Ben McAllister: Naked Internship

09 June 2019

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“Do you have to be naked?” “Good thing it’s a radio show!” “Better hit the gym!”. You’ll get a lot more than just these extremely original jokes out of an 8-week internship with The Naked Scientists – expect to learn new skills, develop as a science communicator, and have the opportunity to reach a wide audience... but, the jokes shouldn’t be ignored either!

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to undertake an 8-week internship with The Naked Scientists in the Spring of 2019. I had just submitted my PhD in experimental particle physics, and was starting postdoc work, when I was whisked away from the lab into the glamorous world of science radio and journalism.

How I got involved

I came first in the University of Western Australia’s 3 Minute Thesis competition in 2018, and was shortlisted for an internship as a result. After a selection process which involved an interview with one of the producers, Izzie Clarke, and the submission of a short article explaining a common misconception (a “Mythconception” for those familiar with the form), I was selected for the programme.

Why I got involved

I’ve always been passionate about science communication, and have an interest in pursuing it in conjunction with my research career, so the opportunity to work with well known professionals in the field was extremely appealing, and very worthwhile.

As an amateur and aspiring podcaster myself, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in a show like The Naked Scientists.

It also served as a great bridge between finishing my PhD and starting my research career in earnest, whilst allowing me to gain valuable communication experience.

Heading to Cambridge...and getting to the office

I booked an Airbnb in Cambridge for 8 weeks, hopped on a spine-compressing 17 hour Perth-London direct flight, and got ready to make some science radio.

The Naked Scientists office is located in Madingley, about 8 km outside of Cambridge. The easiest way to get there, assuming you don’t have a car, is to cycle.

It might seem like a pain to get out there from Cambridge every day, and you might be tempted to stay somewhere closer to Madingley, but I actually quite enjoyed the cycle, and would recommend staying in Cambridge proper to give yourself a chance to make the most of what the town has to offer.

The first few days

There’s a bit of a steep learning curve on arrival, with lots of different systems, technology and procedures to get accustomed to. Interns are assigned to a producer to guide them through the process, and I was assigned to Katie Haylor.

Katie was fantastic at helping me hit the ground running – the office was short-handed with the recent departure of a senior producer, but Katie still found the time to make sure I knew what was going on.

A typical week with The Naked Scientists

Most Sundays (with the exception of bank holiday weekends) The Naked Scientists broadcasts live on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire from 6 – 7 PM. The show is typically half current science news stories, and half a more long-form exploration of a particular topic.

For my internship, a standard week involved chasing a breaking science news story. The team would meet on Monday morning after searching independently for interesting new research, and decide who was going to cover which stories.

Once I had a story, I’d contact the authors of the relevant study, and set up an interview. This could be quite challenging if the authors were located in a distant part of the world, as the turn-around on news pieces was quite short, and time-zones could wreak significant havoc.

After wrangling academics schedules, and organizing the technical logistics, I’d record an interview with the scientist(s) about their new research – usually lasting about 15-20 minutes. Then, I’d edit the audio down to around 5 minutes (which could be extremely challenging at times, depending on what kind of content I had to work with), and write up a ~500 word article to accompany it.

The primary producer of the show changes each week, and it’s up to the weekly producer to decide which news stories would make the cut. I managed to get a few pieces into the show, which was extremely gratifying.

In particular, I got a real “buzz” out of my piece about reasoning skills in a certain species of wasp. That kind of pun is commonplace in The Naked Scientists team, so I’d advise getting used to it.

Other bits and pieces

Some weeks were less typical. The 8 weeks I was interning had an abnormally high proportion of bank holidays, which meant less live broadcasts and more pre-recorded shows.

Pre-recorded shows vary widely in format, most contain no news segment, meaning less opportunity for your weekly news piece to be broadcast.

On the bright side, one of the bank holiday shows was a “QnA” format (something The Naked Scientists do roughly monthly) where a panel of guest experts in various topics answer questions from fans. I was selected to be one of the guests on the May QnA show, providing answers to questions on physics and space science.

It was both extremely fun, and very valuable experience in explaining science concepts without pre-written, pre-recorded answers, and little opportunity to edit or alter what you’ve said.

Additionally, I wrote and recorded a few more “Mythconceptions”, a “Question Of The Week” about dim stars, and a hair-raising piece about the relative cleanliness of dogs and humans along with fellow intern Ruby Osborn, among other things.

Working with the team

The team is definitely one of the best things about working with The Naked Scientists. Everyone is so friendly, welcoming, and willing to help – providing expert feedback and advice to help you become a better science communicator.

Chris is an incredibly valuable resource for aspiring science communicators – his comments are always insightful, and have certainly helped shape the way I now tackle science writing.

Along with the professional side of things, the office banter can be pretty extraordinary too…

Challenges and learning curves

Not everything went smoothly, of course. Technical and content issues crept in from time to time.

For example, I interviewed a Cambridge based researcher for the spin-off podcast Naked Engineering, using a new piece of kit – a microphone that plugs into a smartphone jack to record high quality audio.

I won’t go into the details – suffice to say, it was a fascinating interview, but the audio was completely lost due to an issue with the microphone integrating with my phone’s voice recorder app.

This was a valuable lesson in double, triple, and quadruple checking and testing your equipment, before relying on it for a recording.

On the other side of things, on at least one occasion an interviewee had a tendency to ramble, meaning that I had to turn an interview into what the team calls a “built piece” - a more narrated audio segment, with sound bites from the interviewee spliced in.

This was also valuable experience in salvaging interesting interviews when the guest isn’t quite delivering the content you’d like.

Putting my show together

The culmination of my internship was producing a show (in conjunction with Katie), all about dark matter.

I made the decision to base my show on my field of research after extensive consultation with the team, and based on the fact that dark matter is (in my opinion) typically a poorly covered topic, which I wished to address.

A primary challenge was getting the right balance of live and pre-recorded pieces. Only 2 of the 4 segments were supposed to be pre-recorded and, given the broad time-zone differences of the guests (two on opposite sides of the US, two in the UK), it was logistically tricky.

We had to pass on guests we would have loved to have involved, because they were only available for pre-recorded segments, and our two slots were already accounted for, so instead we found great local guests to fill the slots with live interviews.

Ultimately, although there are small things I would change, I am extremely proud of the programme we put together. The chance to interview Professor Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, on a segment was amazing.

My final thoughts

I’d thoroughly recommend this programme to anyone who wants to learn more about science communication, particularly audio and written science journalism.

I gained a host of new skills, both technical (like editing, using ISDN equipment, and various bits of recording gear) and otherwise, such as interview technique, effective research calls, and working on tight deadlines across multiple time-zones.

I had a great time working with the team, developed my communication skills, and clarified for myself that science communication is a field I want to continue working in alongside my research career.

Thanks to Phil, Adam, Izzie, Katie and Chris for welcoming a colonial into their mix, and helping me get the most out of my time with The Naked Scientists – and for the ridiculous chat over roughly 6000 cups of Yorkshire tea.

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