Eva Higginbotham: Naked Internship

17 February 2019

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After hearing about The Naked Scientist Internship at the Genetics Society’s "Communicating your science" workshop in 2017, and knew straight away that I wanted to give it a go...

I’ve been very involved in various public engagement and science communication projects during my PhD, and as a podcast fanatic it seemed like the perfect opportunity to marry my two interests! After a lot of planning, my internship was arranged for November and December 2018 - kindly funded by the Genetics Society, and it was everything I hoped it would be and more.

Week 1

Growing up in Oxford and now having lived in Cambridge for 4 years, I am very used to cycling. That said, my first 4.8 mile cycle to Madingley to The Naked Scientists headquarters caught my quads by surprise! I soon learned to love my bike ride every morning and evening, despite the early sunsets and subsequent darkness on my ride home, and it didn’t take long for my legs to catch up.

My first week was a "Q and A" week, which happens once a month, where the team invite a panel of guests onto the show to answer questions from the listeners. As an intern I still needed to produce a news item each week, and so my Monday morning was spent scouring embargoed journal articles and press releases to look for interesting and important science news stories. This can be trickier than it might first appear, as you have to think of what might be interesting to a wider audience beyond just your first instinct or what appeals to you personally. I followed up on a new paper from the journal Cell where the authors happened to from Cambridge. Even more surprisingly, I discovered that the first author - Tessa Bertozzi - was a fellow PhD student and we had mutual friends, having met at a party last summer. This was great as it definitely helped my beginners nerves, and I headed into the Genetics Department at Cambridge to interview her in person using mobile recording equipment. The story was about epigenetic inheritance, a complicated subject that Tessa did a great job of explaining in simple terms.

With the interview done it was time to edit, and I soon discovered that editing is probably my favourite bit of the news cycle process. Although we tend to record about 20 mins of interview, we cut that down to about 4 minutes for inclusion in the various outlets The Naked Scientists are involved in. This means it’s really important to be prepared for the interview and know what you want to get out of it, as this makes finding the key points of the story much easier in the edit. I found the process of identifying what is most interesting and relevant in a news story, and then editing the audio to reflect that, very satisfying.

Week 2

I really enjoyed my second week as it was my first experience of the normal news cycle. This is very fast paced with tight deadlines, so it can be a challenge to get everything done in time!

This week the article that caught my eye was about causing the skin to naturally darken and so provide better protection from skin cancer. I interviewed Professor Jonathan Zippin from the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York about his paper over ISDN, which essentially is like a very good phone line between two recording studios. I was fairly nervous for the interview as it was my first with someone so senior and in my first week I interviewed someone I already knew personally, but I soon got over my nerves and as the internship went on I realised that often the interviewee is more nervous than I am! As the interviewer part of your job is to put the interviewee at ease, which I really enjoyed.

I got my edited interview prepared for the Wednesday evening deadline, and I was really pleased with how it came out. Jonathan did a great job of explaining the science and it made a really nice story, with clear relevance to questions of public health - this made writing the short news article (which we also produce every week, on the same topic the interview was on) fairly easy.

Week 3

I missed the Monday of my third week as I was in Munich for my cousin’s birthday, so on Tuesday, instead of researching for a news story, I was given an article to follow up on about using immunotherapy to treat cancer. I interviewed Professor Adrian Hayday of the Francis Crick Institute and King’s College London about the paper, but used a different system to conduct the interview: iPDTL. iPDTL is like fancy skype, and we use it when there are no studios available where our interviewee is located. The quality can be a little hit and miss, but when it works, it works, and Professor Hayday and I had a great interview about his work identifying the molecular mechanisms that immune cells can use to identify targets.

This week I also produced the Question of the Week segment, answering a question about why scientists seem to use propellor planes to do research on hurricanes. After sourcing an answer from Dr Anna Young of the Whittle Laboratory in Cambridge, I enjoyed learning about how to overlay audio using a function called ‘multi-track’, which allows you to put together multiple clips. This included the question from listener Daniel, some sound effects, Anna’s answer, and some recorded links from me to tie it all together.

Mid-week, I also took part in a live segment called ‘Ask the Naked Scientists’ on BBC Radio Norfolk, hosted by Matthew Gudgin with Chris. During the show, people phone in and ask questions and between Chris, Matthew, and myself, we did our best to answer them. I was very nervous for this, but relaxed into it fairly quickly and really enjoyed joining in the conversation with Chris and Matthew. It was really good practice for how to frame and explain your research in an exciting, accessible way!

Week 4

This week I had a lot of fun interviewing Professor Stephen Martin from the University of Salford about his discovery of millions of termite mounds in Brazil. He was a fantastic interviewee, giving a great personal side to his work and I cracked up often during our research call. The story was also very different from the more health-style stories I had been focusing on, and it made a nice change to learn about termites - a topic I had never thought about before!

