Cameron Voisey: Naked Internship
One month after handing in my PhD, I started an eight week internship with The Naked Scientists. The experience has been fun, challenging and eye-opening, all at the same time, and I’m extremely happy I decided to apply. Here, I’ll summarise my experiences and thoughts on the internship, which I hope will be useful for anyone thinking of applying...
Why I applied
The whole process started with an email from producer Eva Higginbotham to my department’s mailing list. I was coming to the end of my PhD and thinking about future career plans, and after eight years of university physics, I thought it was about time I tried out something new. I applied in March, had an interview in April and started in September.
At the time of applying, I had some experience in science communication that I’d picked up during my physics degrees, and had really enjoyed, but no experience in broadcasting at all. That said, I’d always loved radio, so the prospect of learning more about this, while also applying my knowledge of science communication, seemed like an opportunity it would be silly to miss. Mainly, though, I thought it would give me invaluable experience for when I inevitably, as the true millennial that I am, start my own podcast.
My first week
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, everyone at The Naked Scientists was still working from home when I joined. It felt a little strange to start something new from my kitchen table, but everyone was very welcoming. After getting set up, it was straight to work, as I had to find potential news stories to pitch at the weekly Monday 11am news meeting, during which the stories for the week are selected.
Finding news stories was a bit of a scramble, since I didn’t have a huge amount of time left after getting set up and finding out where to locate the press releases. Moreover, as I quickly learned, sifting effectively through the countless news options is surprisingly tricky, as there are many aspects of a given story to consider. For example, is the story accessible (and interesting!) to a general audience? Are the results really novel? How convenient is the time zone of the authors?
Nevertheless, by 11 am I had managed to get a few stories together, which I then pitched. It was decided that I would run with one of my choices, which was about supermarket layouts being altered to “nudge” people towards healthier choices. The next step was to find someone to interview, which proved tricky, as I wasn’t receiving responses to my emails. In the end, I managed to find someone for an interview on the Wednesday morning, who turned out to be a wonderful speaker. The interview itself, which I was pretty nervous for, took place via Zoom in my housemate’s bedroom, as he had the best room for recording. Not the ideal location, but thankfully he allowed me to temporarily move him.
Next, I had to edit the audio down from the 20 minutes we recorded to just four minutes. This turned out to be one of my favourite aspects of the work during the internship. In particular, I found it very satisfying to sculpt the finished piece, especially since it can be a challenge to tell complex scientific stories in a logical and clear way. By Thursday lunchtime, I had finished editing the piece and I had written an accompanying cue (the text either side of the recording that the presenter reads out), so that it could be considered for inclusion in the show.
In addition to the news piece, I was also tasked with putting together the “Question of the Week” - a segment in which a question from the audience is answered by seeking help from experts. That week, the question was about whether light loses energy as it moves across an expanding universe. Thankfully, with it being a physics question, I felt at home and I quickly knew where I could find suitable experts.
I ended up getting answers to the question from two academics, which I then had to weave together with my narration, music and sound effects. This was a more complicated edit than my news piece, and it proved to be a real challenge, especially given that I had only just finished my first ever edit. However, by the end of Friday, and with plenty of help from Eva, who was assigned to mentor me, I had a finished piece. I was very pleased with the final result, given that only five days prior I had never used any editing software. Furthermore, I found the process to be a nice change from a PhD, in which producing a finished product takes a significantly longer time.
Overall, I found the learning curve at the start of the internship to be very steep, something which I expect was made slightly worse due to working remotely. That said, the first week proved to be the most difficult, and the amount I had already learnt made the subsequent weeks less daunting.
A typical week
In the most standard of weeks, I produced an audio news item, which would take up large parts of Monday-Thursday lunchtime, and then subsequently wrote it up as an article on Thursday afternoon/Friday. There were many smaller tasks to occupy me in between, such as listening to, and reviewing, the podcast from the previous week, and writing transcripts for the website.
