How to be a Naked Scientist
No, this does not involve taking your clothes off and doing a science experiment.
The Naked Scientists are a radio production company based just outside Cambridge. I was lucky enough to spend eight weeks as an intern with them, producing accessible science podcasts and radio shows for the BBC.
Every week I was tasked with finding a scientific research news item, interview one of the authors, edit it into a logical audio piece and write an article about the research, there were also opportunities to get involved in other projects. At the end of the eight weeks, the culmination of my production training enabled me to produce a half an hour science radio show on a topic of my choice. To help me prepare, I attended the live broadcast of the Sunday show every week.
The Naked Scientist’s offices are located in the University of Cambridge’s sub-department of Zoology in the adorable village of Madingley. Once I made it to the offices – the building sign was obscured by an overhanging branch – I was quickly settled in by Izzie, one of the producers, and I set about my first task: finding a worthy news item. I spoke on the phone to researchers about goats preferring smiley faces and also driving psychology.
The bank holiday Monday made the first week quite frantic because all the deadlines had to be met one day sooner. In the end, due to the time constraints of the week, it was decided I would interview Dr Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin University about her recently published article about improving driver safety. Our proximity to Cambridge meant I was able to go to meet her in person for the interview under the wing of Georgia, the senior producer. It was quite daunting getting kitted up and doing my first interview face to face. I found holding up a microphone whilst she was answering my questions was embarrassingly physically demanding and I focussed most of my energy trying not to let the mic move rather than listening to her answers.
I was a complete novice when it came to podcasts, audio editing software and writing about science for non-expert readers so everything took me longer than I would have liked. I was lucky that Helen was such a fantastic interviewee because it made my editing job a lot easier but it still took a lot of time to get the audio perfected. It was very strange at first hearing my own voice on repeat during editing and I also noticed in the recording that I kept thanking her after every answer.
I also wrote an article about Helen’s research, which demonstrated that providing an audio cue about an upcoming change in the road improved the driver’s reaction speed and accuracy of the decision. I foolishly thought I would have no problem writing an article because I had just spent the past six months writing up my PhD thesis. How wrong I was! Effectively everything I had learnt over four years studying for my PhD about using long fancy words had to be thrown out the window. I was advised to limit the word length to no more than five characters!
In my first week, I was also taught how to use the recording studio - very exciting! I recorded myself reading a text written by a previous intern, which put to rest the myth about cows lying down when it rains.
On Sunday, I went to BBC Cambridgeshire’s office to observe the live recording of the Naked Scientists show about bio-mimicry! During the live show broadcast, I was in charge of tweeting about the key parts of the show. It was bizarre to hear my own voice on the cow myth, as it was broadcast live on BBC radio!
Again this week I set up a face-to-face interview with a PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. Their research is about splitting up water using enzymes to get hydrogen, which can be used as a sustainable fuel. It is such an interesting story and highlights promise for the emerging hydrogen fuel sector. As this is a field I am familiar with, I had to be really careful to keep the science simple and accessible, without using off-putting jargon words.
At the beginning of the week, Chris, asked me if I wanted to join him on a live science Q and A session on BBC Radio Norfolk on Wednesday evening. I was a little bit anxious about answering listeners science questions live on the radio but it sounded like fun and an exciting opportunity so I agreed. I was asked about medical applications of nanoparticles and we also discussed robots and clean energy.
Inspired by voicing the myth about cows last week, I set about writing one of my own. I researched a few and discovered that lots of things I believed to be true, like the three second memory of goldfish, were in fact only myths. I chose one about the colour of human blood being blue when it is oxygen deficient, which I had believed up until now.
Into my third week, I was clear about the pieces of work expected each week. This was such a change from PhD life and was particularly challenging at first because I was slow at using the new software.
This week I pursued a story about a type of material made of metal atoms in a mesh of carbon atoms, which gives it useful properties including electrical conductivity and magnetism. As a material scientist, I found this story particularly interesting because it is the only material within this class to possess these properties, which are needed for applications like electronics. As the researcher was based elsewhere, this was my first experience using the recording studio to carry out the interview over a high quality phone line called ISDN. Trying to find available (and free) studios all over the world with this kind of connection was very challenging!
This week, I started thinking about my own show, scheduled to take place at the end of Week 7. In the weekly meeting, I pitched three different ideas for shows and the team gave helpful feedback about what I should pursue. We decided to dedicate the show to the marvellous molecular machines called catalysts!
I was also in charge of Question of the Week. This is a three minute piece which appears every week at the end of the show. Listeners send in their questions and we find academics to a record an answer. We then add in some sound effects and a few childish puns to polish it off. This week, a listener wanted to know if humans could live on the moon!
Despite the weather cooling down in England, I was talking to an academic in Australia about their snazzy solar sensor, which turns blue when you have had the safe amount of exposure to UV rays in sunlight. There were even six different types depending on the classification of your skin. It was really interesting finding out how they changed the chemistry of the molecules to turn blue at different rates. I finally managed to get the audio edited on time and meet the news deadline. I was excited because my audio interview was selected to be included in the news section of the live BBC Cambridgeshire show and the Naked Scientists podcast!
Only two weeks to go until my show so I started contacting people I thought would be good guests on the show and planning the content.
