Wits science students selected to participate in regionals after impressive performance at FameLab

Two Wits students have been selected to proceed to the FameLab semi-finals after impressing judges at one of the biggest international science communication competitions.

Sinethemba Makhanya, a PhD student in medical humanities and psychology at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (Wiser), and PhD student in computer science, Olaperi Sowunmi, participated in the preliminary heat held on Tuesday, March 20, where each competitor had to explain his or her research in three minutes to a general audience.

Makhanya and Sowunmi beat 17 other students at the FameLab science competition hosted by Wits University which aims to equip young scientists to share their research.

The competition was held over two days – one day for science communication training and the next, for what is called the “heat”.

Sowunmi told Wits Vuvuzela that FameLab equips student researchers to know how best to communicate. “I shouldn’t assume that everyone has the knowledge; I should be able to break [my research] down in a way they can relate to.”

Makhanya’s research looks at offering theories within traditional healing as a challenge to the dominant western theories of health and healing. She said she felt “very overwhelmed” to be the only social scientist among hard and natural scientists.

“I did not really think my research was that important. I was encouraged by the win because it validated that my research is in fact important and that it can also be used within the sciences.”

FameLab was established in South Africa in 2013 by Robert Inglis, the director of Jive Media Africa, in partnership with the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement and the British Council.

“The focus of FameLab is on improving skills for science communication,” Inglis told Wits Vuvuzela.

Wits PhD student in zoology and one of the judges on this year’s panel, Shivan Parusnath, said, “It was such an eye opener to see the incredible array of work that’s being done around the university, such cutting-edge research.”

He also said that it was important to train students in the skills of communicating and that he would like to see more such initiatives at university level. “There are still thousands of people at our university that have incredible stories that they’re not telling,” Parusnath said.

Makhanya and Sowunmi will participate in the semi-finals along with other semi-finalists selected from the institutional heats which were held across South Africa. If successful, they will participate in the finals. Both the semi-final and final will take place in the first week of May.

The winner from the final will represent South Africa at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom from June 5 to 10.

FEATURED PHOTO: Science stars shine at FameLab. From left, runner-up Brian Mwewa with joint winners, Olaperi Sowunmi and Sinethemba Makhanya. Photo: Provided