The second in our series of interviews marking science communication competition FameLab, meet second London wildcard making it through to the final: Babraham Institute PhD student Harry Armstrong! In the interest of a fair competition, I put exactly the same questions to him as to Friday’s interviewee Ned Yoxall: to find out more about Harry’s winning presentation and his ambitions to educate the world on epigenetics, read on:
Hello, Harry and congratulations on making the FameLab final! Tell us a bit about what you presented and why you picked it.
My presentation was on the effect of our environment on our genes and the ability of these epigenetic marks to be passed on to our children. It’s a bit of a scary thought the experiences our parents have even before we are born effect who we are!
How did you become interested in communication and have you ever done anything like this before?
It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and I’ve been involved in quite a lot of outreach stuff through the institute I work at (Babraham Institute) mainly in schools, with all ages from 9 to 17. We do a lot of good work and it’s always great fun.
Your style obviously struck a chord with the judges. What do you think is important when communicating science to the public?
The most important thing is enthusiasm. If you can get that across then people will always be interested by what you’re saying and want to learn more. Then I think it’s clarity. Unfortunately a lot of people, never mind just scientists, get caught up in the detail and miss what the really fascinating points of a subject or talk are. It’s very difficult to step back, particularly from what you do, but if you can and make a story out of your work you’re on to a winner.
Back to the day job for a minute: tell us about your research and areas of interest.
We are interested in a group of epigenetic regulators which are important for stem cell development and have roles in all sorts of cell biology pathways. What I’m really interested in is the 3D structures formed in the nucleus by DNA looping and how our proteins are involved in determining these distant gene interactions.
Do you have a plan for the future? Do you hope to stay in academia or would you like to do this sort of thing full time?
I would love to move into science communication full time but would like to keep contacts with research. I think it’s important to be involved in some why with research so you can keep your finger on the pulse. I have a few ideas for some bigger projects in the near future so fingers crossed.
Sci-comm seems to be on a high at the moment, with everyone talking about Frozen Planet and wanting to live with penguins. Looking into the future, do you have a dream presenting gig?
A documentary would be fantastic and something I’m putting some stuff together for but really doing anything where you get to engage with people and fascinate them about science is what it’s about!
Do you have a website or have any events coming up where readers can see you in action?
Not anything concrete at the moment but it’s all in the pipe line. But definitely come and support Famelab, it’s a great competition and all the speakers are terrific!
Tell us something cool about science!
There are two areas in the brain that deal with visual information. One which makes the visual picture and a second older part of the brain which deals with more basic things like movement or shape but doesn’t make or store visual information. People have had accidents where the visual processing centre (occipital lobe) has been damaged but the older visual centre is left unharmed. They are able to pick up pencils, post letters and see movement without actually being able to see any off it! This pretty amazing condition is called Blindsight
There’s also a good video from New Scientist which explains the epigenetic reasons why identical twins are never quite Identical and how the environment effects who we are a basic cellular level.
Thanks very much for talking to us, Harry: good luck in the final on Wednesday!