FameLab International Final 2011

This year's winner, Myrtani Pieri of the University of Cyprus!

Interview with FameLab winner 2011 by British Council

The following is a report from Roger Highfield - one of the judges at the International Final held in Cheltenham on Saturday June 11.

Some call it the "Pop Idol of science". On Saturday I found myself judging the final of international FameLab, where enthusiastic science communicators compete to win glory in a series of three-minute acts.

Some played it straight, some were slick and a few were downright eccentric. One contestant waved around tennis balls dressed in colourful wigs to highlight his point about polymer chemistry. Another jumped on a chair and performed pirouettes to animate his arcane research on spinning electrons. A third confessed that her props had been confiscated by customs and went on to threaten me with a gun that fires needles ("Yes, it could have been disastrous" she confessed afterwards).

Held at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival, and backed by the British Council, the latest encounter between contestants from around the world was hosted long into Saturday night by Famelab UK star and "stand-up mathematician", Matt Parker.

Contestants waved around glasses of fake blood, popped balloons and quoted Shakespeare to attract the attention of the judges (including yours truly) and grip the attention of the audience. But it wasn't just for the benefit of the 150-or-so people watching in Cheltenham - the event was broadcast across the globe by seven film crews and streamed online, drawing tweets from former contestants and the public alike in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and the United States.

The overall result was, as ever, a curious-but-likeable blend of Eurovision, X Factor and amateur talent show, with contestants on a mission to explain why mosquitoes bite only some of us, why the sky is blue and even how a mother of three children may not be the mother of two of them (the last one is a down to human chimerism).

Myrtani Pieri of the University of Cyprus emerged victorious from the melee of pop sci exposition, marking the first time that a woman has won and also the first year that there were equal numbers of men and women in the final. Myrtani holds a PhD in molecular biology from Oxford University and is currently investigating why only some Cypriot families with a specific mutation go on to develop kidney failure. Inspired by a spate of pregnancies among her friends, she delivered a polished presentation on the pregnancy paradox: how the maternal immune system tolerates the unborn child when half of the genes in the developing child came from "just some random guy". My fellow judge and codirector of the festival, Kathy Sykes, hailed Myrtani's blend of content clarity and charisma. "Myrtani was funny and made us care. She covered something familiar, pregnancy, but looked at side of it that people did not know about. I got goosebumps because it felt so personal, so relevant''.

If the stories of previous winners is anything to go by Myrtani will receive widespread recognition back home in Cyprus. Croatia's Marko Kosicek, the 2008 winner was profiled in Croatian Cosmopolitan, invited on to various TV chat-shows and even discovered that his name became a crossword answer. 2009 winner Mirko Djordjevic has just started his own "Species Investigation Unit" TV show in Serbia.

For her three minutes on the remarkable implications of a newly discovered enzyme for smart drugs and memory erasing pills, the second prize went to Karen Lavi of the The Gonda Center for Multidisciplinary Brain Research at Bar-Ilan University and in the Department of Neurobiology and Ethology at University of Haifa. I was struck by her infectious enthusiasm for the subject, which bordered on passion, and how she had popularised research that made headlines recently.

The winner of third place was Mahmoud Abu-khedr, a third year student at the University of Alexandria's Faculty of Engineering, who used the properties of a gyroscope - a spinning pram wheel - as a metaphor for the recent revolution in Egypt. Famelab has never seen science blended with popular protest and the result was electric.

As if to further emphasise the astonishing changes in the near East, Arab and Israeli FameLab contestants hugged, while the British Council organisers told us that the contestant from Libya had to pull out of the final because of the turmoil caused by the Arab Spring.

The audience vote went to Michal Babic of the Czech Republic, a polymer chemist who works in regenerative medicine at the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. It was he who resorted to the use of hairy tennis balls to illustrate how polymer coatings can make particles more biocompatible.

Rather like other talent shows, since its begginings at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2005, FameLab has gone global. Thanks to a partnership with the British Council the competition has been rolled out to 20 countries and is still expanding. The extent of its popularity is heartening: in Turkey alone, a staggering 20 million TV viewers tuned in during one year to watch the national FameLab final, and when the Queen visited the country in 2008, the trip included an audience with Turkish Famelabbers!

Roger Highfield judged International FameLab with Kathy Sykes of Bristol University and Greek author, playwright and journalist, George Zarkadakis.

The other finalists this year were Phillip Ambichl, from the University of Technology in Vienna; Alexandrina Al-Djassem of Sofia University, Bulgaria; Iva Pritišanac, of Zagreb University, Croatia; Carsten Graf von Westarp of the University of Hamburg; Isidoros Sideridis, an IT specialist from Greece; Kaamil Ur Rahman Mohamed Shibly of the University of Hong Kong; Justas Stasionis from the Computer Engineering at the Institute of Mathematics and Informatics of Vilnius University in Lithuania; Leonor Medeiros from the New University of Lisbon; Flavia-Bianca Cristian who studies biology at the University of Cluj; Mariana Jaskov of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Novi Sad.