Insight: How I became a Falling Walls Lab Finalist

For the Falling Walls Lab, I titled my talk "Breaking the Wall between Nanoparticles and Cancer", meaning all the physiological barriers a nanoparticle needs to go through to get to the tumor and be effective. It has been almost two years now that I am doing my PhD under the supervision of Dr. Holger Stephan at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and together with the group of Dr. Bim Graham and Professor Leone Spiccia of the Monash University of Melbourne, our research interest is on the development of a multifunctional nanoparticle for cancer imaging.

I heard about the Falling Walls Lab by chance. Someone from the HZDR sent an email around and I almost overlooked it among the many work emails that crowded my inbox. I remember reading the email, had a look at the Falling Walls website and almost assumed at first not having any chance to get into such an event. Nevertheless, I took it as a good way to motivate myself to update my CV, to put my head down to write a letter of motivation and to break a project worth 3 years of work down into a 3-minute talk. By the time I finished my application I submitted and over time simply forgot about it.

A couple of months later I got an email announcing that I had been selected as one of the 100 participants all over the world for the Falling Walls Lab Finale 2013 in Berlin. Not many things have made me as happy as the moment when I first read that email. I knew from the beginning that something great would happen. Indeed it was, just from the moment I started preparing my talk. I spent quite a while working on my slides and presenting them to friends and professors and by the time I got on stage I did know my words by heart, which helped me to be more secure. It is tricky not only to fit your talk into 3-minutes but also to find the language that everyone can understand, no room for technical words, even when as a scientist you are trained to consider all details. Nevertheless, science itself is made for everyone and in the end what is "natural science" but the world we live in.

I loved the challenge of the Falling Walls Lab from the first minute. Scientists normally do not have many chances to interact with people beyond their own field, something I really miss. Here it was different; it was made for getting along with others, economists with artists, thinkers with doctors and computer scientists with physicists.

The Falling Walls is a 2-day event. On 8 November the Falling Walls Lab is held, where we, young minds share an innovative idea spreading motivation. It is not about the competition itself, even when there are three winners who present their talks on the formal conference the next day. It is more about connecting different points of view and creating a wide vision of the world today.

My impression was that everyone was having a great time and got a good experience to bring home. After the Lab the participants had some time to get to know each other and exchange their business cards and journalists were also around to ask questions. That evening all participants, jury members and academics were invited to the Falling Walls Welcome Reception. I found that the "seniors" were really interested in listening to the younger generation; the jury also took its time to talk to us, something absolutely motivating. I think it is fair to say that the organisation of this day was brilliant and that they took care of every single detail.

The second day was outstanding, definitely one of the best events I have been in. It was like being on one of these TED talks just that I was actually present and not sitting on my couch watching it from my computer. Furthermore, after each session speakers were outside on a forum and everyone had the chance to ask them questions, something that made you feel closer to the "rockstars". 

Some of the talks blew me away. The artist Ai Weiwei; Luc Steels with the robot intelligence; Anita Goel, a reference in nanotechnology; Dan Schechtman a Nobel laureate in chemistry talking about how we can achieve better education, among many others.

I would particularly highlight the humour, which was a constant during the whole day, either in the talks or in the way that speakers were literally taken out of the stage when their time was over.

As many others, I had the chance to talk to Rolf-Dieter Heuer and observe that extremely smart and well-educated people did make a breakthrough in the Era we are living in.

I would conclude as the founder of the Falling Walls Foundation, Sebastian Turner said: "If you did not get inspired today talk to the doctor in the room".

During that weekend in Berlin not all was on a formal schedule and when the lights came down a great group of young and not so young fascinating people got along creating a perfect atmosphere, where I had the impression that every single word had meaning. 35 different nationalities from completely different fields apparently not sharing anything other than a Berliner Beer. In this context we could say, "Breaking the Wall of Cultural Egos" and that was one of the most remarkable moments for me to take home.

Now, some weeks have passed since the conference and my inbox has been constantly getting new emails concerning the Falling Walls, either from people I met at the Falling Walls Lab, scientists at the Falling Walls Conference or journalists. Three things are clear for me; first: I want to create a great network for my future career, second: some of the people I met that weekend are the new geniuses of our society for the years to come and third: this has brought me a step closer to my dreams.

So my message to take home from the Falling Walls is "go there, beat the world, you might not get close any time soon, not even in the way you have planned, but what if it does happen?"

If you are reading this article, it means that you have internet access; therefore you already have more chances to make a change than half of the population in the world. Just do it.


By: Karina Pombo Garcia (25, Spain), Ph.D. Student of Radiopharmacy and Nanotechnology at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf and the Monash University Melbourne.

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