For most chemists, conveying the core message of their research to the public can be quite challenging. Nevertheless, almost all researchers should attempt it during their careers. In a world with prominent climate-change deniers in politically powerful positions and fake-news articles, the involvement of researchers in public debates is of unprecedented importance.
As a consequence, the Austrian Young Chemists Network has declared science communication to be one of their main objectives together with the development of certified training programs, and the connection of chemistry students with industry. Their most recent action to support public outreach on state-of-the-art research was the “150 Seconds” contest, which was also reported in ChemViews Magazine last year. In this competition, young scientists were challenged to present their research in a creative short video of 150 seconds.
We, the national board of the Austrian Young Chemists Network, received fantastic submissions, from which we selected three winners, whose videos can be viewed online. Thrilled by their contributions, we were intrigued to know more about their backgrounds, motivation, and approach to the contest. Therefore, we interviewed our three winners, Bianca Brandl, Daniele Franchi, and Francesco Tavanti, who provided us with further insights into their different research fields and their experience with scientific outreach and the generation of creative content.
Could you please introduce yourself?
Bianca Brandl: My name is Bianca Brandl, I am 21 years old, and I am a master’s-level chemistry student from Graz, Austria. I started studying chemistry in 2015 and finished my bachelor’s degree in 2018. My bachelor’s thesis was on the topic of tin-based perovskite solar cells. For my master’s degree in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Engineering at Graz University of Technology, I am focusing on chemical engineering and polymer science as I am particularly interested in these fields.
What I enjoy most about my master’s program is the combination of chemistry and process engineering.
Daniele Franchi: I am Daniele Franchi, a 31-year-old organic chemist from Italy. I studied at the University of Florence, Italy, where I also received my Ph.D. in organometallic compounds and cross-coupling reactions for optoelectronic devices. During this period, I experienced the value of meeting people from other cultures and was able to compare my knowledge with that of other researchers from foreign countries, not only by participating in international congresses but also by being an Erasmus student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Belgium, and a Ph.D. visiting student at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenborg, Sweden.
In addition, I have spent time teaching in Italian high schools, which was my first approach to science outreach. I am currently in my second postdoctoral position working at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. I keep looking for new ways and events to disseminate my passion for chemistry and science!
Francesco Tavanti: My name is Francesco Tavanti. I graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Pisa, Italy, in 2013. Following this, I moved to the Department of Chemical and Geological Sciences at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, where I started my Ph.D. under the supervision of Professors M. C. Menziani and A. Pedone. Here, I started working on the interaction between proteins and metallic nano-objects, in particular, gold nanoparticles and silver nanocubes, by using computer simulations, thereby beginning my career as a researcher. I now have a postdoctoral position in the same research group to investigate the possible positive effects of some natural molecules in amyloid fibril aggregation, which is involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
Why did you choose to participate in the “150 Seconds” contest?
Bianca Brandl: I really like the process of video production as it gives me the opportunity to get creative. In my video, I tried the stop-motion technique for the first time and I had a lot of fun trying to tell a story by combining hundreds of pictures and getting smooth motion out of that.
I also enjoyed that presenting the research in 150 seconds was a challenge for me, as trying to express complex topics in an easy, entertaining way can be difficult. Moreover, it allowed me to draw attention to the research in alternative renewable energy resources, which is in my opinion very important.
Daniele Franchi: At first, I decided to participate, because of the very challenging assignment. Explaining a research project and making science as complicated as chemistry understandable to as many people as possible in less than 150 seconds sounded really challenging to me. I couldn’t stop myself from taking this challenge. At a later stage, I realized that the outcome of the contest was excellent for raising awareness: Videos are very attractive especially for young people, plus, the short duration fits perfectly with today’s hectic lifestyle.
Francesco Tavanti: I also think that being able to summarize my research in a very short time and making my research accessible to a wide audience was a good opportunity and a great challenge. I think that using a video to share the results of your own research in a simple way will help people who are not involved in science to have a better understanding of new discoveries, thereby making science more accessible for everyone.
Did you have prior experience with video editing before the contest?
Bianca Brandl: I had a little experience from small video projects and from a science video competition that I participated in during high school, but I am by no means an expert.
