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Flame Challenge Winner Announced

Today’s post is by Emily Bones, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN.

In March, actor and science advocate Alan Alda, along with the Center for Communicating Science (CCS), a division of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, challenged the world to answer a seemingly simple question: “What is a flame?” Submissions, which were varied from prose writing to video to illustration, were due April 2.

A total of 822 entries were received. It took two months for an expert panel of scientists and 11-year-olds from around the world to thoroughly review entries and select the best one.

And the winner, announced before the “Cool Jobs” session at the World Science Festival in New York City on Saturday, is Ben Ames, a Missouri native working on his Ph.D. in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. His entry is an animated video that defines flame-related terms and then brings all the concepts together in the form of a song. Ames grew up in a musical household but has been inspired by Thomas Edison since childhood, which led him to major in physics in college at the University of Utah. Watch his winning video here:

Participants had one month to formulate a response to Alda’s question. A panel of 11 scientists made up of SUNY Stony Brook scientists and three members of the American Chemical Society narrowed the field down to 535 acceptable explanations.

These entries were then sent to more than 130 schools around the world where about 6,100 11-year-olds narrowed the entries down to the best six. The finalists’ entries were posted on flamechallenge.org. Two are written explanations, one is a graphic, and three are videos. Eleven-year-olds from around the world voted on the final six via e-mail to determine the winning entry.

Ames was recognized at a session for kids, says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the workshop coordinator at CCS. “This challenge isn’t just a contest for kids, though. It’s a contest for scientists to communicate clearly.”

On Friday, an event highlighting lessons learned from the Flame Challenge took place at the World Science Festival. Alda shared with audience members some intriguing and surprising experiences from the Flame Challenge, including how metaphors are useful tools when communicating science and why it’s so important to define terms so your audience can truly understand the topic on hand.

Because the Flame Challenge was such a success, CCS is going to issue another challenge next year with a question from a child aged 10 to 12. This year’s question has been on Alda’s mind since he was 11, but he’s opening the platform to the public. The question should be simple-sounding but have some complexity behind it. Inquisitive preteens can send their question to CommunicatingScience@stonybrook.edu, and CCS will narrow down the field to five final questions, which will be voted on next year.

Alan Alda Wants YOU … To Describe A Flame

This post was written by Emily Bones, a member of the Editing & Production group here at C&EN.

Alda's got a burning question. Credit: Rudy Baum/Shutterstock/C&EN

At the ripe young age of 11, actor and science advocate Alan Alda asked his science teacher, “What is a flame?”

And she responded, “It’s oxidation.”

To an 11-year-old, that doesn’t mean much. And at 76, Alda’s still searching for a suitable response. Along with the State University of New York, Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda has presented the world with a challenge, appropriately called the Flame Challenge.

The task is simple: “Answer the question—‘What is a flame?’—in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible and maybe even fun,” flamechallenge.org states.

In an editorial in Science this month, Alda reminds readers that “scientists urgently need to be able to speak with clarity to funders, policymakers, students, the general public, and even other scientists.” In the article, he announces the challenge to promote science talk and avoid science jargon.

Answers to the burning question are due to flamechallenge.org by April 2. Entries can be in the form of a recorded explanation, a written response, or an illustration.

The winner will receive a VIP pass to the 5th annual World Science Festival in New York City, held May 30 to June 3, organized by the nonprofit Science Festival Foundation.

To support the mission of the challenge, after a team of well-seasoned scientists has screened the entries for accuracy, a panel of 11-year-olds will choose the final winner. To learn how to be a panelist, contact communicatingscience@stonybrook.edu.

And next week, at the ACS national meeting in San Diego, attendees can answer the question by visiting booth 638 in the exposition. There will be video cameras on hand to record answers, and these recordings can be submitted to the Flame Challenge.

We hope Newscripts readers will enter. After all, who better to explain a flame than a chemist?

