Katarina Cisarova (middle), winner FameLab Switzerland 2017

We had the opportunity to meet Katarina Cisarova (winner of FameLab Switzerland 2017) and Ossama Khalaf (winner FameLab Switzerland 2016) and ask them about their experience with the competition.


British Council: Katarina, you won the Swiss final of FameLab 2017 in Basel and are now preparing for the big international competition in the UK. What is your topic?

Katarina Cisarova: My presentation "Out of the blue: the story of blue eyes" briefly explained the evolution of blue eyes in humans; how this trait appeared and most importantly how it has spread across Europe.


BC: What prompted you to participate?

KC: To be honest, my reasons were twofold. On one hand, I thought that we scientists often fail to communicate our research clearly not only to the lay public but even between ourselves. As a bioIT, I keep seeing the collaboration of biologists and computer scientists impeded just because they each speak their own languages.

My other, more personal reason was that I kept asking myself whether or not I want to "keep doing science" after my PhD. The idea of presenting science had been on my mind for some time, and so I decided to give it a try.


BC: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

KC: To overcome the "stage fright". Moments before the start of the finals my chair was shaking from how much I was trembling.


BC: You are a woman in science, do you think women’s impact on science has changed in recent years?

KC: In my opinion, the impact of women in science has certainly improved, at least in the western world. There are many strong women and great scientists even at very high positions (for instance Janet Thorton was the director of European Bioinformatics Institute for more than 14 years). This being said, the situation of women in employment in general is still not equal to that of men. As an example, as man you will probably never be asked if and when you plan to have kids. :)


BC: You will represent Switzerland in the FameLab International Final in the UK. What are your expectations?

KC:I've heard amazing things about the Cheltenham festival. Being a sort of newbie, I feel great respect for the finalists from other countries. Nevertheless I feel very motivated and I will try my best. In any case I am definitely going to enjoy every bit of the festival!


BC: And what about you Ossama, you represented Switzerland last year at the FameLab International Final, what was your talk about?

Ossama Khalaf:I have participated with a talk related to the field of memory. I have managed to address a very important issue of how easy our memories could change, and what kind of grave consequences could occur due to that. I also discussed how we can study memory distortions in the lab, and what can we do to filter our memories and know for sure whether it’s a true or false one! I packaged my speech in a unique way that started with an intriguing story, and had a live experiment on the audience, which made me win the Swiss audience award as well as the jury award.


BC: What was the biggest challenge?

OK: When one decides to talk about a specific topic, you start writing down your ideas and formulate the whole talk. However, you end up of having 2-3 pages full of words that can easily span 5-7 minutes. Since we don’t have the luxury of these 5-7 minutes, I’d say that the biggest challenge was “what to keep in your talk and what to throw away”. It’s extremely difficult these types of talks that span 180 seconds, because you need to inform the audience about a “scientific topic” in an engaging way and to get their attention the entire period of your talk. You basically need to deal with your talk as if it’s a “teaser” of a movie. It’s impossible to put all the science you want to deliver in 3 minutes, nevertheless, it’s quite achievable to introduce your topic and make it accessible in these 3 minutes, and keep the audience thinking about what you said, and either meet you afterwards to learn more from you, or they will search what you’ve been talking about themselves. In both cases, I’d say that your mission has been successfully accomplished. 

Another challenge was how to simplify things to be more accessible to the lay public. Sometimes, when you work on something you tend to believe there are certain terms/concepts everyone would know and we take this for granted. In order to avoid such problem (of discussing certain terms as if everyone knows them), we need to rehearse in front of people who have no background whatsoever with the main field of this topic and ask them later what did they couldn’t get from the whole talk, and why. Then one needs to work on that. In order for me to circumvent such problem, I sought different audience with “zero” science background. And that’s when I first heard about “Toastmasters - TM” and I dropped by as a guest to practice my speech in front of “lay public” and 2 months later, they voted for me to be the president of this “Toastmaters” club! And this is another thing I’m grateful for in my “FameLab” experience is that I’ve got out from my comfort zone to become proactive and I have managed to unearth some skills I had and I never knew I did! 


BC:You participated in the FameLab International Final in the UK, what did you learn from this experience?

OK: I have represented Switzerland in the International version at Cheltenham Science festival. I did enjoy to the fullest my time there. I actually had in mind that stress would bring me nowhere, so I was quite cool, calm, and collected, and I enjoyed attending most of the science shows in the festival. The excitement and joy I had in the science festival was making me forget that I was there to participate in FameLab and not to attend. Despite the fact I haven’t won this time, yet I’d say that the level of participants was really high and it’s always a tough decision to choose only one out 30 amazing communicators! 

I have also learned to be myself, and to enjoy the environment I am in and try to make the best out of it. I did talk to everyone and made huge amount of friends. I did learn big deal about their work. I also enjoyed connecting to the organizers of the festival. That’s how I have been invited to the “Hall of FameLab” 4 months later, where I did win this version of the competition. I have learned first-hand that it’s not about winning, but about enjoying delivering your message to people and see excitement in their eyes especially when they come and talk to you afterwards. Winning is nice, but one can’t win all the time, so I’d say it’s healthy to participate to every possible opportunity and for these occasions that you won’t win (which could be a lot), at least you will learn what went wrong or how can you improve on what you’ve done. That’s how we improve, since reacting will get us nowhere. So I always follow the adage “act and do not react”! 

Here’s the link of the talk I participated with in Cheltenham, it was about my PhD work “How to erase a traumatic memory”! http://bit.ly/2sm5Yi1


BC: Do you find it different competing within the country and at an international level?

OK: Well, the difference is only in the number of people competing and their backgrounds (the scientific and cultural ones). Having 30+ finalists make the competition more diverse. Also it was very amusing interacting with different cultures, learning about FameLab in their countries. Some of the countries they do a live stream to the National finals on TV, where the winners become celebrities (close to being rock stars).

Good preparation will always pay off on any level (national or international). But what I’ve enjoyed to the most was the culture melting pot I had in Cheltenham meeting participants and audience from all over the globe and that was extremely enriching! 


BC: And finally, what are your tips for Katarina, who won the Swiss Final this year?

OK: I would encourage her to make the maximum of this experience. She will be in the biggest science festival in Europe, and one needs to seize such opportunity. The stress is huge on the FameLab finalists, everyone there is a winner on his/her country and there are high expectations to win the title. However, the fact that made all of them in Cheltenham means that all of them are excellent science communicator, and the level is very close to each other. With this being said, they are all winners, and one shouldn’t stress so and do lots of calculations about winning or not. Therefore, the tip I would like to give Katarina is to enjoy the ambiance there and to try to attend the science shows and talk to people there. Some of the last year participants realized that they spent their whole period worrying about the competition and they missed out on remarkable shows and science tents there. They’ve only realized that on their way to the airport when it was too late! Conclusively, ENJOY your time there regardless the outcome! 


Ossama Khalaf, winner of FameLab Switzerland 2016