My internship with the Naked Scientists
The wide variety of new experiences and challenges during my 8-week internship took me far outside my comfort zone and although fully clothed the steep learning curve often had me feeling ‘nakedly’ exposed…
Week 1: A fast paced welcome
The first thing that struck me was the complete change in pace to what I had become used to during my PhD. From having a thesis to aim for on the horizon it was a shock to the system to experience the speedy turn-around and fast approaching deadlines in the world of science news. It quickly became clear that this work was fuelled by copious amounts of tea and fresh air – the daily lunchtime wanderings around Madingley and the 30ish minute commute on my bike provided me with much needed space away from the desk.
The first task on Monday morning was to join the team in their trawl of press releases from scientific journals and decide what might be news-worthy. Around 11am we wheeled our chairs together for a news meeting to decide what stories to pursue. I was given a news item about a recent astronomical discovery about the brightest light in our universe – quite a change from the microscopic world of algae and bacteria I was used to from my PhD.
On Tuesday, after a research call with one of the authors (coincidently based in Cambridge), I got a quick induction to the recording gear, put together some questions and cycled off to the Institute of Astronomy for my first face-to-face interview. This was quite a daunting experience and it felt physically awkward juggling all the gear. But my interviewee was very patient and we managed to get through all my questions.
Wednesday morning was the weekly production meeting, which was an excellent chance to see how the team dissect a show and what it takes to put one together.
With lots of audio recorded from my interview, I now had the task of learning how to edit it together into a short news piece. I was introduced to the software and set about listening back to the interview. It took a while not to cringe every time I heard my own voice. Having to cut a lot out, meant that I quickly came to appreciate the importance of breaths. Breaths are natural to the rhythm of speech and without them the audio can sound strained. Breaths are also a magical ingredient that can be used to smoothen edits where sections have been cut.
I finished off the week by writing up the story as a science news article for the website. I learnt about the art of carrying the reader through a written piece by creating a hook at the beginning, then gradually adding more information and using quotes to support the narrative.
On Sunday I went to the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire studio for the live broadcast of the show! With the other intern, we were put to the task of populating the social media feeds and the hour flew by. Having listened to the podcast before, it was exciting and a little surreal to see it all happening live in front of me.
Week 2: Taking audio editing to the next level
This week I felt more settled and understood better what was expected of me. My news piece was about a study that explored imagination as a tool for overcoming fear. I really enjoyed my conversation with the lead author, but that meant that I got a bit carried away in the interview and once again recorded too much. With this being my first time using the recording studio for an interview, I also made several recording errors, like sitting too close to the microphone, which meant that my p’s popped.
This week I had the additional task of putting together Question of the Week. The question was: can dogs recognise each other as dogs? I contacted several vets and dog cognition experts (didn’t realise that was a thing!) and managed to get some great answers. I then wrote a script to narrate the whole thing and learnt how to use multi-track to combine the different elements and add some doggy sound effects.
I also got involved in populating the website’s forum with questions. People email in to ask their science questions and we then put them to the forum and encourage discussion. It was fun to see what questions came up – from ‘Do dolphins like music?’ to ‘What would happen if the Earth stopped spinning?’
Week 3: Getting it wrong to learn how to get it right
Going into this week I had been tipped off by a friend that an exciting paper was going to be published about growing mini-placentas in a lab, so when I saw the press release in Monday’s search for news I was excited to pursue the story. I arranged a face-to-face interview with the first author of the paper, but I made some technical mistakes which meant that the audio quality wasn’t great. Despite this, I still managed to edit it together and Georgia helped to get the audio to an acceptable standard. The experience gave me lots to learn, including the importance of microphone position, being aware of background noises and recording silence in the room you’re recording in, which can be used to smooth transitions in the edit.
I also started brainstorming potential ideas for my show. Everything I was coming up with seemed either too broad or too specialised, but ideas have to start somewhere and it was helpful to begin these conversations, gather feedback and gain understanding of what elements make up a show.
