Forgotten data: A dry subject presented in an exciting way awarded the Prix MédiaAward, SNI INSight December 2021
Simone Pengue has won the 2021 “Prix Média Newcomer” from the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences for his documentary on lost data. Simone is a PhD student in the research group of Argovia professor Roderick Lim. In addition to his own research, he is passionate about explaining science in a vivid and entertaining way. In this interview, he explains how the idea developed resulting in an entertaining and interesting film, and how he is committed to science communication alongside his demanding work as a PhD student.
A physicist fascinated by proteins
Simone Pengue’s main job is working on his doctoral thesis on the dynamics of proteins in the group of Argovia professor Roderick Lim. The young physicist, who completed his bachelor’s degree in Como and his master’s in Fribourg, initially had his sights set on other topics and first took a slight detour during his doctorate.
After completing his master’s degree, he joined Professor Philipp Treutlein’s group at the Department of Physics in 2017 to do his doctorate in atomic physics. Quite quickly, however, he realized that this subject area was not the right one for him. He switched to biophysics in Roderick Lim’s group and has been working on the complex world of proteins ever since. “Although I hadn’t worked in the field before, I was fascinated. And Rod trusted me to learn the ropes quickly,” Simone comments on his move.
Interest in science journalism
It was also during this time that he became interested in science journalism. Philipp Treutlein had advised him to do what came naturally to him. For Simone, that has always been talking about his work and reporting on research. So, he asked a friend who works at Keystone-sda for contacts of science journalists. He also joined the Swiss Club for Science Journalism and began to build a small network. Since then, he has been writing articles on scientific topics for a broad audience a few times a year – among others, for the communication agency “catta”. Its founder also brought the call for entries for the Prix Média Newcomer 2021 to his attention.
Simone had already participated in the workshop “Storytelling & Storyboarding in Science” at the Zurich Film Festival (October 2020), organized by the Swiss Academy of Sciences and Swiss Universities with the Locarno Film Festival as a partner. Even before Simone got the suggestion to participate in the film competition, he had a film idea in his head.
Fate of scientific data
At the beginning of his PhD at the Biozentrum, he had been told that all data should be backed up on a server. However, the questions of what would happen to the data, who would have access to it, and how it would be reused had not been fully resolved for him.
The question became quite topical for Simone when he observed patterns in other physical parameters (fluorophore lifetime) during measurements of protein dynamics. He himself and his lab colleagues had no scientific question for such data and therefore no interest or time to pursue this further.
“I thought to myself that the observations and data, however, could be quite relevant to other researchers,” Simone recalls, “but I didn’t know how to make them available to other groups.” The idea then developed to make a film about such data and, more generally, to explore the question of what happens to big data in science, whether and how it can be shared, and what points need to be considered.
Selected for the finals
In April, Simone submitted a brief description of his film, “FORGOTTEN DATA: The Leftovers of Science.” He received positive feedback that his film was one of the two projects funded with 3,000 Swiss francs and that he could start with the detailed planning.
For Simone, the good news marked the beginning of a stressful period. Together with his brother Lorenzo, who took over the technical part, Simone planned, interviewed, cut, edited and translated the 38-minute documentary – and all this alongside his work as a doctoral student, which continued as usual during this time. The only time he took off was five days for the interviews with various experts. All other activities for the film happened in the evenings and at night, after he had spent the day writing a manuscript for a scientific publication as part of his doctoral thesis.
Valuable stimulus for discussion
It was worth it! Simone and his brother have won the Prix Média Newcomer and received prize money of 4,000 Swiss francs. Their film represents a valuable contribution to a current, important topic and in some circles has further stimulated discussion about the fate of scientific data.
“In general, scientific data should be publicly available, but it has become clear that there is no solution for all eventualities and that there are cases where publishing raw data causes problems,” Simone summarizes.
In the course of his research, he has found that there are big differences in the various disciplines when it comes to making data freely available. “While researchers in the field of high-energy physics, such as at CERN, share all data, the privacy of personal data plays a big role in medical studies,” he reports.
Asked if he will continue to explore the topic in more detail in the future, Simone replies, “I could well imagine organizing a conference together with bioethicists as a follow-up, where we discuss data accessibility in different scientific fields.”
The SNI team will follow this discussion and offers its warmest congratulations on this well-deserved award.