Top Five Science Communication Tips From NASA’s FameLab

Horner (at right) speaks with astrobiologists at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Horner (at right) speaks with astrobiologists at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Still prepping your video audition for that PBS chemistry show hosting gig? Then you might want to glean some tips from an ongoing NASA competition. It’s the NASA Astrobiology FameLab, and it’s essentially a search for the next Carl Sagan.

FameLab, founded in the U.K. in 2005, is all about the power of words to get the public and stakeholders excited about science. No slides, no graphs allowed in your short presentation.

That can be daunting for most scientists, especially the early-career folks FameLab seeks. So FameLab’s organizers include a mentoring and training component in the competition. For Friday’s preliminary FameLab round at National Geographic in D.C., that mentor was Beth Horner, an award-winning professional storyteller. Last Friday afternoon at NASA headquarters, Horner put 25 young astrobiologists through their storytelling paces. I journeyed to NASA to bring you the top five tips for science communication from her workshop. Here they are:

5) “Never do anything off the cuff. Always plan.”
It’s easy to think that you’ll be able to come up with a way to explain your work on the fly, but you’re less likely to forget a part of your message if you structure things in advance, Horner says. She showed workshop attendees how to storyboard and led several exercises in which she asked the scientists to write down three lines about something–themselves, a mentor in their field, or key aspects of their research. “That three-line thing is the start of a structure,” she said. Questions or issues might come up during your talk that may force you to improvise somewhat, she added, but you should let your structure be a guide so you don’t veer off course.

4) “It’s not about you. It’s about this information you’re trying to get across.”
Horner mentioned this mantra as a way of calming nerves onstage or on camera.

Early-career astrobiologists listen to Horner at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Early-career astrobiologists listen to Horner at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

3) “Always try out your material on someone else.”
Horner always runs story ideas and analogies by colleagues to see what they think. “I ask them, ‘Do you care about this?’,” she says. “You get in your own head sometimes and it’s hard to get out,” but an outside perspective can give you clues about what might resonate with a listener and what won’t, she says.

2) “Tell a story.”
Every culture on Earth has a storytelling tradition, Horner says. “That means something,” she adds. Stories were a way for people to pass down lessons and traditions, and there’s something about their structure that sticks with you. It isn’t easy to structure science like a story, but the approach is likely to pay off, she says.
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Chemistry Cartoons For IYC 2011

For a little Friday afternoon fun, I thought I’d share some chemistry cartoons that came across the Newscripts desk recently as part of an International Year of Chemistry competition. Sponsored by the Physical & Biophysical Chemistry Division of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the contest asked participants to submit

Merit prize winner "Degenerate Orbitals" by Bruno Demoro. Credit: Courtesy of IUPAC

cartoons illustrating a chemical principle “that would be clear and accessible to the general public.” The international panel of judges accepted entries from Jan. 1 to May 31 and awarded prizes during the 43rd IUPAC Congress in Puerto Rico in early August.

Even though my personal favorite (shown above to the right) among the six winners didn’t take home the grand prize, it did win a merit award for Bruno Demoro, a graduate student at Uruguay’s University of the Republic. As a physical chemist, I enjoyed the humor, although I suppose the general public might not get the reference to “degenerate” orbitals. Just us geeks here in the Newscripts gang.

Grand prize winner "Chemical Attraction" by Jessica Hough. Credit: Courtesy of IUPAC

Five students received merit awards of $100 for their entries, and one lucky winner—high schooler Jessica Hough of Valley Central High, in Montgomery, N.Y., took home $1,000 for her illustration entitled “Chemical Attraction.”

On the basis of the success of the contest, IUPAC’s Physical & Biophysical Chemistry Division says it plans to run an annual student chemistry cartoon competition. So check in with the organization early next year for details.

