Hayden Wilkinson: ‘It is necessary to spin a quick, coherent and engaging story’

4 Apr 2019

Hayden Wilkinson. Image: British Council

Hayden Wilkinson on how FameLab has taught him about more than just his own interests and learning how to riff scientifically.

University College Dublin MSc student Hayden Wilkinson is studying glycoanalytics for better design of biomaterial implants in regenerative medicine.

His work focuses on studying a group of sugars called O-glycans, which bind to an array of proteins found in our cells and tissues. These sugars help control protein-to-protein and cell-to-cell interactions in our body, so need to be present in the right proportion for us to maintain healthy cellular function. “By observing changes in the O-glycan sugar profile between healthy and diseased cells, we gain an insight into the power that these sweet and simple sugars have,” Wilkinson explained.

How did you hear about FameLab and what made you enter?

When I first started my master’s programme, I had heard through the graduate student grapevine of various public engagement activities where the communication of science was at the forefront. Threesis, Pint of Science and FameLab were the three big ones I kept hearing of. I knew I needed an ‘in’ into the world of science communication and FameLab seemed the best pick for me, so I entered the university round and made it through.

What’s your presentation about and how did you prepare for it?

My presentation is about designer babies, genetic engineering, the pros, the cons and everything else in between. I prepared in a few ways. The masterclass with Malcolm Love and Jonathan McCrae was a huge help. In-depth sessions on storytelling, overcoming anxieties and being your most authentic self really helped me see that I wasn’t giving a talk for some Leaving Cert-style examination, I was chatting. I was riffing away my passions to friends, family and people generally interested in knowing a tiny bit more about the vast sea of science.

Being able to run ideas off my ever-attentive girlfriend Jessica helped. She was kind yet honest when it came to constructive criticism, only laughing when funny ideas were actually ‘funny’ and nodding in approval when what I had to say was actually coherent.

What was your journey to the final?

First and foremost I am over the moon that I’ve made it this far. Not only have I learned more about my own topics, but about dozens of others I would not have otherwise known or even thought about.

In the University College Dublin heat I spoke to the audience about synaesthesia (seeing colours when hearing sounds) as I have always found it fascinating. A band member of mine had it and I always thought he was crazy until I did the research myself – he wasn’t lying! Come judgement time and I find out it was engaging enough to send me through to the Dublin regional.

The Dublin regional was a great event, set in the basement of one of my favourite local spots, Wigwam. I changed my talk track completely, giving people an insight to the world of a split-brainer and how, by splitting a brain in two, a patient’s left side can start disagreeing with their right. Boy, were the judges’ decisions split too, across all 11 contestants. The calibre of talks was incredible. By the skin of my teeth, I was overjoyed when I heard I had made it to the next round and I knew that this time, I needed to pick up my game.

Fast-forward to now and I am still piecing together the puzzle of an engaging and captivating talk, ready in time to practise, perfect and become comfortable with the content. I have changed topic (again!) and hope that this time it leaves people with a little bit more knowledge and a lot more smiles.

I’m so grateful to be a part of the final and am looking forward to all the presentations. I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch to be side by side with, communicating science.

How valuable is this experience in teaching you how to communicate?

While I’m going slightly off-piste with my topic, speaking loosely on genetics rather than focusing primarily on my research, FameLab has offered a tremendous boost to my communication of science. Whether it be updating my supervisor on my most recent discoveries, or presenting a poster during site reviews and graduate days, I feel I have garnered skills to speak succinctly and effectively.

Sometimes (all the time) we don’t have long to get our research across so it is necessary to spin a quick, coherent but most of all engaging story.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.