Week 4: Tiny tweezers and space station stars
My news story this week was about ‘nano-tweezers’ that can create high electric fields capable of extracting single molecules from cells, which could be used to study what goes wrong in diseased cells. This week I felt like I was making progress and gaining confidence in asking people to re-do answers to my questions if I thought they could be more succinct or use more accessible language. Doing a good interview seems like it’s a lot about preparation, knowing what points you need to cover to get the story across, then listening carefully and guiding the interviewee with clear, concise questions.
An exciting moment of the week was when the former commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, called in live for Sunday’s show. As the only member of the team not in a radio studio I helped coordinate this to make sure that Hadfield was ready when needed. For a brief moment I even spoke to him on the phone!
Week 5: Making the most of sound
This week Chris helped me write a script to narrate my news story, which was about a new way of harnessing sunlight to produce clean water. I also got loads of great advice for recording my own voice, which comes down to connecting with your breath and visualising what you are saying in order to inject energy, enthusiasm and a sense of authority. I also learnt about the power of sound effects for drawing a listener into your piece and quickly providing a context.
Additionally, this week I got involved with some experiments Katie had devised for her monthly Naked Neuroscience podcast. This month was all about the peripheral nervous system. Katie poked us with pencils and fed us chilli peppers and ice cubes. This may sound cruel, but it was a lot of fun and we laughed a lot.
Week 6: The run-up to Christmas
Lots of things were going on this week to make sure that everything was lined up for the holiday. As well as my weekly news piece, I helped with creating the Christmas show podcast page and scheduled lots of social media posts for the festive season. But amid the work, we also got into the festive spirit. We had a lovely Christmas lunch at Madingley Hall and went bowling.
In Wednesday’s meeting the team helped me settle on a theme of microbes and food for my show, but I was a little worried that I hadn’t managed to confirm any guests yet. I was hopeful though that after a refreshing holiday I could pull things together in the new year.
Weeks 7-8: Growing a show - from farm to fork
First day back and I still had no idea how my show was going to come together, but this was a short week and I dedicated the three days to making as much progress as possible. By doing lots of research calls with potential guests and chatting with the team over tea, a narrative started to come together and by Friday I had three guests confirmed.
Then it was show week. On the whole I managed to stay calm, but there was a fever of activity inside of me trying to process all the information I was gathering and putting it together in a logical order, while confirming topics with live guest. To see it all come together required flexibility, while staying true to the core theme of the show: the role of microbes from farm to fork. I’m hugely grateful to the whole team, who all provided valuable help.
On Tuesday I went to visit Giles Oldroyd at the Sainsbury Lab to record an on location piece about soil microbes – from digging up plant roots to seeing the growth rooms where genetically engineered barley plants are grown that could hold the key to reducing our reliance on fertilisers. There is a lot to think about when recording on location, but with Katie’s amazing help I was able to get through all the different sections.
Somehow I also managed to squeeze in a news interview about a new DNA based material that can interact with a wound overtime to help it heal. I felt very excited when this was chosen as the lead news item for the week! This felt like a wonderful culmination of all I’ve learnt.
Sunday came around and sadly Izzie was too ill to present the show. Luckily Georgia was able to step in last minute. Watching it all come together and seeing the show go out live was a proud moment. It was particularly great to see how two of the live guests immediately connected and made me appreciate how producers bring people with similar interests together, which can spark meaningful connections.
After the relief of seeing Sunday’s show go well, I spent my final two days sending emails to thank my guests and wrapping up any loose ends. I was also able to fit in one last news interview. This time it was about coffee and the results of a recent study indicating that about 60% of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction. I met up with the Glasshouse supervisor at the Botanic Gardens to discuss the paper over some coffee and he showed me their coffee plant.
Overall this has been an amazing insight into the world of science radio. I've learnt a great deal and I have a new-found appreciation for the dedication and skill that goes into making good science radio – I now find myself listening with a new set of ears!
Beyond finishing my PhD, I’m not sure what’s coming next, but the new connections I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had during my time as a Naked Scientist have provided me with a wealth of new insights that I will carry with me wherever my journey takes me and for that I am hugely grateful.