Chemistry Cartoons For IYC 2011

For a little Friday afternoon fun, I thought I’d share some chemistry cartoons that came across the Newscripts desk recently as part of an International Year of Chemistry competition. Sponsored by the Physical & Biophysical Chemistry Division of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the contest asked participants to submit

Merit prize winner "Degenerate Orbitals" by Bruno Demoro. Credit: Courtesy of IUPAC

cartoons illustrating a chemical principle “that would be clear and accessible to the general public.” The international panel of judges accepted entries from Jan. 1 to May 31 and awarded prizes during the 43rd IUPAC Congress in Puerto Rico in early August.

Even though my personal favorite (shown above to the right) among the six winners didn’t take home the grand prize, it did win a merit award for Bruno Demoro, a graduate student at Uruguay’s University of the Republic. As a physical chemist, I enjoyed the humor, although I suppose the general public might not get the reference to “degenerate” orbitals. Just us geeks here in the Newscripts gang.

Grand prize winner "Chemical Attraction" by Jessica Hough. Credit: Courtesy of IUPAC

Five students received merit awards of $100 for their entries, and one lucky winner—high schooler Jessica Hough of Valley Central High, in Montgomery, N.Y., took home $1,000 for her illustration entitled “Chemical Attraction.”

On the basis of the success of the contest, IUPAC’s Physical & Biophysical Chemistry Division says it plans to run an annual student chemistry cartoon competition. So check in with the organization early next year for details.

Who Knew Energy Research Was Adorable?

We here at Newscripts love a good kooky video about science. We also love a good voting war. The ongoing Life at the Frontiers of Energy Research Video Contest has both.

As part of the buildup to the Department of Energy’s Science For Our Nation’s Energy Future forum, to be held May 25–27 in Washington, D.C., the agency challenged its Energy Frontier Research Centers to a video face-off. DOE asked researchers at the 46 centers to produce entertaining, accessible clips about the science and innovation going on in their labs. The videos were recently assessed by a panel of judges, and the top five were announced.

You can see the winners here, but I’ve included one of them in this post, “Carbon in Underland,” from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Who knew carbon dioxide and carbon sequestration could be so cute? That CO2, he’s so supercritical.

But that’s not all! I said the competition is “ongoing,” so DOE now needs your help to award one of the 26 entries the People’s Choice Award. They’re not all adorable, but some of them are pretty well done. To vote, click here.

The winner, along with the top five entries, will be honored during the energy forum in DC.

For those who don’t know, the Energy Frontier Research Centers program launched in 2009, and some of the centers are funded with money from that year’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. The goal of the centers is to tackle challenges in clean and renewable energy.

Photo Finish

First of all, a huge “Thank you!” to all who entered C&EN’s inaugural photo contest. We launched the photo contest on Flickr with the goal of creating a pool of chemistry images that anyone could benefit from (hence the Creative Commons requirement). I was excited when we had 50 entries. Then we had over 100. The final tally–235.  I’m absolutely thrilled by the enthusiastic response we received in the number and variety of submissions. So many of you truly have an appreciation for the art in your work. I hope people continue to contribute to the pool and submit entries to our future contests.

And now, without further ado, the envelope, please…

First place, and the winner of $250, is Jennifer Atchison’s SEM image of silicon nanocones:

Second Place ($150 prize): Robert D’Ordine’s water vortex:

And Third Place ($50 prize): Ryan O’Donnell’s colorful birefringence pattern:

Read more about these images and check out the honorable mentions on C&EN Online. All will be appearing in the November 1 issue of C&EN.

Chemistry Wins “Dance Your Ph.D.” Contest

By a landslide, no less. Maureen McKeague, a chemistry Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, took home the top prize and $1,000 Monday night from the “Dance Your Ph.D.” finals in New York City.  Her dance was chosen the winner by 13 judges and was clearly the crowd favorite, snagging 69% of the vote in the readers’ poll.

Thumbs up to Maureen for showing that chemists can get down. Enjoy the jig and the musical mash-up madness.