Daniele Franchi: I had prepared videos before for occasions like Open Days at my research institute, expositions, and other science-outreach events I took part in. When trying to reach out to people that are not in the field, visual tools are essential and videos, in particular, represent a way to amuse and grab the audience’s attention.
I think editing is a skill that should be taken much more into consideration by all scientists interested in advertising their own research.
Francesco Tavanti: My research is based on the use of computer simulations, and, in particular, molecular dynamics, which consists of simulating the time evolution of a given system at the atomic scale. The observation of the trajectory of the system during the simulation is really useful to understand what happens at the molecular level. I usually use either simulation snapshots or a video of the simulations to share my results at conferences or with our experimental partners. I also edited some short and popular videos of my research for university orientation programs.
How did you come up with the idea for your video?
Daniele Franchi: That was easy: My video simply shows (parts of) my everyday work. I just tried to keep it simple, giving as little background information as needed to understand how this photovoltaic technology works, and then I took a video of the very same experiment I present in outreach events. This lab experience is so simple that I can involve the public because people can perform it on their own.
Of course, I needed to cut out some important parts of the research process like the structural design of dyes, the synthesis, the characterization of the new compounds, and so on. These choices were painful since normally they are the processes that require the most time, but such cuts were needed for the sake of clarity and appeal.
Bianca Brandl: In my video, I present the essential parts of my bachelor’s thesis about tin-based perovskite solar cells. The basic concept of my video arose as I was explaining my research to a friend who has only limited knowledge about chemistry.
I decided to do the video using the stop-motion technique, because it makes the topic more vivid than using fixed pictures. Moreover, it allowed me to break down information to the crucial elements in an entertaining way, which would be hard by using footage of the actual experiments.
Francesco Tavanti: The idea of this video came to my mind while I was thinking of how to present myself and the results of my research to other people in a very short time to avoid losing the attention of my audience. A sort of “video-business card” of my research interests to keep with me every day on my smartphone that I could show if someone asks me what my work is or to simply show at conferences during the coffee breaks or poster sessions.
What was the general aim of your video?
Bianca Brandl: The aim of my video was, on the one hand, to present my research in a simple, entertaining way and to show people that chemistry is anything but dull and boring. On the other hand, I also wanted to demonstrate the great diversity of chemistry, because I think solar cell technology is not the first thing people would associate with chemistry.
Daniele Franchi: Without a doubt, it is meant to advertise the existence of new photovoltaic technology that is still in the developmental phase but might soon be part of our lives. A closer look will reveal also another message: scientific research is fascinating! It is a thrilling adventure that is worth knowing about; it could be an exciting future for those who would pursue it; and it has a massive impact on society, therefore, it is everybody’s responsibility to keep it alive.
Francesco Tavanti: When my parents ask me what the aim of my research is, I try to explain the most general features using comprehensible words, but a lack of visual clues makes it more difficult for me to present my work. With this video, I wanted to summarize some of the results I obtained during these years through short videos of my simulations, with the aim of making it as clear as possible and accessible to almost everyone.
Why did you choose this field of research and what part of your research fascinates you the most?
Bianca Brandl: I have always been interested in renewable energy resources and solar power technology. What fascinated me the most, was that really small alterations in the production process led to a great increase or decrease in the efficiency of the solar cells.
At first, I expected the composition of the layers of the cell to be the crucial factors for the solar cell efficiency, but it turned out that much greater improvements could be made by altering the layer thickness or the annealing process. I also enjoyed that in my field of research I could combine synthetic chemistry with electrochemistry and physics.
Daniele Franchi: As a student, when I was asked to prepare dyes for dye-sensitized solar cells, I found the possibility of predicting the optoelectronic behaviors of a molecule by following certain rules for structural design extremely appealing, and I also valued the satisfaction provided by building my own working devices, as is shown in the video. Even today, the most fascinating outcome of my research is the possibility of designing and creating molecules with fine-tuned features that can perform a certain job – chemically or electronically speaking – simply by having solar light shone on them: a never-ending, cheap, and environmentally-friendly energy source! To me, this represents the power and cleverness of chemistry.
