From penknife to science Idol

Load-shedding is annoying, inconvenient and comes at great cost to the economy and society’s well-being.
 Plus 25% of the world has permanent load-shedding because they don’t have electric power in the first place.
 
More dirty coal-fired power plants are, we know, definitely not the solution, though.
 
Charles O’Donoghue is a Masters Chemistry student at Rhodes University specialising in nanotechnology.
 
His research is aimed at the use of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to fossil fuels and the dangerous greenhouse gases they produce.
 
“There are byproducts here too,” he explains during a radio interview in Grahamstown this week. “Electricity, water... and some heat.”
 
None of which is at all harmful – so it’s obviously a no-brainer as a solution for power.
 
And the reason that’s so obvious is because O’Donoghue gets his point across so clearly.
 
He’s one of 19 semifinalists chosen to compete in Joburg this weekend in FameLab – the ‘Pop Idols’ of Science.
 
To prepare the young science communicators – who come from science, engineering and technology faculties across the country – they’re getting world-class training from chief trainer for FameLab International, Malcolm Love, on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 March.
 
Ten finalists will be selected to go to the national finals and have a shot at ‘Pop Idols of Science’ fame at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 4 May 2016.
 
The winner will represent South Africa alongside competitors from 24 other countries, in the finals in the UK on 8 and 9 June 2016.
 
The international competition is for 21-35-year-olds working in or studying technology, engineering, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, maths or any other scientific discipline.
 
“It’s not just about fame, however,” say local partners Jive Media Africa. “This comes at a time where understanding science and technology are essential to our health and wellbeing.”
 
In their media release announcing the semifinalists, they say, “Science should be useful and can only be so if the public is able to engage and understand. Unfortunately, scientific concepts and findings are not always communicated too well to the public. This is what FameLab strives to address.”
 
Other local partners are the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). The initiative is backed by the British Council and the UK-SA Newton Fund for science partnerships.
 
FameLab hopefuls have three minutes to make their pitch.
 
Explaining his, O’Donoghue says that, at the regional event at Fort Hare University in Alice recently, they were judged on clarity, content (“I had to be careful not to include too much information and switch people off”) and charisma.
 
“The last isn’t difficult,” he says. “Because I really believe in what I do.”
 
O’Donoghue was in a packed Guy Butler Theatre at the Monument last Friday when uber science communicator, Wendy Sadler, gave the keynote address at the official opening of Scifest Africa 2016.
 
Like most of the audience, he was captivated by the founder of British science outreach organisation Science Made Simple.
 
“I really liked the thing she said about breaking myths, not making them,” O’Donoghue said. “So an explanation is not there just for its own sake – it really needs to lead to understanding.”
 
Asked what he’d thought of when Sadler, at the start of her address, asked the audience to close their eyes and recall the moment that switched them on to science.
 
“It was my first penknife,” O’Donoghue said.
 
And it was the materials engineering that fascinated me. How they’d got it to be that smart and shiny, how they’d got the blade to be so sharp and the rest so smooth and shiny.
 
“In fact it’s that fascination with materials engineering that’s stayed with me.”
This piece is partly based on an audio interview with O’Donoghue conducted by Rhodes Journalism student Jayne Mache and after O’Donoghue demonstrated his FameLab pitch, she shook her head and said, “I wish lecturers in the humanities would take their cue from the kind of communication scientists are doing.” 
 
Other semifinalists from the region are University of Fort Hare student, Wandisile Sixhoto, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Songeziwe Ntsimango.
 
* Listen to the interview here: •  http://bit.ly/GrocFame
 
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Jayne Mache interviews Charles O'Donoghue about his participation in FameLab - the 'Pop Idols' of science communication. Photos: Sue Maclennan
Jayne Mache interviews Charles O'Donoghue about his participation in FameLab - the 'Pop Idols' of science communication. Photos: Sue Maclennan