My internship with the Naked Scientists

15 March 2019

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Image of Mariana in the recording studio

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As someone who is interested in science communication, I had always had my eye out for opportunities. But the opportunity of an internship with The Naked Scientists was a mixture of coincidence and great luck!

I attended a workshop held by Chris Smith at Murdoch University, where I am a researcher. I was quite busy on that day, but thought I should make the effort. The workshop was aimed at training researchers and PhD students on how to communicate their work in 30 seconds! At the end of it, Chris mentioned that applications for an internship at The Naked Scientists were open, and it took me less than an hour to speak to my supervisor and apply for it. Getting all things to line up so that I could actually leave my work for two months and take a position with the team in Cambridge, all the while being pregnant and with limitations of flight dates was like having stars aligning...

My interest in science communication is very strong, but I have had little opportunity to develop these skills in my career, other than two short courses – one during my undergraduate years and one as part of my PhD. It is particularly important to me now that I work for the Harry Butler Institute, which has a core vision of strengthening the connection between academia, industry and the community.

Week 1

On my first day with The Naked Scientists, I was allocated a desk and given a (very brief) description of the work, and set out to chase news stories for the team meeting. I learnt about the wonderful world of embargoed news, and set out to call researchers and scientists who could give interviews on the work they were about to publish.

Everything about the work and the approach to the work was new to me. Talk about the deep end of the pool! The whole week was an incredibly steep learning curve, but I made it and even came out of it with an article published online.

I think the most obvious things I took from my first week are to jump straight in and just tackle the deadlines (which, at first, seemed extremely short to me), and also to forget everything about scientific writing – with The Naked Scientists, my writing had to be completely transformed into active voice, direct and catchy statements, rather than the usual manuscript style.

Week 2

Learning from previous mistakes – audio quality of the interview being the most significant of them – I set off on much firmer ground to my second week, and even managed to keep track of my thoughts and the interviewee’s answers during our call. I found myself enjoying my new activities, like discussing some of the best science news on Monday mornings, and being able to chat to such fantastic researchers and scientists.

It helped me that I had such a happy and helpful interviewee for the news piece I was allocated. They made my life so much easier during our research call and interview. I never thought I’d be laughing out loud while talking about stimulation of the cingulum bundle in the brain...

The steepness of the learning curve didn’t really change – on my second week, on top of the news piece and interview, I was also allocated the Question of the Week; and all the producing, interviewing, audio editing, writing and publishing got me to really stretch my productivity levels.

Week 3

Things felt a little more in place for me on week 3, and I felt I could find my way around the filing system and the web content a little more easily. My lead story for this week was published by a group of American researchers, and because of their availability and the time difference, we opted to interview someone from Cambridge who works in the same field and could provide commentary on the article.

It was my first live, face-to-face interview, and I am lucky to have shadowed Izzie Clarke on her live interview the week before. I had a crash course on how to use the gear and went off and recorded the piece. I’m finding every week that the researchers and scientists may well pick up on the fact that I am an intern, and have little experience – and it really warms my heart that they try to make it easier on me! I feel surrounded by good people here.

That can also be said for the team at the Naked Scientists. After the initial getting-to-know people phase, I feel like I am really part of the team now, and everyone is completely relaxed, friendly, and really quite funny. It is a great group to work with!

Week 4

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating - I really enjoy starting the week reading all the embargoed news in science, including things outside my field of research. I am sure I will keep this habit (or a version of it, since I won’t be able to access the embargoed news any longer) when I get back to Perth. This week, actually, I’ve been feeling pretty homesick, and it is probably to do with the time away, but also with the less-than-sunny weather we’ve been having in Cambridge.

Two of the full-time staff were away on leave and for a couple of days this week we’ve also had people down with some kind of virus. So this really was a week for the interns to take charge and power on with the work.

It is amazing to see that, even though we are definitely still beginners, we were a lot more confident and able to do so much. Because of the staff shortage, this week I did my news piece and also took on extra production tasks, helped with the Q&A show quiz and ‘Who am I’ segments, and started posting lots on the forum.