That said, for a variety of reasons, each week is a little different. For example, the type of show being produced can vary, you may be asked to produce extra content (e.g. Question of the Week), or you may be producing your own show (more about this below).
A typical part of every week, which I always enjoyed, is the production meeting on a Tuesday afternoon. In this meeting, the progress towards the current week’s show is discussed, in addition to reviewing the previous week’s show and planning the following week’s. When it came to reviewing the show, honest feedback was always encouraged, which I found to be very beneficial for improving the quality of my work.
Luckily, in my third week, we were allowed to go into the office. This meant that I could meet everyone in person and get into the studio, which made an immediate difference to the ease of producing something!
Producing my own show
One of the highlights of the internship was being given the opportunity to produce my own show. Due to the nature of my funding, it had to be related to my area of expertise, which is particle physics. Because of various restrictions, my show was scheduled slightly earlier than is normal for an intern, specifically at the end of my fifth week, which meant that I had to start preparing at the start of my third.
To begin with, I had to come up with various potential angles for the show. This involved chatting with various people from my field about the research they are doing, lots of discussions with Eva, and then refining my ideas at two production meetings. By the end of the fourth week, an idea was settled on: the show would be about the hunt physicists are on to look for new fundamental particles - that is, objects that we believe can’t be broken up into constituents - and the different approaches they are taking to doing this.
The final show comprised five different sections, all with different interviewees. It was a wonderful excuse to chat to various people from my field who are doing amazing research. It was also great fun, and a great challenge, to have to step back and explain my field to a general audience.
Perhaps my favourite part of putting the show together was going to the Cavendish Laboratory to interview someone on location for the first time. There, Eva and I were shown a device known as a cloud chamber, which is a table-top experiment that enables you to see all the particles that are naturally streaming through a room. Despite these devices leading to many landmark discoveries in my field, I had never seen one running in real life, so this was an unexpected, happy consequence of the internship.
After finishing all of the pre-recorded sections of my show on the Friday of my fifth week, I was then able to go to the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire studios to see the show go out live on the Sunday. This was definitely a highlight of the internship. It was a thrill to hear my show (and my voice!) go out on live radio from the studio, and to see how a live show is put together by the presenters.
What I’ve learnt
In my opinion, one of the best things about the internship is the amount you learn in such a short period of time. This is especially true for people like me, who haven’t got a background in any kind of radio production.
As well as learning generally about how a radio show is put together behind the scenes, which I found really insightful, I learnt a lot of specific skills. These include how to pick a good news story, how to conduct an interview (and, in particular, how to get the most that you can out of one), how to use a recording studio, how to edit audio, how to produce a show, how to put a script together for live radio... The list goes on.
While these skills may seem quite particular, I think that a lot that I’ve learnt is very transferable. For example, I improved my ability to grasp a topic quickly and to hone in on its most interesting aspects, as well as learning to project my voice better thanks to feedback from Chris.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time at The Naked Scientists and I would certainly recommend applying. At times, the work was definitely challenging, but I feel that I also got more out of it as a result.
I had hoped that the internship would offer a good contrast to my PhD and that this would therefore help inform my future career plans. This was the case on both counts. In particular, I found that the quick turnaround of the news cycle, and the feeling of producing finished, standalone pieces by the end of each week, was a welcome difference to my PhD.
Regarding the science aspects of the internship, I really enjoyed stepping back from physics and exploring different fields. The topics I covered ranged from how air pollution is affecting babies, to a lawsuit about the use of a type of cancer cell, to how artificial intelligence might be used to understand how humans process language. This experience has made me want to engage more with science more generally in the future, and has reminded me of why I wanted to be a scientist in the first place.
Having said all of this, the best aspect of the internship was the people. In general, the atmosphere in the office was relaxed and there was lots of support from the producers. I’d like to thank Chris, Sally, Harry, Iacopo, Verner and Julia for making the experience such a nice one. Special thanks go to Eva, who guided me through the internship and was truly amazing to work with!