Vienna’s Science Slam: Rapping for Research

Six scientists have six minutes to present their research... and make us laugh.

Female scientist holds up a model of a muscle cell

A model of a muscle cell with a “personality disorder” | Photo: Science Slam

Few people would stand up in public and admit that they can’t read and write. Yet to be scientifically illiterate?  Strangely, that’s entirely socially acceptable.

There are mitigating factors. Science at school is widely perceived to be difficult or boring, so people keep their distance. Which is fine with the scientists, who have often been happy to receive funding without having to publicly justify it.

That’s what makes events like Vienna’s -Science Slam so laudable. The format is simple – six scientists have six minutes each to explain their research to a general audience. Afterwards, the crowd votes for their favourite. It’s a fun, informal setting that provides enlightenment and entertainment.

At the event on 21 March, the scientists were all postdoctoral researchers from the Max F. Perutz Laboratories, myself among them. The venue, the Wiener Metropol, is normally a music haunt and its nightclub/cabaret feel is a big plus. By 19:00, all 350 seats are full, the audience a good mix of people from their early 20s upwards.

First to present was Stephen Bannister from Australia, who regales the crowd with an account of “What makes worms sexy?” The creatures in question are bristle worms of the genus Platynereis, whose reproductive cycle is linked to the phases of the moon. With two assistants dressed up as a male and female worm, hurling confetti to simulate eggs and sperm, it’s an engaging start to the proceedings.

Next is Thorsten Brach from Germany, with a more understated approach. Aided only by a set of Duplo plastic construction toys, a bin and binbags, he gave a startlingly clear description of autophagy – a process in which cells will deliberately digest some of their own components in order to recycle the amino acid building blocks from which proteins are made. Third was Ana Catarina Carrao (Portuguese), explaining how hormones secreted by fat tissue can help muscle cells contract.

“I think the smooth muscle cell has a personality disorder,” she exclaimed, berating the wood and string models she’s using to represent the two states of the cell. Uninhibited and enthusiastic, she gave baldly sincere answers to questions afterwards (“Austrians are like Portuguese – they complain too much!”) and was a big hit with the audience.

Following a short interval, on came Flavia Leite (Brazilian) to introduce the world of viruses. A variety of names, shapes, and replication strategies were detailed to a sympathetic and appreciative response. The penultimate speaker was Isabella Rauch (Austrian), who talked about commensal bacteria – the ones that benefit without doing harm – in the human gut. “You carry one kilogram of bacteria inside your bodies!” she explained, also mentioning how these cohabitants can sometimes turn against us. I was on last, with a description of Trypanosomes, the single-celled parasites that cause African Sleeping Sickness.

Performances over, the audience got busy awarding the points on their scorecards. Ana Catarina and her psychotic muscle cells came out top, winning her an iPad. “I wish I could move a stage into the lab!” she exults. It’s been a fun evening all around.

 

The next Science Slam is on 27 Apr.
See details at www.science.at

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