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Interview with Ana Verissimo, Falling Walls Lab Tokyo 2017 first prize winner

  • 2017/11/28

This year’s Falling Walls Lab Tokyo (FWL Tokyo), an event based on the idea of "breaking down various walls" around the world, took place on the 27th of May. The event was co-organized by the German Research and Innovation Forum Tokyo (DWIH Tokyo) and EURAXESS Japan. During the Falling Walls Lab 15 young researchers of various disciplines and nationalities presented their research projects or ideas in a 3-minute long speech in English. The jury evaluated the individual presentations based on three key criteria ("Breakthrough-factor", "Relevance & Impact" and "Performance & Structure").

We had the chance to interview Ana Verissimo from Saga University. Ana was awarded the first prize for her presentation "Breaking the Wall of lack of tissue for regenerative medicine" about the application of 3D bioprinting and organ engineering to make artificial blood vessels.

 

 

 

Ana, can you introduce yourself and your career path to our readers?

I'm Ana Verissimo and I am originally from beautiful Portugal. My first degree was marine biology, which was a lot of fun, as we learnt pretty much the same as biochemists and a few extra subjects, but were outside quite a lot. Then, I did a Master degree in biotechnology, followed by a PhD in developmental molecular angiogenesis (basically, how blood vessels form during embryonic development and cancer). The latter was at Birmingham University in the UK, where I lived for a total of eight years. After the PhD, I moved to Leicester to join a team of vascular surgeons as a postdoc, studying abdominal aortic aneurysms. I really enjoyed that job, because I was working with patients’ samples and sometimes I even got to meet them and their families, I felt my work had a real-life application and could make a difference. Postdocs are fixed-term contracts so, moving on, I applied for a fellowship to use 3D bioprinting to make artificial blood vessels and moved to Japan. After that ended, I was invited to remain at Saga University as an assistant professor, which was my latest position before coming back to Europe. I’ve always been interested in science communication and I was lucky enough that during my PhD there were many training opportunities, from communicating and engaging with different audiences to video presenting and directing. Later on, I became a STEM ambassador and now I do regular activities with schools and the general public. I even got to train some teachers recently and give a talk and a workshop at a conference about scientific literacy through the arts.

 

Ana, why did you first come to Japan and how did you choose your host institution?

During my first postdoc, I became interested in 3D bioprinting. With this approach, the use of animals is avoided and, by using human tissue, we can also overcome differences between species. I was particularly interested in a new method that had been developed in Japan (by my Japanese PI), which was much more natural (biologically speaking), as it used cells only. So, I wrote a fellowship application to JSPS which was funded after peer-review and in November 2015 I moved to Japan. I didn’t really choose the institution but rather the person I wanted to work with and the project.

How did you find out about FWL Tokyo and what caught your interest?  

I found out about FWL Tokyo on a newsletter from EURAXESS and I have always been interested in science communication, so that caught my attention. I liked the format and aim, as well as the bigger context within the initiatives of the Falling Walls Foundation. Also, I may have a little bit of a competitive spirit.

Please describe to us your impression on FWL Tokyo. How was the organisation and support from DWIH Tokyo/EURAXESS?

FWL Tokyo was a great experience, as I got to learn about so many interesting projects on diverse fields, which is not often the case at (life) science-oriented events. Organization and support from DWIH Tokyo/EURAXESS were excellent, as they provided assistance and information during all stages, from application, to event preparation, on the day of the event and dealing with administration paperwork afterwards. Everyone involved was professional but friendly and approachable and, most importantly, the whole process was very straightforward.

FWL Tokyo is an international science communication contest. How important is science communication to you? On what aspect did you lay value to present your research project to a non-specialist audience at FWL Tokyo?

I think today science communication is fundamental in many ways. There is an obvious need to communicate with the public (public engagement) and to inspire the next generation (schools outreach and activities for children). However, as STEM fields evolve and get more specialized (and complicated!), science communication in simple terms is also needed between researchers in multidisciplinary projects, between academia and industry, or academia, industry and policy-makers.

When communicating with a non-specialist audience, I always use simple words and essentially images and pictures rather than lengthy text, if I am using visual aids. The idea here was to communicate the essence, function, applications and beneficiaries of the technology rather than going over very specific details. I tried to use a bit of humour and images that somehow made a parallel between the technology and every-day items that the public could relate to.

How important do you think science communication is to the general public?

People are naturally curious and nowadays science and technology are all around us, from mobile phones to pets’ microchips. Science communication to the general public helps increasing scientific literacy and awareness. This is translated by more knowledge and, more importantly, better decision-making. In a time when there is so much confusing and contradictory information on the internet, without scientific literacy, it is very difficult to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. From more expensive products with “special” ingredients that do nothing for you to products that can actually be dangerous. Scientific literacy empowers people not only to understand their surroundings and make better decisions for their lives (health, shopping, etc.), but it also gives them the knowledge to ask better questions and demand better solutions from their governments. There is, however, a very important skill and aim that needs to be taken into account by science communicators: people make decisions based on emotion rather than logic. This means knowledge alone is not enough to change mentalities. When we communicate science, we need to make the public care, make the message personal. Only then science communication starts having a real impact.

