My Falling Walls Lab experience

John Woodland
Published in
5 min readJun 11, 2020
Falling Walls Lab 2013

The traditional perception of a “lab” as an impersonal and controlled environment for scientific research could not be more different from the “Lab” hosted by Falling Walls. The latter is a vibrant and dynamic space for thought leaders to share, connect and develop new ideas. It is the prelude to the Falling Walls Conference which is billed as The International Conference on Future Breakthroughs in Science and Society. But how did a young chemistry student come to share the stage with some of our world’s foremost minds?

My Falling Walls experience began almost 10 000 km away from Berlin in Cape Town, South Africa. It was at the University of Cape Town that my attention was drawn to phrases such as innovative thinkers, exchange insights on an interdisciplinary level and relevant to the world of today. The challenge of packaging my idea and presenting it to a diverse audience was appealing and, after submitting an application which was favourably received, I was on my way inland to Johannesburg — the country’s financial hub.

This was one of five “global” qualifying Labs representing four continents; the others took place in London, Moscow, Los Angeles and São Paulo. In Johannesburg, 20 presenters from around the country proposed their solutions to a host of relevant social problems. From clean drinking water to sustainable housing, and from mobile health advice to inexpensive long-distance transport, critical questions and earnest discussion followed each presentation. I was extremely fortunate to be selected by the judging panel and, within two months, was packing my bags for Berlin.

My interest lies in exploiting simple molecular interactions to understand biological systems and the promise this holds for the treatment of infectious disease. Take malaria, for example, which kills someone every 60 seconds; typically, this is a child under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. There is an urgent need to develop new antimalarial treatments and, to this end, there are hundreds of scientists engaged in various aspects of research to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of reversing the incidence of this disease by 2015.

My research exploits fluorescence to visualise important molecules within the malaria parasite. Fluorescence has revolutionised the study of biological cells. By using these special molecules that literally “glow in the dark”, we can see things in cells that we would never otherwise have been able to see. Today scientists have a host of fluorescence dyes and proteins at their disposal to illuminate particular areas or molecules within a cell.

Developing new antimalarials is not easy and everyone has heard about the challenges posed by side effects, drug resistance and cost. But if we can use fluorescence to understand exactly how our current antimalarials work, we can use this information to design better and more effective drugs. Even though Cape Town may sometimes feel as if it is on the other side of the world from many exciting developments in science, we have some of the keenest minds determined to make a difference.

It is these thoughts that struck me as I touched down in an icy Berlin in November last year. For a city that has witnessed so much cultural and scientific innovation over the centuries, there seemed no better place to continue the tradition of breaking walls.

Participation in the Falling Walls Lab was a feast for the intellectual soul. One hundred young minds represented a host of countries while ideas were presented which spanned politics, the arts, physics, molecular biology and medicine. It was an immense privilege to share one’s work in this setting and to command the attention of so many voracious minds for three short minutes — not forgetting about the judges, of course, who would assess one’s “breakthrough factor”, its relevance and scope and finally the presentation itself.

The day was a reminder of the importance of good scientific communication. We live in a scientific age and there is a desperate need to communicate real science, from the basics to the breakthroughs, to an easily-misinformed public. The Falling Walls Lab gives young researchers an opportunity to present their work to a varied audience and, while it is easier today than ever before to stay in touch, it is not always so easy to make that first connection. Bearing in mind that humanity’s current challenges will only be solved by an interdisciplinary approach — think of climate change, energy production and neuroscience — we need to start communicating, willingly and clearly, beyond our traditional disciplines. The Falling Walls Lab recognises and facilitates this.

I was fortunate to be selected to present my work the following day at the Falling Walls Conference alongside top-notch scientists such as Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government. I was particularly thrilled to see Jill Farrant, also from the University of Cape Town, speak about desiccation-tolerant plants and how they might one day be used to nourish people in arid climates.

Back in Cape Town, work on my doctoral thesis continues. Right now I have produced a series of new fluorescent molecules which I have am busy testing under the microscope, assisted by various dyes which light up the parasite to see where these molecules accumulate. When the going gets tough, it is helpful to think back and draw on inspiration from the Falling Walls Lab and Conference.

Exciting news for malaria research is that a new vaccine, which claims to reduce the rate of infection in young children by half, has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation. This would be a major step forward for us all. In the meantime, we carry on — motivated by the idea that we are making a difference, albeit in a very small way. One never knows how soon the next wall is going to fall.

This piece was first published on the Falling Walls Blog in September 2014.



John Woodland

Research scientist, musician and broadcaster ​based in Cape Town, South Africa.