This week I was also recruited by Naked Scientist producer Izzie to brush my teeth live on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, chew up a disclosing tablet, and have my handiwork inspected by a dentist in the studio. I brushed half my teeth with an electric toothbrush and half with a manual toothbrush, and it felt incredibly silly and also quite liberating to just brush my teeth in the studio surrounded by audio equipment! I really enjoyed being a part of this segment, as it gave me a taste of what live radio is like and an even greater appreciation for the on-the-spot directing that Chris performs during each live show.

Week 5

Part of the internship includes producing your own show, and this week is when we started getting serious with planning what my show would be about. Georgia, my mentor at the Naked Scientists, tasked me with coming up with 3 pitches for different themes to give to the team. These pitches had to include a top line (a half-sentence summary of the theme), a peg (what makes this topic relevant now?) and a few different potential stories to cover. When I shared my pitches with the team at our Wednesday meeting, people voted for ‘Regeneration - why don’t we heal perfectly?’ and I set to work the rest of the week with planning out who I wanted to speak to and what I wanted to cover in the show. 

For my news piece this week I spoke to Ilse Van Meerbeek, a PhD student at Cornell University, who had recently published a paper on innovations in soft robotics. This was a very new field for me, which in some ways is helpful when preparing a news piece - it means you’re coming to the topic with open eyes which can help you focus on the real crux of the story. I decided to edit my audio of the interview as a ‘built piece’, where clips from the interviewee are interwoven with reactions and explanations recorded separately by me in our studio. This can be a helpful tool for clarifying complicated topics, and I also wanted the experience of making a built piece as I hadn’t made one yet. I also learned about how to include music underlying interviews, which was very handy.

Week 6

With my show fast approaching I spent a lot of this week firming up my ideas for ‘Regeneration’ and doing research calls with potential interviewees. I had been in touch with Professor Mat Hardman, who actually supervised my undergraduate thesis project several years ago, about skin wound healing, and after a very interesting chat he was confirmed to be a part of the show. I also started speaking to many charities for different health conditions, as I wanted to include some patient perspectives on how our bodies regenerate, heal, or struggle to heal when we suffer from different health conditions.

In terms of news, I struggled to find a solid news piece this week so Chris suggested I write a ‘mythconception’ instead, which are short segments debunking common science myths. He gave me the idea to cover the evolution of skin colour, and I really enjoyed the process of writing a short and sharp explanation of why the first humans evolved to have dark skin (hint: it’s folate, not skin cancer!)

Week 7

My final preparation week for my show had arrived! I spent this week following up leads, chatting with Georgia about my different research calls and interviewees, setting up interviews, talking to patients on the phone, and more. It was very busy but my adrenaline was high and with fortunate timing all my pre-recorded audio came through by lunchtime on Friday, giving me just enough time to edit!

The show was organised around different organs under the umbrella of regeneration, and had a lot of moving parts! I made a vox pop from asking people in the Cambridge market what their favourite scar was, and we also had live interviews with Professor Mat Hardman and cardiologist Dr Stephen Pettit of the Royal Papworth Hospital. The pre-recorded interviews were with liver scientist Dr Meritxell Huch of the Gurdon Institute and neuroscientist Professor Tom Carmichael of UCLA, and we also included three fantastic statements from patients - Martin Boughen, who donated over half his liver to his son; Sarah Miles, a heart attack survivor with advanced heart failure; and Kavita Jardin, a stroke survivor and author.

With the many different guests and pieces of pre-recorded audio, I was super glad that it all came together in the end and very grateful to Georgia and Chris for all their support and help.

Week 8

My final week at The Naked Scientists seemed to come round very fast, and with Christmas nearly here I was helping out Katie with the Christmas show. This included recording myself making some roast potatoes at home and running a taste-test with people in the streets of Cambridge about cheap vs expensive fizzy wine, both of which were super fun projects! This week I also wrote and recorded a myth about mitochondrial inheritance, and produced the QOTW, which this time was about soap. Both of these pieces were ‘in the bank’ for after Christmas.

We all went bowling as a team for our Christmas party which was fab, despite my incredibly poor skills, and generally had a wonderful chocolate-filled time.

Wrap up

I had a really fantastic time during my internship with The Naked Scientists - it was fun, challenging, thoughtful, and confidence-building work that really suited me, and confirmed for me that I want to move into science communication after my PhD. The team were incredibly supportive, and I learned a lot of real skills, both technical (how to use recording equipment, how to edit audio) and otherwise. Learning how to find the story and narrative in an interview was a highlight, as was the feeling I got whenever I made a piece and could tell that everything had gone just right.

I’m very grateful to Chris, Georgia, Izzie, Adam, and Katie, for all the guidance, training, and support during my internship, and also for all the hilarity and cups of coffee and tea!

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