What is the golden ticket to science communication?

20 Apr 2018

Sharon Omiwole giving her winning presentation at FameLab. Image: FameLab

FameLab Ireland 2018 winner Sharon Omiwole drew on caffeine biochemistry to brew up a strong mix for science communication. The medical student spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Have you had a cup of coffee today? Or maybe several? Perhaps you are one of those people for whom the day doesn’t really start without a jolt of caffeine?

It is one of the most widely consumed legal stimulants in the world, but most people probably don’t know how it exerts its invigorating effects on the brain.

If you give Sharon Omiwole just a few minutes, she will explain that to you. And that’s just what she did last week at the national finals of FameLab Ireland, which is supported by the British Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

Good communication

On the night, Omiwole, a first-year medical student from University College Dublin (UCD), stole the show with her short talk at Science Gallery Dublin called ‘Willy Wonka and the Coffee Factory’, which tied in several good communication practices.

Audience engagement? Tick. She got them on board by asking them to raise hands if they love coffee.

Varying tones and speeds? Tick. there was even singing.

Props? Tick. Using a cardboard Willy Wonka, she demonstrated how caffeine prevents a molecule called adenosine from binding to brain cells, thus preventing its usual calming effect.

“Many people use caffeine but they don’t realise it is a drug, a legal drug,” Omiwole told Siliconrepublic.com.

“The way it works is that you have a chemical in your brain called adenosine, which will bind to receptors, which will make you feel sleepy; it calms and slows down your brain activity. But when caffeine is present, it blocks off adenosine from binding to the receptors in your brain, and your brain will stay awake now, it is not being calmed.”

Yet amazingly, despite her interest in the biochemistry, Omiwole does not drink coffee herself. “No, no coffee at all,” she said. So, why that topic? “I thought it was one that a lot of people could relate to, and that I could bring it across in a really fun way.”

New to the stage

Even more amazingly, Omiwole had never given this kind of presentation before. “When I was younger, I was not the kind of person who would stand up and speak to a crowd of people. I was very shy,” she said.

“So, when I saw the email about FameLab, which came through my university, I thought, I will give it a go. I wanted to push myself a little bit.”

Along with other ‘FameLabbers’, Omiwole received training in science communication from 2013 winner Dr Fergus McAuliffe, and she paid keen attention.

“One of the things that stuck with me was when we learned that if you feel comfortable with what you are doing on stage and if you look like you are having a great time, then people will engage with that.”

Omiwole, who grew up in Ontario, Canada, came to Ireland to study medicine on the graduate entry programme at UCD. “I am really enjoying it; the professors are great, we are learning a bit of everything and I really like learning about the science,” she said, noting that her father and two of her siblings are also doctors or training in medicine.

Her brother, who is studying at NUI Galway, provided an initial audience for her three-minute presentation as she honed it for the big day – another good practice when finding ways to communicate complex ideas.

“I would call him on FaceTime and ask him what he thought of it so far, whether he thought particular things might work,” said Omiwole.


Sharon Omiwole with her cheque after her award-winning performance. Image: FameLab

The resulting presentation impressed the FameLab judging panel of Dr Michelle D Cullen (Accenture), Dr Graham Love (Higher Education Authority) and Ann O’Dea (Silicon Republic and Inspirefest).

Omiwole scooped the top prize and she will now go on to represent Ireland at the international finals at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK in June. “Before I go, I hope to gain some insight from previous winners,” she said.

Meanwhile, she is keeping her options open as she studies medicine and dedicates her time to volunteering in the community, but Omiwole definitely sees communication in her future. “That is something I will continue to grow.”

Are you a PhD researcher? Can you explain your work in three minutes of engaging chat? Then you could be our next Researchfest champion. Find out how to apply here.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication