entertain non-technical people with a story they can remember and tell the following day.

Michele: First, have fun. Second, don’t take yourself and the slam too seriously. I would say this is the “secret” to winning a science slam!

Now, let the next science slam battle begin!

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