This lesson in physiology shows that sci-comm is nothing to be scared of

4 Nov 2021

Image: Kevin Mercurio

Kevin Mercurio’s FameLab entry on the physiology of fear demonstrates why researchers shouldn’t be afraid to communicate science in entertaining ways.

Kevin Mercurio is currently completing a PhD in microbiology at Trinity College Dublin. In his research, he focuses on the impact of microRNAs on the gut microbiome.

Outside of his research, Mercurio is also an active science communicator. He has put out short stories, poetry and podcasts fuelled by his science and sci-comm interests.

At FameLab Ireland, the annual science communication competition, Mercurio faced his own fears of performance with a three-minute talk on the physiological of fear.

This year’s FameLab Ireland was the ninth and final edition of the competition run by the British Council of Ireland with funding from Science Foundation Ireland. Later this month, FameLab Ireland finalist Tammy Strickland will compete for the international prize.

‘If you know the underlying science and you can identify why communicating on scientific topics is important to you, there’s no reason to be fearful’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Even at a young age, I always asked so many questions wondering how things work. After my undergraduate studies, I worked in the government alongside biotechnology companies innovating and conducting amazing research. It was there I realised that I wanted to be a part of the research itself, and so I left my position and continued into higher education. The rest is history.

How was your experience with FameLab?

FameLab and I have similar aspirations, in that we both want to explore the boundary between science and art. Communicating science to various audiences in unique ways is an artform that needs to be practised. I participated in FameLab because I deeply desire to support initiatives that build science communication skills, while having fun along the way.

How would you sum up your FameLab presentation?

Picture this: it’s dark, there’s little sound, smells are ambiguous, and you’re alone… or are you? In situations like these, most people experience fear that physiologically leads to the fight or flight response. I investigate what in the body controls the fear response and what conditions will scare everyone if met.

Why did you choose to focus on fear for your presentation?

I enjoy talking about science related to current events, especially if it involves the complex human body. With Halloween approaching, as well as being a fan of the horror genre, I selected our response to fear as my topic, with an investigation on what we can all be afraid of.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in sci-comm?

The biggest challenge I’ve encountered in science communication is lack of confidence.

I think science communication is similar to any craft that involves communication (eg writing, comedy, acting etc). If you know the underlying science, and if you can identify why communicating on scientific topics is important to you, there’s no reason to be fearful of criticism towards you.

I still feel a lack of confidence at times, but by getting involved in science communication and meeting those who are really good at delivering their messages, I am slowly building that confidence.

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

It’s a misconception that scientific work is conducted by individual people. What I mean by that is, due to the way we highlight scientific discoveries in media and through honours and awards, the public has this notion that individual people (eg Nobel Prize winners) are the ones solely producing the work.

Although there may be some rare cases, any scientific work that the public hears about is due to the tenacity and dedication of several people of various teams. We should celebrate the innovative and brilliant minds of the scientific community, but we should also celebrate the teams that supported them, perhaps even more so.

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