Eight weeks of naked
“The naked what?!” cried my PhD supervisor...
“The Naked Scientists, they make science radio shows and podcasts for a general audience,” I explained. “And they are offering you the chance to do an internship with them to develop your science communications skills and learn how to make podcasts and radio shows?” “That’s correct” I replied. “Well then, that sounds like a great idea!”
So in May 2019 I took a break from writing my PhD thesis in aerospace engineering in order to do an eight week internship at The Naked Scientists.
Why did I choose to do the internship?
I have been involved with various outreach activities during my PhD, and I found that I really enjoy explaining my research to a non-scientific audience. Also, I love listening to podcasts! I had considered the notion that I might like to have a go at making my own podcasts and so, when I heard about the internship with the Naked Scientists I was eager to apply! Here was an opportunity for me to learn from the experts how to make podcasts and also put my science communication skills to the test in a new environment.
A typical week on the internship
The weekly Naked Scientists show generally has the format of: half an hour of science news stories followed by half an hour of science on a certain theme. News, by definition, has to be new - so it’s a race against time to get the stories! First thing on Monday morning we search through the press releases of the big science journals to find breaking science stories. The team then get together mid-morning to select the best stories and assign each to a team member.
Once I had my story I then needed to attempt to get in contact with the authors of the paper to arrange an interview. I found this to be one of the most challenging parts of the whole internship: juggling the academics busy schedule with the availability of recording studios, which was sometimes further complicated by time differences - plus some of the academics proved impossible to get hold of!
But once I had my interview scheduled - that was when the fun really began! Good preparation is really important going into the interview, which was something I gradually improved at over the weeks. My best interviews were the ones for which I had a good understanding of the science and the story beforehand. The interviews are generally conducted over a high quality phone line, or equivalent, but I also had the opportunity to do two on-location interviews with researchers in Cambridge - which made me feel like a real journalist!
The interviews generally lasted for about 15 - 20 minutes, then I used editing software to cut the audio down to less than 5 minutes. This requires you to be really strict about what you want the story to be about, anything that is not relevant - even if it is really interesting - has to be cut out. I found that taking a break after doing a rough edit and coming back to it later helps to find the bits that can be cut. However, depending on when you manage to schedule an interview, you may not have long to spend on the edit, as it has to be finished for end of Wednesday!
Wednesday morning is the big team meeting, where the team discuss the previous week's show. It is useful to hear the producers give feedback to each other, and the team takes the interns' feedback seriously as well.
Once the audio is submitted by the Wednesday deadline, Thursday and Friday can be quieter for the interns. Interns are required to write a 500 word article on their weeks new story. Spare time can be put towards tending to the naked scientists forum and planning for your own show.
On Sunday evenings The Naked Scientists have a live show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and interns have the opportunity to attend the live broadcast at the BBC studio. While at the studio, interns have the task of attending to the live guests, brewing up excitement for the show on social media, as well as checking carefully through the script to spot any mistakes. This takes approximately 3 hours on a Sunday evening, but you can take that time back on Friday afternoons - and you get to meet the studio dalek!
Producing my own radio show
One of the really exciting parts of the internship is the opportunity to produce your own entire half hour show for the back-half of the main show. This will usually be broadcast in the last few weeks of your internship, so that you have the maximum number of weeks to work on it.
For the show you need to think of an overall theme and then four stories within that. Over the weeks the theme of my show evolved as I discussed my ideas with the team. Something important to always keep in mind is why a general audience would be interested. Some of the stories had to change because of the difficulties of finding guests. Academics are generally pretty keen to promote their new cutting-edge research for the news stories, but finding someone who is willing to speak more generally about a topic can be trickier. In addition, two of the guests needed to available for a live interview on the night of the show.
For the Sunday night show I also needed to write the script for the presenters on the night and plan the timings for each segment - this is important so that the presenters can know if they are keeping to time during the live show. I was pretty nervous at the BBC studio on the Sunday evening, as there were various live elements that I would have no control over. However, the show went very well and there were no difficulties. The following Wednesday morning meeting I received very positive feedback from the team about my show and I was very proud of what I had achieved.
I remember my first week at the office as being very hectic. I started on a Tuesday, as the Monday was a bank holiday, and so I had one day less to learn the ropes and produce the weeks work. Added to this, my first news story didn’t work out due to time differences, so I had to change stories a day in - giving me even less time!
It was a steep learning curve and I felt like I made lots of mistakes at first, but the team were always really supportive. One of the skills I will definitely take away with me is the ability to speak confidently on the phone. It sounds silly, but before the internship I always worried about making phone calls, but on day one of the internship I had to make several phone calls straight away in order to chase a story. By the end of the internship I was perfectly happy to make a phone call.
Each week the team produce more news stories than needed, so that they can choose the best ones to go into the week's show. The spare stories are released as individual short podcasts. This added a bit of drama to each week as you never knew whether your story would be chosen for the main show. Towards the middle of my internship I started to feel frustrated that I still hadn’t managed to get a news story selected, but I channelled this into motivation to produce better stories every week. I made note of the feedback that was given to others during the Wednesday morning meeting in order to learn exactly what made the best stories. In week six I successfully got my first story in and then my next story made it too! This victory was so much more satisfying than it would have been if my first few stories had been chosen and I could see how much I had improved over the weeks.
The best bits
Every week I looked forward to having finished my interview so that I could get cracking with the editing. The interview might last for up to 20 minutes, but it always had to be edited down to less than 5 minutes, and I found this to be quite a fun challenge: sifting through the audio, searching for the key parts which made the most clear concise story.
Some of the stories required bit of narration to be included, which involved nipping down to the studio to record bits, which was really fun.
I also learnt so much science during the internship! My news pieces ranged from medicine, to plant sciences, to robotics! And by the time you had edited the audio and written an article, you had a pretty sound understanding of the topic.
But one of the best things about the internship has got to be working with the team. Everyone is so friendly and so much fun. Most lunchtimes the team go for a walk together through the pretty Madingley village. We also went for a few pub meals together and a pub quiz. From day one I felt like I was part of the team.
I would like to thank everyone at The Naked Scientists for being so welcoming and for giving me such a great time with you guys!