Do you think that your science communication skills will have an influence on your career, or your ability to gain an appointment at your institution of choice or to convince investors or grant juries?

As I am actually thinking about a career change to the field of science communications, these skills are a requirement. More generally speaking, I think all researchers should develop their science communication skills, not only to communicate effectively between disciplines but also with stakeholders that play an important role in research funding. Nowadays, most grant applications include a section where candidates need to explain how they are going to disseminate their results beyond the scientific community. If your work is being funded by taxpayers’ money or charities, it makes sense that you tell them what you are doing, why, what are the results, and how that affects their lives. Research results can also influence/inform policy-making. However, lawmakers are not scientists, so it is important that the message is not misinterpreted. In turn, legislation affects what kind of research should be prioritized and should or should not be funded. Sometimes grants are reviewed by experts in the applicant’s field, but sometimes they are reviewed by government workers or people from industry more interested on the business side of things, therefore the way the message is conveyed needs to be adjusted accordingly.

What would you wish for your future career? Do you have plans to go abroad, maybe to Germany or Europe?

Japan has been an amazing experience both personally and professionally. However, I will definitely go back home to Europe. Also, I am planning to transition to a career where I can use my science communications skills. I was looking for a job that is a good fit and where I feel that I am making a difference.

I’ve recently given a talk and conducted a workshop on scientific literacy through the arts at an international conference on intercultural dialogue through the arts: community development, education and policy. The event was connected to the intercultural festival through the arts and included two informal days aimed at the general public and two academically-oriented days with peer-reviewed presentations and activities (as well as the arts festival). This is a great way of communicating science and getting everyone involved. I was the only foreign element there, in the sense that I was the only scientist, but everyone seemed genuinely interested and enjoyed the talk and workshop. This is what I want to do in the future: make science more accessible and engaging for students and the general public.

After my current contract ends, I will be joining an EdTech startup called Labster as a scientific simulation director. They make virtual reality simulations for teaching science at University level. These simulations can be more engaging than traditional teaching methods and students get to learn and perform experiments in a virtual reality lab, where they can experiment with animals without actually causing them harm, work with dangerous chemicals or pathogens without getting injured or ill, and use very expensive and advanced equipment that some universities don’t even have access to. This fulfills three aims that are very important to me, which are engaging students with science to obtain better results, inspire them to use science to solve real-life problems, and making science education sustainable and affordable for everyone. For this job, you need to know your science, but also be very good at communication and have great imagination to come up with amazing ideas for story lines for the simulations.

Ana, thank you very much for your time and good luck in your new job!

How was your experience at the Finale in Berlin in November 2017?

The finale in Berlin is an amazing opportunity, at so many levels. It’s obviously great to win, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, because being there already feels like you’ve won the prize. I didn’t realize how big it was until I started receiving all the information from the fantastic organizing team and saw how much effort they put into planning our week in Berlin, filled with opportunities for networking and training. Apart from the finale, where the 100 finalists competed (I can only imagine how hard it must have been for the judges, not only to sit through 100 presentations, but also to choose the winners, as everyone was so good!), we were able to listen to the actual Falling Walls Conference talks, which were so inspiring, and network with the speakers and attendees during the breaks. I also went on a bunch of brain dates (which were set up in advance at the event’s app, where participants could put adds for either what they would like to learn/discuss about or what knowledge/experience they were able to share with others). Lots of interesting discussions, amazing people and I’ve really expanded my network.

The programme for the week also included a reception where we got to share the same space and talk to some truly brilliant minds, influencers, ambassadors and Nobel laureates, an event at the Mayor of Berlin’s office, where talented deserving scientists were distinguished with prestigious awards, followed by a jazz concert. We were even provided with a pile of personalized business cards to establish important connections! On the last day, we were invited to tour a research park and learn about the work they do there and the job and collaborations opportunities they offer. On top of that, Berlin is a fantastic city to visit.

What's in it for the participants in Falling Walls Lab Tokyo?

Just the experience you gain from preparing, practicing and performing is very valuable. Also, it’s a great way of learning about new subjects, observe how your peers present their work and even get some ideas for your own future presentations. The event is relatively small and the audience and juries are very friendly, so it’s a great atmosphere to prepare you for bigger events. Needless to say, if you win, you get to go to Berlin and compete at the final representing Japan!

How to prepare a good abstract and apply to FWLT?

Practise and perfect! For example, you can think about these questions: what is your research about and what is its main goal? Or, what will it do for others or the planet? If you already have a great result, what is it and why is it important? If you have a great idea, what’s the potential and impact? Then, choose keywords that describe that in a simple, concise, catchy way.

How to prepare a good talk for the FWLT?

Thinking about the questions above can also help preparing for your talk. Also, you can get inspiration from watching videos from previous editions of Falling Walls Lab or other great science communicators on Youtube. Think about how you can be different/original, but in a style that you feel at ease with. Don’t try to memorize everything and use long and complicated words, prepare your slides in a way that they are simple and effective and serve as prompters to guide you through what you have to say. Do a little research on the impact of your first sentence and how you wrap up the talk with an equally memorable sentence. It’s not about how many words or sentences you can fit in 3 minutes, but the impact and the emphasis you put on each one. Don’t forget to have fun! 

Foto: DWIH Tokyo

 

 


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