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Academic showbiz — report from the Copenhagen Science SLAM

Communication — How do you turn your scientific passion for faeces transplants in mice into something appetizing for a general audience? Penille Jensen, who does research on intestinal bacteria, goes to the Copenhagen Science SLAM, and the University Post tags along.

It is dark and windy outside, and there are teapots and candles rather than beer mugs on the long tables at the Folkehuset Absalon community centre in Vesterbro. The autumn edition of Copenhagen Science SLAM is about to take place. Lou Reed calls on us to take a walk on the wild side via the speakers, but the atmosphere among the approximately 250 people in the old church can be best described by the Danish concept of hygge.

Most of the conversations in the room are in English. You can hear a murmur from a group of international master’s students at the back of the room. Jurek von Petersdorff, from Germany, explains that he has brought his French and Spanish student friends with him this evening because he was often at science slam back home in Germany, where it is widespread: »I was happy to see the poster for science slam at my department. Denmark needs more of this concept, I think. It’s great to hear about different types of research.«

The concept is simple. A handful of researchers, typically PhD students, each have ten minutes to present their research with the greatest possible involvement and entertainment value for audiences who have no prior expertise. Finally, the audience votes for the best slam. The format for the voting is a part of the entertainment, and is always a surprise. Nobody knows what the organisers will come up with this time round.

German export

»Science slam is huge in Berlin,« says Elias Najarro, and gestures with his hands to show how big it is. It is huge. Elias Najarro is a visiting lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, a PhD student at the IT University of Copenhagen and an initiator of the Copenhagen Science SLAM.

»In Berlin, science slam is a part of nightlife, where it typically takes place at a nightclub and merges into the subsequent techno party.«

There is no techno atmosphere on this Sunday evening at Absalon. The music is warm and laid back. But there is a full house, and the conversation is lively at the tables.

»I make the mice drink the poop shake«

One of this evening’s first-time slam hopefuls is Penille Jensen, who is a PhD student at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen. She does her research on intestinal bacteria and the importance of diet for disease development and obesity. Her scientific experiments involve faeces transplants in mice. It is, apparently, about, intestinal bacteria (shit) from people with different types of diets that are allowed to grow in the stomachs of mice reared in a non-bacteria environment.

Mice and faeces take up a lot of space in her presentation, which is no coincidence. She is going all-in for the win: »I’m a competitive person. The most important thing is to activate the audience by getting them to laugh. I think a lot about punch lines,« she says, when the University Post meets up with her a week before the Sunday slam:

»People don’t want to hear about some specific receptor in a mouse that I spend a lot of time investigating. I have to speak more generally about the theories rather than geek the data and the terminology.«

And the victory needs to be taken by means of body language and diction:

»Stance and gestures are important. I make my presentation in a power pose, so that I appear confident on stage. I also think a lot about the tone of my voice. Danes tend to speak very monotonously. This doesn’t work well on a stage.«

Bicycles, memes and rock ‘n roll

Back in Absalon, the lights are dimmed, and it is announced from the stage that any slammer that goes past their allotted time have to continue their presentation with a nasal, helium-balloon voice through the microphone, which to the slammers’ horror is demonstrated as a warning and for general merriment.

The curtain is lifted, and the first man wobbles his bike on to stage to the sound of Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’. Laurent Cazor is French and presents himself as a transport enthusiast. He is developing an algorithm in connection with his PhD project that will predict the most probable choice of bike route between two points.

The slide show is packed with familiar meme formats: Thoughtful dinosaur, grumpy cat, expanding brain. He tries to appeal to his audience by drawing parallels between his research and day-to-day situations for young students: Dates, Friday bars and messy hair under your bicycle helmet. The audience chuckles. Something is working.

The next slammer is Zoltán Pintér from Hungary. He challenges his predecessor’s relaxed format by starting a heavy, central European-accented, three-minute long, bone-dry, reading on the qualities of reconfigurable battery systems, before admitting that he is boring himself to death. So he takes the consequence, finds an acoustic guitar and sings the rest of his presentation. Here, suddenly, his accent is a plus. The audience is with him and they clap in time to the chorus line: I love the battery, it pays my salary.

This is followed by slams about forgotten Gothic horror literature in 19th century Great Britain, about artificial life, and finally, about faeces transplants in mice. The audience receive the planned punchlines from Penille Jensen, which include a summary of human life with the words: Eat, sleep, poop.

The people’s court

All the participants now stand side-by-side on the stage. It’s time for a decision.

A decibel meter has registered the volume of sound of the audience’s applause after each presentation. The meter is used as a rough sorting mechanism before the final winner of the evening can be announced.

The two slammers who have received the loudest applause are Zoltán Pintér and Penille Jensen. The other researchers leave with bowed heads, as Zoltán and Penille are left alone on the stage.

Zoltán and Penille are asked to wear safety goggles, as each of them are given their own velcro dart boards. The two hosts of the evening, Elias Najarro and Roger Padullés, open up a cardboard box and start throwing all kinds of lingerie onto the stage to the whoops and murmurs of the audience. Is the winner the contestant that has caught the highest number of panties and bras on their velcro disc? It turns out to be a diversion, however.

Another box is opened. It contains paper planes that are distributed among the audience. The finalist, who gets the most paper planes from the audience, is the winner of the evening. According to Elias Najarro, it is a conscious choice that the voting method contains a coincidental element: »It is a competition, but it is a soft competition, you might say. This should not be the main focus of the evening. The element of competition is mostly to involve the public in making a decision on the individual presentations.«

The planes whirl through the air and the tension is released. Not all of them reach the stage, but as the valid paper planes are counted, Penille Jensen can call herself the winner with 22 votes against nine for Zoltán Pintér.

She raises her arms in triumph and is presented with a child-sized plastic crown and a bottle of sparkling wine by the reigning champion, Karen Burgaard, who is a PhD student at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and who won the last and only previous edition of Copenhagen Science SLAM with a presentation on starfish.

The research topic does play a role, Penille Jensen admits:

»I think that my field of research is very well suited to science slam. Most people can relate to diets, digestion, and cute little mice.«

And then the competitive personality takes over.

»I am really happy. This crown gets a place in the office on Monday, so my colleagues can see how cool I am.«