Francesco Tavanti: The field of molecular dynamics simulations of chemical systems allows the possibility of literally seeing what happens at the atomic scale during a given period of time, thereby also exploring the nature of molecular interactions. At the beginning of my research career, I was fascinated by the possibility of simulating almost all the systems I could imagine under different conditions. For example, we can simulate every kind of protein and molecule at temperatures and pressures that are unfeasible in the laboratory, such as the pressure and temperature found in stars, just by using a computer.
What are your future plans for your research and career?
Bianca Brandl: I am striving for a career in the chemical industry. I am only at the beginning of my university studies and am interested in a wide range of specialist fields. However, I am especially intrigued by polymer science and the process-engineering aspects of polymer production, so I aspire to work in that field.
Daniele Franchi: I love to be in the lab performing organic synthesis. I like working with materials for optoelectronics, and I see a lot of potential in the exploitation of solar light. I think these three concepts will remain the cornerstones of my research for quite a while.
As far as my career plans are concerned, I am currently following the path in the academic track, applying for European grants with my own research projects to become a Principal Investigator. The long-term goal would be to get the chance to spread my passion for chemistry as a professor.
Francesco Tavanti: Since January 2019, I have been working on the interaction of natural molecules and gold nanoparticles with amyloid fibrils involved in Alzheimer’s disease to obtain deep insights into the mechanism of action of a new class of amyloid inhibitors: functionalized gold nanoparticles. I would like to keep working as a researcher in academia and to continue my career in the field of molecular simulations applied to proteins, and I also would like to teach students, thereby sharing with them my passion for research.
How can chemists get the general public interested in research?
Bianca Brandl: I think trying to explain their research in a simple way, so that everyone can understand, is the first step. People are often skeptical about new technologies and scientific advances that they cannot understand. Providing simple and clear information can take away people’s concerns and even awaken interest in the topic. I believe that science communication makes science, which often has the reputation of being boring and difficult, more attractive. Science communication allows for good cooperation between scientists, the general public and the government to ensure the best possible progress in our society.
Daniele Franchi: Chemists manipulate matter and its interaction with energy. It sounds almost like a magician. Can you dream of something more exciting? There is a huge potential for attracting interest, but also a high activation energy barrier.
It is the responsibility of the person conducting science outreach to simplify and to translate the theoretical approach to everyday concepts that people are familiar with. A good speaker is able to make a topic understandable to everyone. Once comprehension is achieved, the magic of science will be revealed, and the speaker will have the audience craving to know the end of the story that is the research process!
To make a long story short: Make yourself understandable and the human curiosity innate in your audience will awaken their interest!
Francesco Tavanti: I think that all scientists should pay more attention to spreading their research to a broader public by using social media and videos with both the aim of sharing the latest discoveries of science and the understanding that science is for everyone. Chemistry has the advantage with respect to other sciences that chemical reactions, such as the “elephant toothpaste”, are spectacular and can easily grab the attention of the public.
In my opinion, the use of videos combined with an accurate, but straightforward, description of the main discoveries and the use of social networks are powerful tools to reach a very broad audience.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Francesco Tavanti: I want to thank the Jungchemiker group of the Austrian Chemical Society for the opportunity to realize this video about my work.
Bianca Brandl: I also want to thank the Austrian Young Chemists Network and ChemPubSoc Europe for this recognition.
Daniele Franchi: I think that for a long time, scientists have buried themselves in the complexity of their studies, sometimes because of laziness in explaining themselves, sometimes because of the fear of judgment. This has created a general disaffection with all sciences, which has resulted in marginalization and denigration of the researcher figure. “Nerd” or “geek” have both the meaning of a person enthusiastic for computer science and a weirdo freak.
Nowadays, we live surrounded by technology and scientific innovation is an everyday occurrence. Science is everywhere in society and people are generally enthusiastic about it. Today you can be proud of wearing your nerd T-shirt!
My suggestion to all young scientists is: Ride the wave! There could be no better time to put yourself on the line and advertise your research to the public. Other than an excellent way to test how valuable your ideas are, it is also important to build public interest, since the public will always be the first investor in research and the last stakeholder in its outcome.
- Progress in the Austrian Young Chemists Network,
Julian Dutzler, Degenhart Hochfilzer, Miguel Steiner,
ChemViews Mag. 2018.
- Contest: “150 Seconds” – Present your Research