Netherlands’ Alex Cloherty crowned winner of FameLab 2021

26 Nov 2021

Alex Cloherty. Image: FameLab

Cloherty used The Queen’s Gambit to explain viral interaction, combining three of her passions: Netflix, chess and the immune system.

Alex Cloherty was named the winner of FameLab International 2021 at an online awards ceremony held yesterday (25 November).

Cloherty is the last ever winner of the annual competition, which challenges researchers from around the world to showcase their science communication skills. Participants have to condense a complex scientific topic in an accessible manner within three minutes.

Representing the Netherlands, the PhD researcher in autophagy at Amsterdam UMC beat 22 other science communicators in the international finals of the competition.

She used the popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit to illustrate how the immune system fights viruses like dengue, HIV and SARS.

“Science communication is something I love to do, and my presentation brought together three of my favourite things: Netflix, chess and the immune system,” Cloherty said. “In a year like this, it has been easy to feel isolated. Taking part in FameLab and meeting a group of such amazing people with a passion for what they do has been a real joy.”

All stages of this year’s FameLab have taken place virtually due to the pandemic. The final was streamed live on FameLab’s YouTube channel to a global audience.

The task of picking the overall winner fell to three judges: Irish sustainability specialist Tara Shine, maths broadcaster Rogério Ferreira Martins and journalist Julia Wheeler.

According to Ferreira Martins, Cloherty “demonstrated a real passion for her subject, attracting attention from the outset with magnificent use of props. She explained viral interaction with great clarity and charisma. The world needs brilliant science communicators more than ever before, and Alex is a worthy winner.”

The two runners-up on the night were master’s student in climatology Letago Kgomoeswana from South Africa and post-doctoral biomedical researcher Samantha Nixon from Australia.

The Audience Prize was awarded to Sirawit Ittisoponpisan from Thailand, who is a bioinformatics lecturer at the Prince of Songkla University. Ittisoponpisan spoke on the power of prediction amid the pandemic.

“I joined FameLab to improve my science communication without much thought of winning,” he said. “To come so far and win the audience vote has been just phenomenal.”

FameLab Ireland

The Irish edition of FameLab this year was won by Tammy Strickland, who went on to represent Ireland in the semi-finals of the competition but didn’t progress to the final. Her talk focused on epileptic seizures, explaining them in the style of a whodunnit Agatha Christie novel.

Strickland was one of 12 entrants in the national leg of the competition, which was held by the British Council of Ireland with funding from Science Foundation Ireland. The Irish finalists recently told SiliconRepublic.com what they thought made a great science communicator.

FameLab was started in 2005 in the UK by Cheltenham Science Festival. The 15-year partnership with the British Council starting in 2007 resulted in a global network of scientists and engineers engaging with international audiences.

While FameLab as we know it will not return next year, the Cheltenham Science Festival will be held in June 2022 in the UK assisted by a number of international partners.

Adrian Fenton, senior consultant and programme lead for FameLab International at the British Council, said: “While it’s an emotional end of an era as the 15-year partnership with the British Council draws to a close, the spirit of FameLab International will continue to flourish in the very capable hands of Cheltenham Festivals.”

Cheltenham Festivals’ director of learning and public engagement, Ali Mawle, acknowledged that “FameLab has a place in the hearts of thousands of people across the world” and said the festival would continue its legacy.

“We will continue to support the next generation of science communicators by establishing an international network of trainers and institutions sharing resources, best practice and opportunities to support science communication,” she added.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com