Do plants scream? NTU lecturer explains all as she goes through to FameLab final


NTU lecturer Joanna Bagniewska is through to the final of a prestigious science competition called FameLab in her native country of Poland, and we caught up with her to find out a bit more about the competition and also the interesting topic she chose to speak about…

Hello Joanna, could we start by asking what is involved in FameLab? Is it a very popular competition?

FameLab is an international science communication competition, where scientists, engineers and medics have three minutes to present about a scientific subject of their choice, without the aid of PowerPoint (though props are allowed). The competition started in the UK in 2005, has steadily grown in popularity and is now a global event with over 20 countries hosting their own competitions.

In January, I entered the British edition of FameLab, prompted by an invitation from one of the organisers, who saw me give a talk at a conference last November. I entered the heats for the Midlands area, and ended being the runner-up finalist for the region, narrowly missing out on the national final.

Still, I was very pleased to reach the top 20, as the British edition is known to be the most difficult one in the world, as science communication is well-established in this country.

In February I went on to try my luck in FameLab Poland – as I’m Polish, and I wanted to give science communication a go in my native language (which was surprisingly difficult, as I have not spoken about science in Polish since my high school days). At the beginning of March I reached the national semi-finals, and went on to make the finals – these are taking place in May, in Warsaw, so please keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tell us about the subject you chose to speak about, ‘Why do plants scream?’  – it certainly sounds like an interesting topic?

I chose to talk about plant communication – even though I am a zoologist – as I like plants a lot, and feel that they’re not getting enough attention, most people seem to find them boring! Therefore I try to take all opportunities to show the fascinating lives of plants – how they react to predators, how they ‘talk’ to each other and what cunning methods they use to protect themselves.

To try and explain a little further – lots of people think of plants as quite benign organisms. But when attacked, plants actually start to scream! They don’t scream like we do, though – they scream chemically.

When a herbivore bites into plant leaves, the leaves can release volatile signals that fly through the air and tell other organisms that an attacker is coming. These signals can trigger a plant’s defence reaction (blocking the enzymes of the herbivore so that it can’t digest its food), but also they serve as an alarm call for predators and parasites, who come and gang up on the herbivore.

If, for instance, a caterpillar starts nibbling on the leaves of tomato plants, the tomatoes will call on carnivorous ants to come to their defence. So its a lot more interesting than most people would imagine, when you delve into the scientific detail.

In the next round I will address a different topic (rules state that the presentations for each round must clearly differ); and I’m considering talking about sleep patterns this time.

Have you had much experience of public speaking or competitions? Would you recommend taking part in Famelab?

I’ve had previous public speaking and science communication experiences; last year I gave a talk about invasive species at TEDxWarsaw. Still, I think events such as FameLab provide a great opportunity to learn more – I strongly urge NTU students and staff to take part in next year’s edition; it’s a wonderful experience, and the organisers offer a free workshop on public speaking skills which I have found extremely useful. Furthermore, it’s a great opportunity to try science communication in a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

FameLab is not your only recent claim to fame is it? We’ve heard that you have been recognised for your work in the Polish community in the UK?

No, I suppose it isn’t! Over the past few years I have been involved in work with the Polish diaspora in the UK and in other countries. During my doctorate at Oxford I presided over the Oxford University Polish Society, I established the Federation of Polish Student Societies in the UK, and was involved in proposing changes to the Polish higher education system.

My work has been recognised by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 8 March, during the 7th Congress of Polish Student Societies in Oxford, Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, presented me with a white-and-red checkerboard of the Polish Air Forces, a symbol of the Polish community in the UK, in recognition of my work with Poles abroad.

I was very proud to be recognised to be recognised in this way and keen to support the Polish community here. So, if any Poles would like to get in touch, or start a society at NTU, I would be more than happy to help.

From: NTU Staff Communications Team