Iacopo Russo: Naked Internship
After submitting my PhD thesis in engineering and having passed my viva, I took a year off to explore creative writing and communication. As part of this exploration, I was lucky enough to join the Naked Scientists team for a two-month internship in science radio production. The experience was both eye-opening and gratifying...
Why I applied
Although I enjoy maths, science and engineering, I have always had a passion for writing and communication. People engage way better with stories than with data, so if you want to get across an important message you need to tell a good story. This is why I decided to spend a year learning how to write and tell stories; during this time I started listening to a lot more podcasts and realised the great potential of the medium to engage with listeners. I decided to apply for an internship with the Naked Scientists to learn how to interview scientists, how to explain complex concepts in simple words, and how to build a story that people want to listen to.
The first week
I started my internship at the beginning of October 2021. One of the best aspects of the way the internship is structured is that you start working hard from day 1. I read news and pitched stories to the rest of the team, I was assigned a news piece, I emailed a scientist and I gave them a call, all on the first day on the job. This was overwhelming, of course, but I think it was a great way to learn by doing. I also learnt by listening in to how more experienced producers conducted their calls and how they selected the bits of news they thought were most exciting or entertaining or important. I also started learning how to use the software to edit the audio, marking the different questions and removing the ones that are not relevant. In the first week I also covered the news about the Nobel Prize in Physics and I added nice music underneath which made it more engaging.
My least favourite piece of news
At the beginning, I wasn’t very good at getting to the heart of stories or asking the right questions. Each week, you start by reading the press release of a scientific paper that has just been published, and you need to take away 2 or 3 key messages you want to convey, and that’s not always easy, especially if you come from a science or technical background. The danger is getting lost in the details, or becoming interested in a very technical side of the story that isn’t interesting to everyone. My worst piece of news was on the growing problem of e-waste, which has now globally reached the weight of the Great Wall of China: I could not get to the heart of the matter, I did not ask interesting questions on how e-waste is recycled, and overall the interview ended up being quite flat. The hardest part of the job is judging whether a speaker can explain the subject clearly and entertainingly enough for all listeners to remain engaged.
My favourite piece of news
As I kept improving on my work week by week, I started becoming more confident and more conversational with the researchers I interviewed. I read press releases more carefully and prepared in advance for the interviews so I knews which questions I wanted to ask. This helps a lot because ultimately you’d like to conduct all your interviews as if it was a conversation at the bar, not an official Q&A, because this brings the science to the level of everyday life. I was particularly successful with a piece of news on declining birdsong across Europe and North America. It felt like a genuine conversation with a researcher, and I added the sounds of birds singing to the audio piece, and this made the story more engaging and direct.
Would wood be good?
Throughout the internship, I worked to assemble my own 30-min show on wood as an engineering material for a sustainable future. I am passionate about sustainability and materials, so this was something I really cared about and enjoyed. I went to do field recordings both at a construction site in London and at a chemistry lab in Cambridge. I interviewed both architects and scientists to learn about timber in construction and the future of wood as a natural, biodegradable, low carbon material. Putting the whole show together was difficult so I asked for help and the final result was a fantastic team effort. At some point we realised that a speaker I had interviewed was taking a very long time to explain a simple concept, so we decided to replace the interview with a piece recorded by me in the woods. Although taking this decision was quite difficult, the last minute change made the whole show flow better. I had the fantastic opportunity to co-present the show live with Sally (a producer in the team) in the BBC Cambridgesgire studio and that was both very scary (I had never been live on radio) and lots of fun.
What I’ve learnt
I’ve learnt many things during the internship: how to stay up to date with science news, how to pitch a science news story, how to gauge whether someone is a clear and entertaining speaker, how to ask the right questions, how to edit audio pieces, how to add music and sound effects, how to ask for help when needed, how to introduce the subject of scientific papers by making a reference to something that everybody has experienced in their daily life. Most of all, I learnt that science can really be wonderful if it is wonderfully told. After these eight weeks, I realised that scientists want to tell their own stories, but they often don’t think about what the audience wants to hear. Sometimes you can find a hook to explain a piece of science that would normally be very obscure or removed from daily experience (like particle physics or the internal structure of wood) and that makes for great science communication.
I would like to take a chance to thank Chris, Sally, Harry, Eva, Julia, Otis, Verner, Cameron, Katie and Tricia for sharing this fantastic time with me and for teaching me a lot about audio production and science communication and team working during this time.