By bringing to life the genetics of a species we depend on for our dairy product needs, Belén Jiménez-Mena convinced a packed auditorium of the importance of conservation actions, even for domestic livestock. She also earned the online audience’s prize for her 3-minute performance of science communication that evening at the French finals of FameLab. The young researcher shared with us the motivation behind both her PhD studies and her determination to share this passion to the best of her abilities.
“You, there, in the fourth row: You are the best bulls ever.” The young conservation geneticist, Belén Jiménez-Mena, puts her audience directly in the hooves of her current subject of study, Holstein cows. Her goal is to help the listeners understand exactly why conservationists should care about the classic—and abundant—black and white, domesticated, dairy cow. Belén is concerned about the genetic diversity of their population, and she has three minutes to explain why.
Through a joint program between the two institutions, Belén carried out the first two years of her doctorate at AgroParisTech/INRA in France, and moved to Aarhus University in Denmark last October. Motivated by a dual love for public speaking (she belongs to a Toastmasters communication club in Denmark) and for science, the Spanish PhD student decided to take on FameLab, an international science communication competition. Belén made it all the way to the French finals, where, carton of milk in hand, she took home the internet viewers’ top prize.
All of this she can trace back to Free Willy, the cinematic orca who is mistreated by his owners at an amusement park before being rescued by a 12 year-old boy. The movie made the nine-year-old Belén fall in love with whales and dolphins. Later, she did an internship at the Madrid zoo’s Dolphinarium and, through other such experiences, came to understand that she could have more impact helping animals if she worked on concrete conservation projects.
But it’s also thanks to boring, disappointing talks at conferences that she found herself on the FameLab stage. Improving her own science communication skills was important to her, because of too many letdowns at scientific conferences. “Whenever you go, you receive the booklet, and you have to choose between sessions. You read the title and say, “Wow, so interesting! I have to hear this! Then you go and it’s the most boring talk ever.” An experience no doubt familiar to other scientists—and this is the very community designed to appreciate the scientific message. “It’s because of the speaker that the talk doesn’t go anywhere,” she feels. “It’s not about what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it.”
Part of Belén’s drive to improve her own communication skills comes from her desire to better inspire people about her work. Her research doesn’t involve direct interaction with animals—she does computer simulations and statistical analyses that allow her to model how a population will behave in the future—“but just imagining that the numbers I’m working with are from animals, then I’m motivated and feel I can help.” These days, those animals are cows. The genetic diversity of their population has been reduced, due to selective breeding practices. It must be maintained, though, in order to protect them from, among other things, harmful versions of genes spreading in the population. “There’s a lot of data and a lot of money in research on cattle,” given the commercial interests, she says, “but wild populations are also subject to the same genetic processes, and those species can benefit from our research, too.”
Livestock or wild animal conservation. Math, physics or social sciences. For Belén, it doesn’t matter in which field you work: “If you want to inspire and inform people, you need to do it in a good way.” Her supervisors encouraged her to tackle the FameLab challenge. Not every thesis director out there would have supported such an undertaking involving hours of preparation, practice and integrating feedback. But Belén believes that, when it comes to bringing their science to the public, most researchers just don’t even think of it. “I’m sure if someone gave them the opportunity, they’d take it.”
If that’s true, then research might benefit from more obvious, formalized channels for scientists to popularize their work. This could mean conferences like the TEDx that Belén is organizing in Denmark for this fall, on the theme of “Time and Timing”. Or more FameLabs, for instance. This is an international event, culminating in the final rounds taking place at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK tonight and tomorrow. Belén appreciated the camaraderie of her international co-competitors and observing the cultural differences in the public speaking styles of her fellow FameLabers. “David Davila brought the charisma and enthusiasm of the US – an aspect I can see in other Americans. They really show their passion, whereas the French are calmer, and show their enthusiasm differently.”
Different ways of approaching science communication around the world is something the community is exploring more and more these days. Belén and her FameLab colleagues got to experience it firsthand. Although her thesis is now calling to her, the whole experience—meeting other scientist-communicators, getting important feedback, learning from their way of presenting—was for her as enjoyable as it was useful.