July 2015
Contents / home
Special award for Limpopo learner
National Science Olympiad Awards
Youth Science Focus Week
Showing career opportunities to girls
Africa Code Week
FameLab International Competition
My FameLab experience
Debates winners off to New York
Finding solutions to energy problems
Centenary of Proxima Centauri
Meet SAASTA's Gao Tiro
Refocusing our lens on our youth
Science on a research vessel
Partnership to conserve water
Managing freshwater resources
Rhodes and SAIAB promote science
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

My FameLab experience

  Stevie Biffen says the FameLab experience has given her wonderful memories, introduced her to prolific people and has inspired her to carry on communicating science, especially to the public
The power of communication is amazing. From a cryptic email from the postgraduate society at the University of Cape Town I was informed of an afternoon that would start with a single three-minute speech and that ended with an international adventure to communicate science at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom.

The cost: a three-minute speech on anything in science and the courage to believe in yourself.

I decided that a Saturday at the Cape Town Science Centre would be well spent if I could meet others passionate about science communication and get some feedback on my public-speaking techniques. In the regional heats I spoke about the neuroscience of play and creativity. I was then given 45 minutes to prepare a speech for the next round. I spoke about Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and the effect it may have on the brain's anatomy (my current research project).

Suddenly, I found myself on an aeroplane to Grahamstown Science Festival 2015 and a grand adventure.


A gathering of the best young science communicators from around South Africa for a two-day science communication master-class with the inspiring Dr Emily Grossman became a sort of emotional boot camp. Each person was singled out for their unique speaking style and talents and introduced to their challenges – a very vulnerable spotlight indeed. However, this experience gave each person opportunities that were unique to their personal growth, despite how absolutely terrified of criticism I was.

Not surprisingly, most of my negative critique was that I showed how nervous I was. My opportunity was the challenge to believe in my ability and live in the moment – enjoying each second in the spotlight. I had to empower my "inner ham".

While the master-classes were spectacular, I feel that the group staying at Jenny's Guesthouse matched the classes with friendship – like a good wine with cheese. The six of us formed a bond of trust and respect and, between jokes, book recommendations and eating, we practised and refined our speeches. We drew on the knowledge of the master-classes and advice of our peers to refine our communication skills.

During these practice sessions it was never a competition; it was a magnificent friendship. The opportunity to have met and befriended such wonderful people was a prize all in itself. I believe that it was this support that helped me to win FameLab South Africa and it is no coincidence that all three prize-winners (myself, Edgar Phukubje and Natasha Botha) came from this group. We even had a cheer, "Go Team Jenny!"

FameLab South Africa finals

I somehow found myself on the stage for both the national semi-finals and finals. Despite my earlier conviction that I was just going to the Science Centre for a fun morning, I found myself winning the FameLab South Africa Finals. The 2014 FameLab South Africa winner, Raven Motsewabangwe, crowned me with his token "FameLab hat" and I can now say that the urge to cry that supermodels get when winning a title happens to scientists too.

Competing on an international platform

The excitement of winning and attending the Cheltenham Science Festival was both overwhelming and magical. The feeling of leaving South African soil to represent your country, the FameLab sponsors, your university and your new-found FameLab South Africa friends was pretty amazing and utterly humbling. Realising that the people you would spend the next week with are some of the best young science communicators in the world was intimidating.

I did not make it to the final round of FameLab International 2015, but I did come away with a lovely certificate proclaiming me a "FameLab International Finalist". I can also say that I was incredibly proud of my performance and that I embraced my nerves and truly lived the moment. My only regret is that I could not have three minutes more to communicate my passion. I only hope that I lived up to the expectations of my wonderful sponsors, friends and country.

Although I missed the opportunity to take to the stage once more, I gained the opportunity to use time that would otherwise have been spent rehearsing to explore the Cheltenham Science Festival. The opportunity to watch great science communicators and to absorb their knowledge and passion was truly inspiring and gave me the motivation that I needed to carry on communicating science, especially to the public.

I had the wonderful experience of seeing Dr Michael Mosley's (a BBC science communicator, whom I greatly admire) heart rate increase each time he had to take the stage. Although he was using this heart rate monitor to illustrate the health benefits of standing in the workplace, to me this was a simple message of "even the experts get nervous".

Although this experience has come to an end, I must borrow a quote from Dr Seuss, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." FameLab has given me wonderful memories, introduced me to prolific people and has simply inspired me.

I will be forever grateful to the sponsors, including the British Council, SAASTA, Jive Media Africa and the Cheltenham Science Festival, and to the spectacular, kind and brilliant representatives from each of these organisations. I hope to do much more with any or all of them in the future and will continue searching for opportunities in science communication; all thanks to FameLab.

I bought a memento of my experience – a silver charm of a lion wearing a crown. It represents both where I went (an English crown) and where I came from (an African lion). But, most importantly, it represents what FameLab was to me – the chance to be brave and share my passion. It is a lesson that I always want to remember and embrace.

FameLab gave me the opportunity to inspire and be inspired, the courage to communicate with the public, and myself, and the bravery to share my passion for science.

By Stevie Biffen, 2015 FameLAB South Africa winner