FameLab introduces a new way to communicate science

Present science with accuracy, clarity, and charisma—like the young scientists of FameLab

FameLab is an international competition in science communication, aimed at early-career scientists. Through its Astrobiology Program, NASA conducts the U.S.-based competition called “FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond,” under the auspices of the FameLab founding organization, the Cheltenham Festivals. The U.S. winner of FameLab competes with the winners from nearly 30 other countries at the international final in Cheltenham, England.

Fame Lab 2013 Champioon, Lyl Tomlinson, SUNY Stony Brook University, New York

Fame Lab 2013 Champioon, Lyl Tomlinson, SUNY Stony Brook University, New York

In the U.S., FameLab is sometimes called “the American Idol of science.” Cool, right? But beyond the coolness factor lies a crucial purpose:

“On the surface FameLab looks like it is just a bit of fun, but there is a very, very serious underlying purpose here – you just have to look around us to see how science is playing a really fundamental role in understanding our world and where it is going, so we need a new generation of people to explain science if the democratic process is going to work effectively.” – Roger Highfield, former editor of New Scientist.

Cultivating a new breed of scientists—who view successful communication of their work as a vital part of their careers, and vital to society—is the essential goal of FameLab. At the heart of each U.S. regional heat and final competition is a science communication workshop led by professionals in the field. These workshops teach skills in communicating science to a number of different audiences, such as university or workplace administrators, public officials, scientists who may work in other fields, the press, and the public.


Jennifer Gill on stage at Fame Lab, AGU 2013

Competition rules are simple: participants must give a 3-minute presentation of their science geared to a lay audience, using no Powerpoint or equivalent. Props that may be carried on stage by the competitors are allowed. FameLab presentations are judged on the following criteria:

  • Content: The content of the presentations must be scientifically accurate.
  • Clarity: The audience and judges must be able to follow the presentation and be left with an understanding of the scientific concept discussed.
  • Charisma: The presenter must have that hard-to-describe but unmistakable quality of charisma. They must strive to make the science easy to listen to, entertaining, and exciting.

The FameLab evaluation factors are of great relevance to Teen Science Café organizers and speakers. Without attention to these, a Teen Science Café speaker may find themselves looking into a sea of confused, glazed-over faces. Even worse, the teen audience may be so turned off that they decide that science is indeed boring, and of little interest to them!

Clarity and charisma in particular are what make a presentation great for teens. Don’t assume that a slightly modified version of a presentation given at a scientific conference will work for a teen audience. It’s likely that a new approach to presenting the material is warranted, stripping away jargon and reevaluating assumptions about what the audience knows.

It’s crucial that speakers take advantage of the dry run that’s offered prior to their first Cafe talk, to hone their material for clarity and to work on delivery. Charisma is arguably the most important element of all. Showing a passion for science, a humorous touch, engaging with teens directly—or whatever works best for a particular speaker’s style—will go a long way towards avoiding the dreaded “sea of boredom!”


Wouldn’t it awesome to have one of these finalists present in your teen Café?

More information on FameLab is at these locations online:


Wendy Dolci, formerly Associate Director of Operations for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, is an evaluator of the Fame Lab project, and a member of the Teen Science Cafe Network Advisory Committee.