Setting up the news interview this week was a bit of a challenge and the only feasible way to do it was by recording both sides of the conversation. This is risky because you cannot control the sound levels on the other side and unfortunately, even though we did a test recording, the levels were too high for the audio to be published on the podcast. Luckily I had an acceptable quality audio that I was able to publish via the RSS feed on the Naked Scientists Specials podcast.
On Wednesday, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced. I was asked to answer a few questions about what the prize is, what it was awarded for and why it is important. The interview was aired on drivetime on BBC radio Cambridgeshire. It was funny to be the interviewee after being in the interviewer’s seat up until now.
There was lots of exciting science news this week so I started off talking to three different academics about their work. One of the academics was based in London so it was fairly easy to set up the recorded interview at the BBC studio in London. They found that the young people have started drinking less over the past ten years. It was interesting to research a psychology story this week, rather than the chemistry-focused ones I am naturally drawn to.
BBC Cambridgeshire requested that we wrote an ignorance amnesty to be aired daily on the drivetime show. These are audio pieces of a few minutes explaining how an everyday object works or a scientific concept. I chose to write mine on enzymes! Enzymes are nature’s catalysts, which speed up reactions in our bodies and all around us in nature. Without these clever molecules, we simply would not exist. This was due to be aired a few days before my catalyst show so hopefully the listeners learnt something and encouraged them to tune into the main catalyst show.
I started calling academics who were keen to be involved in my catalyst show. As I had carried out my PhD in the field of catalysts, I knew a few names already but I also spoke to some new contacts. Speaking to the academics allowed me to determine if they would make a good addition to the show and brainstorm ideas for the show content. I was very pleased because Johnson Matthey, leaders in catalyst technologies, agreed to be involved in the show! After a call, we arranged that I would visit their site in Royston to record a piece about their research and development in the field of catalytic converters, which are used in cars to clean up emissions.
This was such a busy week! I had to do my usual news interview and article as well as getting everything sorted for the main catalyst show coming up on Sunday. I also ended up having my myth about blue blood aired and producing the Question of the Week about the harms of passive smoking. I probably was a bit over ambitious about what I could achieve in a week – but somehow I manged to get it all done!
It was really important to get the news interview and article done early in the week. I interviewed an academic in London who had traced the tuberculosis origin to 1,000 year ago and identified how it evolves. Tuberculosis is still one of the deadliest infectious diseases and emerging antibiotic resistance is threatening to aggravate the problem. So it is really important to understand how the strains evolve into resistance ones.
The first pre-recorded interview about synthetic liquid fuels was done on Monday. Katie carried out the interview and I prepped her before hand so she knew the key information I wanted to get across in the interview. It is quite a complicated topic so it took quite a while to edit but I got there in the end!
As the show is all about catalysts, I thought it would be fun to do an experiment on the show. However, catalysts are annoyingly quiet when they carry out their work so I couldn’t find any noisy experiments suitable for radio. So instead Adam and I went to the Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Department in the University of Cambridge to film the Elephants toothpaste experiment with the help of Dr. Ljiljana Fruk and Leander Crocker. We released the video as a teaser to catalyse interest in catalysts before the main show.
On Thursday, I visited the Johnson Matthey site with Izzie to interview Dr Chris Morgan. We were able to see the labs where they test the catalytic converters and see what comes out of a car with and without a catalytic converter. It was a great opportunity to see how industrial research is carried out and to talk to the experts trying to make our air less polluted. We had lots of great audio from the visit but it took quite a while to edit it into a logical audio piece. Izzie and I were frantically editing it last thing on Friday, along with finalising the script for the show!
Sunday was show time! Luckily most of the hard work was done but I needed to pay attention during the broadcast and make sure the interviews went according to plan. The live guest, Dr Ljiljana Fruk from Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology department in the University of Cambridge, arrived on time and was very excited to meet our news guest Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees. Ljiljana is a fantastic communicator and I took her through the main aspects of her interview on enzymes. We had another live guest on the phone in America, who the presenters took through the questions.
I was pleased with how the show went and the final version published on the Naked Scientists podcast. Producing my own show made me realise how long it takes!
The pressure was off (slightly) as my show was done! I helped with the social media to promote the show and building the website for publishing the podcast.
I carried out an interview about coral bleaching affecting the aggressiveness of fish, which made it into the live show and podcast. I was very pleased about this on my last week!
I was in charge of Question of the Week again this week and it was a very interesting question about how wombats produce cubic poo. I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to find an expert to answer this question but luckily at the last minute I received a response from a very helpful academic from Nottingham Trent University.
We got together one evening before I left to do a pub quiz, which in true Cambridge style was very difficult! Miraculously, we didn’t come last!
I wrote a longer, feature article this week about synthetic liquid fuels, which were featured in the catalyst show. I arranged an interview with an academic expert to get their opinion about these coal or natural gas derived fuels.
On my last day I opened my email to receive lovely feedback from one of my interviewees saying that working with me had been their best experience of radio as my genuine interest in their research made them feel at ease. It was so nice to receive this email just as my Naked Scientists adventure came to a close. We also had a delivery of delicious molecular chocolates from Ljiljana Fruk.
Goodbye Naked Scientists!
Overall it was a fantastic experience, such a nice change from lab work and I learnt so many new skills. As a result, I definitely want to do more science communication work in the future! Thanks to everyone at the Naked Scientists for welcoming me and teaching me the ropes. I am definitely a convert to Naked Science and I will be listening to the podcast religiously!