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6
Jul

Castles made from cookies

“Do you wanna know what my research is all about? Look at this!”. This message I received last year from a good friend, who is also doing a PhD. With the message came a movie, where she explained her research in a sort of competition, “the Wetenschapsbattle”, to children between the age of 7 and 12. The children organize the event, ask questions and vote for their favorites. “Quite a nice concept”, I thought, but my life went on and I ducked back into my Excel models. This year in autumn, I received a mail from university, containing advertisement for that same event. I remember looking at the mail and thinking: “How would I ever explain dynamic Excel models to optimize microalgae biorefinery design towards optimal profits and minimized environmental impacts to children? I already have difficulties explaining it to my own friends and family. If you ask them what my research is about, the most probable answer will be: “Algae” or “Sustainability” or “Environment”, or so I hope. In reality, I fear the answer will be “I don’t know” or something completely different”.

Quite a challenge, so I let it rest for a few weeks. But every time I drove to Vito, I kept on trying to frame in my head how I would present it if I would enroll in the Battle. Maybe use a dog as a professor… or design a supercomputer to analyze algae… maybe make a giant alga… So on the morning of the deadline to enroll, I texted my friend, the PhD student from KU Leuven: “Would you recommend participating in the Wetenschapsbattle?”. The answer came quite fast: “Don’t hesitate, just do it!”. So I went to my supervisor, who looked at me with a critical expression, interpreted by me as: “You first complain you don’t have enough time to finish your PhD and now you’re going to do what? Presenting for children?”. But her reply was: “If you get energy from that, you can do it.” So there I was, a few hours before the deadline. Of course, I suddenly discovered I had to write several paragraphs about my presentation to convince the children. Getting selected to participate was apparently already a challenge! Would I use the easy route and just take the “algae will save the world” tour? Or would I really take the challenge and present the methodology I’m actually focusing on? In the end I chose something in between.

 

A few weeks passed and on one of the last days before Christmas, the mail arrived: I was selected to participate! First, I could participate in a masterclass on presentation techniques to get me the required skills and then, on the 13th of March, I would present my research to an entire primary school. So, the months of preparations started. Soon I decided I would go fully for the methodology-route. If the children needed to remember one thing from my presentation it was not that algae would save the world, but that each technology should be checked for their environmental impact, preferable as soon as possible, preferably together with a profit calculation, preferably together with a technological analysis. “Does it work? How much does it cost? Is it good for the environment?” The children would leave the room with those three questions branded in their brains. Professor Van Passel was also very helpful: “Oh cool, you can practice for my kids then!”. The negative side: if I would go down, my professor would see it first-hand and his children would embarrass him with those silly researchers he had forever: just imagine the shame! The positive side: who cares about the real Wetenschapsbattle with the entire primary school if I survived the professor’s kids? No stress left!  But first, the masterclass on presentation techniques: besides acquiring some presentation skills, I also met my competitors. We would battle with five researchers in Limburg. Our winner would join the national Wetenschapsbattle in Mechelen and Battle for the national honor. I must say I was quite relieved that the robot scientists were not battling in Limburg J The rehearsal with the children of my professor went alright as well : small comment though, my painting skills are worse than those of primary school kids, especially the arty ones. (How would I have survived a world without computer and software like Paint?)

 

And then the day of the Wetenschapsbattle itself arrived. The night before I had spent quite some time putting algae powder in laboratory flasks and sorting out the blue M&M’s from their different-colored colleagues. Did you know blue M&M’s can be made of algae? Natural blue pigment is a very rare thing, but luckily, some algae do contain it. In the morning I drove to Lommel with all my preparations to arrive at a room full of children. I got a personal reporter who asked me, actually very good, questions about my research. And then I could see my competitors perform. I was the last one, so plenty of time to rebuild my stress levels. When all the others had succeeded in engaging the children for their research, my time had finally arrived: I welcomed the children in the big inventor’s bureau, where we would analyze all this crazy inventions: can we make a castle out of chocolate? Or out of gold bars? Or maybe decorate it with plastic bags? My audience clearly saw that these ideas either didn’t work, were too expensive or were bad for the environment. But… maybe we could make a castle full with solar cells? The inventor’s bureau had a winner. And the Wetenschapsbattle as well. Unfortunately it wasn’t me, but Nena who explained her research on cancer in a very clear way. Nicely done and good luck in those finals! For my part, I have been eating M&M’s for days. For weeks would have been a better idea, giving that it were five big packages. That would also have saved me from some stomach ache, but well.

 

The Science Battle was overall a very nice experience. Explaining your research to children brings you really back to the basic aspects of what your research is about and why you do it. It’s like you’re taking a few steps back and see the whole forest again instead of that tiny nerve of a leave of a tree you’re so focused on. I would definitely encourage other researchers as well to participate, you learn a lot and you get the chance to communicate what you’re passionate about! As I rehearsed my presentation to a lot of friends and family, everybody suddenly realizes that I’m not just researching algae. But that I am actually trying to answer: “Does it work? How much does it cost? Is it good for the environment?”. And apparently some parts have stuck. When I last asked my supervisor if I could go a bit wild in the introduction of my thesis, she looked horrified: “You’re not going to talk again about castles made from cookies, are you?”

It works! With a huge thanks to Toon and Hans from “the Floor is Yours” and the Boudewijnschool in Lommel for the organization and the pictures. And of course to my supervisors Miet and Steven and Thomas and Julie for the ideas, feedback and support. Interested in the Wetenschapsbattle? Go to http://www.wetenschapsbattle.be/!

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