In The Field

Behind the Scenes at this year’s Cell Slam

I had a primo vantage point for this year’s Cell Slam, ably covered by our intrepid reporter Ewen Callaway here. Cell Slam is a free form poetry and performance art competition for life science geeks. There are few rules to follow — basically three minutes, a mic and no Powerpoint — and the event drew quite a crowd. I was involved (as an absurdly non-illustrious member of an otherwise illustrious panel of judges, including NYTimes’ Natalie Angier, WaPo’s Rick Weiss, NPR’s Joe Palca, Science’s Jennifer Couzin, and NIH director Elias Zerhouni), so I can’t really cover the event in an official unbiased way. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share just a bit of what went on behind the scenes.

For a competition in which the participants were greatly outnumbered by the judges and in which the prizes would be meagre and unevenly distributed, Randy Hampton the evening’s MC, made the obvious comparison to peer review at the NIH. Hampton, a UCSD researcher and former standup comic took lighthearted potshots at “Dr. Z” with little fear of having his funding pulled. “I lost my funding after this last year,” he said, and so had nothing to lose.

Zerhouni did indeed run things like an NIH study section in the hush, hush, closed, door judging section that immediately followed the acts. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of something called ‘triage’” he said, pausing for laughter, “But I think we can effectively triage one of the performances right away.” The unlucky performer, Catholic University’s Roland Nardone, used his three minutes, and then another two and half to make an impassioned plea for more diligence in identifying contamination in cell lines. An important topic, to be sure. Nardone was DQ’d because a lot of judges thought he missed the point that Cell Slam is supposed to be fun. Maybe he would have done better with a rap: “Check your cells before you wreck your cells” comes to mind. For what it’s worth, I applaud him for taking the chance to reach out to a packed room, mostly of young researchers, with a message they might have missed had they not been paying attention in, say 1968. Nevertheless, he still got the lowest score I gave last night (nine thumbs up). Sorry, in my book, time limits are sacrosanct. Better luck next year!

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