From the ivory tower to the stage

Falling Walls science slam debuts in Tokyo

Update: Videos of the Falling Walls Lab Tokyo speakers are now online.

When he introduced US Representative Nancy Pelosi at a student political conference in 2009, Ray Luo fell in love with public speaking. “Being on stage, with all the lights and everyone looking at you, it was fantastic,” says the Californian neuroscientist. It wasn’t until recently, however, that Luo again had the chance to address a big crowd, this time across the Pacific Ocean in Tokyo. Against the backdrop of a gory war scene from Saving Private Ryan, Luo explained how his research on fear mechanisms in the brain has relevance for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Given the global situation with terrorism and war, I thought this would be an engaging topic for people interested in rehabilitation and recovery from brain injury,” says Luo. His time onstage that day was limited, because he was just one in a lineup of researchers being judged on their science communication prowess.

Falling Walls Lab, held on August 29, is only the second science slam event in Japan, and the first in Tokyo. Organized by the German Research and Innovation Forum and Euraxess Japan, Falling Walls Lab Tokyo is one of the many branches of the international Falling Walls movement. Local winners, including Alina Kudasheva from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, will travel to Berlin to compete in the international finals, much like in similar events such as FameLab or, in the francophone world, Ma thèse en 180 secondes (itself an offshoot of the original Australian concept). The common feature across all these competitions is the strict time limit: participants have just three minutes to explain a bit of science or pitch a research idea. (Here’s a recap of the Tokyo competition in Japanese.)

Ray Luo presenting at Falling Walls Lab Tokyo

Luo was a relative science communication newbie and had just missed the deadline for TEDxWasedaU when he received an email about Falling Walls Lab. In place of a sprawling, choreographed TED talk, the three-minute science slam format forces succinct pitches to maximize the audience’s attention, says Luo. Afterwards, though, “I felt like even though the competition was designed to bring out the best in everybody, it might cause people to scramble with the little time they have.” Technical difficulties also derailed some of the competitors. “People should know exactly what to say and be prepared to tell their story even without slides,” Luo says. TED talks, he feels, are perhaps more rewarding for a curious general audience, while the Falling Walls format is more academic, with an emphasis on technological solutions to problems. The judges at Falling Walls Lab Tokyo were indeed swayed by very practical presentations on water filtration, plant-based drug development and factory process optimization using data visualization.

On reflection, Luo thinks he may not have made it clear enough how important turning off fear signals in the brain may be for treating PTSD. Current wisdom in neuroscience holds that areas like the prefrontal cortex are responsible for so-called fear extinction, suppressing excessive anxiety in response to learned memories or triggers. For PTSD sufferers, this lack of extinction is currently supplemented with drugs, but Luo thinks other brain areas could be targeted using different methods. During his nearly four years of post-doctoral research at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, he has found that dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens may be important for keeping fear in check. In rats, at least, fear-triggered memories can be manipulated using optogenetics, perhaps paving the way for future brain stimulation methods that could help humans with PTSD.

The Falling Walls Lab Tokyo speakers held a panel discussion after the competition

With the time constraint of Falling Walls, hardly any of these research details made it into Luo’s talk. Those are reserved for an upcoming article and academic talks, which he still feels should be the focus of most researchers. “Giving talks in science is already hard and getting to the level where you can communicate your research effectively to your own [peer] audience is a big step,” Luo muses. “Only then should you move on to communicating to the public”, for example through events like Falling Walls Lab. Luo feels that the science communication process needs to be bi-directional — “not just scientists talking to high school kids, but we need to create a culture of inquiry where the public wants to evaluate and be part of the scientific process” — something that is already taking place in the United States but is fairly absent in Japan. “We have to generate a motivation in the public to have an interest in science and create a demand, because you can’t force anyone to listen.”

Friends in the audience seemed to have a better grasp of his research based on the Falling Walls Lab performance, says Luo, but he still thinks he could have used more practice and a concluding message about what the science actually tells us. “I had the rationale and problem spelled out, but I needed a clearer wrap-up. Botching any part of the three minutes kind of ruins the whole thing.” Despite an energetic performance, Luo didn’t place in the top three, as judged by a panel of Japanese and European academics and engineers, but this won’t deter his science communication efforts. Later this fall, Luo will be appearing at Nerd Nite Tokyo with a completely new talk. This author predicts that the relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere will result in a slam dunk* for Luo.

*An intentional pun, the meaning of which will become apparent if you attend Nerd Nite (date TBC)!

Ray Luo presenting at Falling Walls Lab Tokyo