Jenny Gracie: Naked Internship
The Naked Scientist internship exposed me to a whole new area of science communication. The fully-clothed 8 week visit provided experiences I would not have encountered in my normal PhD programme, and the skills learned will help shape my career...
Before the Internship
Science communication is something I have always been interested in, and as a STEM ambassador I attend fairs, festivals and schools to help spark a curiosity in science. During my PhD, the opportunity of an 8 week internship with The Naked Scientists came up, and I simply couldn’t let it pass.
The first hurdle was to source funding; this was needed only because I am based at an institution external to Cambridge (I'm at the University of Strathclyde) and it wasn’t a formal part of my PhD programme, meaning it had to be supported by other financial means. But the hours, if not days, of application-preparation eventually paid off, and my internship was ultimately supported by The Royal Society of Chemistry, the Association of British Spectroscopists (ABS Trust), SCI, the University of Strathclyde and Cell Block Science. Without this financial support, I simply could not have taken the internship, so I am extremely grateful to the institutions that contributed to what I think has been a transformative career experience.
Correspondence with Izzie, one of the Naked Scientists producers, got everything in order before my visit. After paperwork was completed, I was given a welcome pack so I knew what to expect, and this certainly helped calm me down. Just knowing the intern expectations, office dress code and - most importantly - the lunch situation proved useful!
During the Internship
The first day in the office was a catapult into the world of radio broadcast and podcast production, but perfect for understanding how a show is produced from scratch. I was welcomed in by the British method and life blood of any office... a cup of tea. The weekly Naked Scientists show consists of two parts: the first half hour covers the news and recently-published articles. The second thirty minutes covers a specific scientific topic. As a media source, we had access to all the journals being published that week before public release. Articles with a global impact and the ability to capture the interest of the listener would often make for a good news story. So each team member would be assigned an article, and then we’d contact the authors, scope out the story and arrange a recorded interview.
To begin this process, we would reach out to the authors to ask for a ‘research call’. This was where we got a first hand version of the paper and secretly scouted them for radio-worthiness. Next came the hard part, finding time for them to have a recorded interview, and finding the recording equipment on their end of the line. My first week really plunged me into the process of producing a live radio show, but I guess first hand experience is best when it’s such a fast paced environment! With my foundation knowledge of how it all works, I looked forward to follow weeks, and began to feel more confident with what I was doing.
During the internship I also learned how to use software to edit audio, and stitch together multiple tracks to create built pieces with music and sound effects. To accompany each interview I did, I also wrote and published a short article about the research. Writing an article required the conversion of high level science into a form that could be understood by the general public, something that is much harder than it sounds! I soon realised that covering a subject that I had no background in, such as the time I interviewed a planetary scientist who works with the Curiosity Rover on Mars, meant I didn’t assume any knowledge and could be a better advocate for the audience. Reporting on such a variety of science disciplines was a highlight for me. During a PhD you can become very focused and blinded by your area of science, yet there are so many fascinating fields out there to learn about. As my grasp on the style of article needed improved, my writing style improved in confidence and quality.
The main goal of the internship was to produce my own "back half" of the show on a topic of my choosing. I elected to cover the periodic table, since 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table. The show was going to celebrate 150 years of this table, with a focus on the past, present (in terms of sustainability) and future of new elements. I had to source, brief and confirm three guests for live interview on the radio, as well as organising a pre-recorded interview on the topic of identifying elements. Chasing people and finding appropriate contributors is one of the most time-consuming parts of show planning. After this, I had to write the programme script and also produce a short segment called Quick Fire Science. Chemistry is a very technical, and jargon filled subject, so this 2 minute section was meant to help explain some basics like 'what is an element?' and 'how was the periodic table formed?' before we got into the meat of the programme content. The piece was jazzed up with some music and sound effects to, I hope, keep the listeners engaged!
A mixture of excitement and nerves were the dominant emotions this week. Regrettably, my working week was cut down to two days owing to an unavoidable trip back home. This meant squeezing all of my final show checks into one working day... ahhh! Unfortunately, by being away, it meant I missed the opportunity to do the pre-recorded interview on location, although I did still get to edit the audio the team produced in the meantime and make it into a nice segment for the back half of the show.
The Friday before the show aired was a bit manic, but Katie, the producer overseeing my programme, kept me calm and helped guide me through all the tasks. It was a late night, but in the end we got all the audio and scripts completed. Then came Sunday evening... show time! I felt an odd sense of calmness, as with all the hard work behind me, there was nothing more I could do. It was now down to Katie and Chris as the presenters to bring it to life. After welcoming the guests and getting them in the studio, I lined up the twitter feed, and then sat back and ‘relaxed’. Even though I was there listening, I have little recognition to what was actually said during the live broadcast, it wasn’t until listening back to the podcast that I knew how it went.
The show was broadcast live on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, then repeated on BBC Radio 5 Live and ABC Radio National in Australia later the next week. A podcast version was also published and made available on the usual platforms including Spotify and iTunes, making it available worldwide. I’m very proud that my hard work will be read and heard all around the world, and the reach of this internship is something I underestimated at first.
Having started the internship with no exposure to science radio or journalism, I now appreciate how much work goes into just a few minutes of audio! My time with the team has progressed my communication skills and helped mould a style of writing that I’ll carry forward in my career. The main task was the show itself, and, as a perfectionist, there’s always things I want to change, but, overall, I’m proud of what I produced. I’m still amazed at how many people have either read an article I’ve written, listened to an audio piece I’ve produced or engaged with a post on social media. My voice has been broadcast all around the world - such a surreal thought!
The first hand experiences I got as an intern were invaluable, and I appreciate all the time and effort the producers made with me! Going forward, I’m still interested in a career within science communication and know that my time as a Naked Scientist will have helped shape that career path. If you’re considering the internship, I think it’s definitely worth a try...