Flirting with the idea of a device to detect potato viruses

19 Oct 2021

Image: Fernando Garrido Diaz

This year’s FameLab audience award winner shows us how to successfully communicate science in a second language.

PhD student Fernando Garrido Diaz took home the audience award at this year’s FameLab Ireland final for demonstrating his skill at communicating science in as little as three minutes.

Now studying at Munster Technological University (which formed this year from the merging of Cork Institute of Technology and IT Tralee), Garrido Diaz started his academic career at the University of León in his native Spain. After finishing his degree in food science and technology, he came to Ireland to learn English and improve his career prospects.

Having fallen in love with Ireland, he decided to continue his studies here and while at MTU he is working with both Teagasc and Tyndall National Institute on his project to develop an immunosensor for the detection of microorganisms in plants.

‘Misinformation is the biggest enemy of society, and I believe that the most important thing is proper science communication from a young age’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Honestly, back in the day, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a model student. When I was younger, I even had some bad times in school and I didn’t really enjoy studying. However, there was one teacher in my high school who helped me focus and he saw a future researcher in me. If there is an example of how a truly passionate teacher can positively influence his student, that was him!

What has been your experience with FameLab?

I discovered FameLab thanks to some friends of mine who have participated in this competition in the past. They encouraged me to take part in it because I’ve always had ease in explaining science using humour and relating it to everyday things. I always felt a bit shy because of my level of English, until I decided to take it on as a personal challenge.

The first time I participated, I won the audience award at the Cork regional heat. The second time, I was the runner-up to represent Cork for the Irish national final. Finally, I won the audience award on the national final. After all these victories, I feel unstoppable!

I prepared all my topics with the huge help of my friends, family and peers. If someone deserves a prize, it is them! They were always giving me advice.

Thanks to FameLab, I have learned that there are many ways to tell things and that there is always room for improvement. Also, thanks to the masterclass, I have learned many tricks and communication techniques that will be very useful to me, both in informative talks as well as in scientific conferences.

How would you summarise your FameLab presentation?

In my presentation, I talk about the problems that farmers face at a production level because of pathogens present in crops. I relate these problems to the typical toxic relationships that can arise from Tinder, Grindr or some other dating apps.

At the same time, I relate the filters of these applications to small ‘filters’ present in nature (ie the antibodies) and I explain how farmers could use them to detect contaminated plants. In this way, farmers will be able to avoid losses in production which affects them year after year.

Why did you choose plant viruses as the topic for your presentation?

I thought that talking about potatoes was the best way to represent Ireland! Just kidding.

I am actually working in a project (SCOPE) that involves the detection of potyvirus on plants, which includes tobacco, tomato and, of course, potatoes.

Nowadays, agriculture in Ireland needs an accurate diagnosis to regulate the trade of tubers and for the sanitary selection of plant material for propagation. And that’s my job – to provide it. I am trying to develop an immunosensor and an electronic device to detect the presence of that virus.

In my head, all these pieces combined perfectly to create the best dating app – but just for farmers of course!

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

The biggest challenge in science communication for me was speaking in English. I am shameless if I speak in Spanish, but once it comes to speaking in English I was embarrassed because in my mind I wasn’t good enough. But if I came this far, it is clear that no matter what the accent is, the important thing is being able to communicate science.

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

In the 21st century, many people still see science as abstract and extraneous to them, even though they are surrounded by it 24 hours a day. We also have a very big enemy: disinformation.

The internet has made it much easier for us to find information but also to spread misinformation. A clear example is what happened in the last year with the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccines.

Misinformation is the biggest enemy of society, and I believe that the most important thing is proper science communication from a young age. We should try to combine learning and humour as much as we can. In this way, research and technology will become more popular with more people being more confident with science. This is the essence of FameLab, and that’s why I’m so proud to have made it this far.

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