The History of FameLab USA


FameLab was set up in 2005 by Cheltenham Festivals in partnership with the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) to find and nurture scientists and engineers with an interest in communicating with public audiences. Since 2007, via a partnership with the British Council, FameLab has gone global, with competitions now held in 30 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America.

Several thousand young researchers have the FameLab experience. The result is a vibrant network of scientists and engineers engaging international audiences but also engaging with each other, broadening each other’s views of what it means to be working in science right now.

FameLab in the US

In 2012, Cheltenham Festivals signed an agreement with NASA, via its Astrobiology Program, to run FameLab for the first time in the United States. Since then, ~250 early career scientists have participated in the US. Of these, 79% are from the US, with other US-based participants joining who hail from homes as far away as Sri Lanka, Colombia, Nepal, Israel, Mexico, China, and Australia.

Download the report: FameLab USA 2012-2016

FameLab USA has hosted events all over the country, from Honolulu to San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta, New York, and Washington, DC, as well as online competitions. Communications training workshops were embedded into every regional and online heat – skills-building is the heart of FameLab

In Season One, the focus was on Astrobiology. The National Winner, astrophysicist Brendan Mullan, PhD, then a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, represented the US for the first time in the International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, 2012 where he advanced to the final round of competition.

In Season Two, a partnership with National Geographic’s Missions Media broadened our scope from Astrobiology to Exploring Earth and Beyond, and competitors from new fields such as archaeology and oceanography joined the FameLab USA stage. The National Winner, Lyl Tomlinson, currently a graduate student in neuroscience at Stony Brook University, traveled to the Festival in June, 2014 where he was chosen as a runner up.

In Season Three, a partnership with British Council US expanded FameLab USA’s reach and profile both internationally and at home. The National Winner, Ilissa Ocko, PhD, a climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, joined the International Final in June, 2016.

Impacts of FameLab USA

Research into the impacts of FameLab USA shows that most of the participants in the US come to FameLab with minimal experience in communications and outreach, or none at all, and cite lack of time and lack of support from their institutions as challenges to their participation in public communication.

Download the report: FameLab USA 2012-2016

After participating in FameLab and taking part in the communications training, they show marked gains in learning best practices in thematic narrative construction, and report statistically significant increases in their skills, confidence, and clarity in communication.