The international FameLab competition is like "American Idol meets Bill Nye the Science Guy"

"Think of it as American Idol meets Bill Nye the Science Guy," says David Grinspoon, astrobiology curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This is his best description of FameLab, an international competition for young scientists that has made its way across the pond for the first time ever; Denver was one of only three cities that was asked to host. Tonight, FameLab will challenge beginning career scientists to communicate their passions to an audience of laypeople. Only one winner will move on.

The goal of the project, started in the UK six years ago, is to encourage science literacy by strengthening the art of communicating it. Just because Ph.D candidates are talented in the sciences doesn't mean they are anywhere near artful about discussing them, says Grinspoon. With ties to NASA and National Geographic, the FameLab competition will hit Denver, Houston and Washington, D.C. to spread the emphasis on talking shop.

"In our society these days, there are all these obviously important issues like climate change where people need to have more science literacy," Grinspoon says. "Part of the problem is that scientists should learn to be better communicators to package their knowledge in a way that is actually accessible to the public. There's a gap between what scientists know and what the general public actually should know, and we have to close it. So in many ways, FameLab is the anti-lecture."

Although the regional competition is open to anyone interested in science, most of its competitors are young students who have either just finished or just entered a doctoral program. Grinspoon estimates 15 to 20 people will take the stage tonight to speak about a science-related topic of their choosing in less than the competition's three-minute time restriction. During their speeches, competitors are banned from using visual aids such as PowerPoint presentations but may include props. In Houston, where, Grinspoon recently served as a judge, one scientist used a ukulele to illustrate his point.

Ambitious preliminary topics discussed in the past include the origin of life, evolution and interplanetary exploration. Grinspoon and two other judges will analyze the competitors' performances on three qualities: confidence, charisma and clarity. The criteria aren't technical, and neither should the speeches be.

"This is a communication with the general public, not other scientists, which is very different from what they normally do," Grinspoon says. "We don't want them to rely on the crutch of using graphics. We want them to be entertaining as well as knowledgeable."

At the end of the night, one regional winner will be selected and sent to national finals in Atlanta in April. From there, the stakes raise quickly: The winner of the FameLab Astrobiology final will then move on to the FameLab International final in the UK in June and earn a trip to cover the Mars Science Laboratory mission landing in August.

"The whole thing comes with all the glory and the fame that comes with putting on your resume that you are a regional FameLab winner," Grinspoon says. "Chicks dig that."

FameLab Astrobiology will take place tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's Ricketson Auditorium. Tickets cost $8-10.

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