Week 5

I had recorded an interview and written a news piece in every week so far, but either due to the audio quality, the deadline, or the way in which the interview went, they hadn’t made the cut for the live show on Sunday... until now! I was so happy my piece went into the BBC Cambridgeshire show and the main body of the podcast, I may have even done a little silly dance.

Tuesdays have been a bit of a highlight for me, as I really enjoy checking the transcripts from the previous Sunday show and listening to the whole show after its edits. Even though we are there during the live broadcast, we’re usually too busy interacting with the guests who will go live, and with the social media work to really listen in. Besides, it’s amazing to compare the live show to the podcast – there’s certainly a bit of magic going into those edits done by the producers.

Actually, now that I start to write this, I think I should also mention I really (*really*) like doing the audio editing, and I’ve already mentioned I like chasing up the news stories, and I absolutely love chatting to the scientists during our research calls and interviews. It really doesn’t leave much not to like about this work!

Week 6

Although we’d been talking about the plans for my show since my third week, the weekly meeting on Wednesday, week 6, was when the plans actually solidified. There was a fair bit of change in the plans from week to week: different focus, different threads, different guests... But now we have come to an idea that seems good, interesting, relevant, and, quite importantly, achievable.

My field of research, biosecurity, is extremely common and strong in Australia, but not as much in the UK. This has been a great experience for me – explaining what I do to other people, searching for contacts locally, and learning how to communicate the messages to the general audience. Gaining this experience is something that I will really cherish for the remainder of my career! And in searching for local guests, I have come across a few people I’d love to collaborate with in the future.

I remember just watching my show materialise in front of my eyes, with much help, again, from the team and the guests, and wishing: "I hope it turns out well!"

Week 7

By far my busiest week at The Naked Scientists, it felt like the all-or-nothing week for me. Monday started on the left foot, with one of my live guests cancelling their presence on the live show, although for a completely legitimate reason. On Tuesday I had two pre-recorded interviews scheduled back on back on-location; and I also had to create a news piece unrelated to the back half of the show (and all that goes with it).

Tuesday was a mad rush, but by Wednesday I was feeling a lot more confident about my show being on track. With the risk of over-sharing, I admit that I was falling apart a little, mostly because of having so little control of the events, and because every step I took had to be supervised. Kudos to Izzie Clarke, the producer who was in charge of supervising my internship and overseeing my show.

Thursday and Friday were very busy, but things fell into place nicely. It was strange and good to see the show looking more and more like a reality...

Sunday on week 7 was different to every other Sunday at the BBC. Usually, I’d be learning and interested to see how things were done, and handling the social media with the other interns while the presenters and guests were live in the booth. This week I really took the opportunity to engage with the two live guests that came to the BBC Cambridgeshire studios, and it felt really good to see the fruit of my labour turning into reality. Katie Haylor and Izzie Clarke were the presenters, and they kept me engaged on the process and the decisions as they went down.

At the end of the night, I really felt like the producer for that show, and was quite proud of how it turned out.

Week 8

Although this was my last week, there was no slowing down. On week 8 I had the opportunity to learn a couple of new skills again: I had a feature article to produce (instead of the usual news piece), and I was also asked to create a Mythconception piece.

Working with the Naked Scientists has definitely changed my concept of deadlines and how much time is ‘loads of time’. The turnaround of work with the group is very fast, and it is energising to work in a fast-paced environment.

It was great to be a part of the meeting on Wednesday, when we discuss the previous Sunday’s program. The feedback on the whole show was great, and I was thrilled to hear that the other producers thought that I made a good selection of topics and presenters, and that the pre-recorded pieces worked very well, too. I am even more pleased to see that on the podcast version of the show, another one of my news pieces made it! So proud of how I’ve come along over these eight weeks.

Wednesday was my last day at The Naked Scientists, and I will really miss this great bunch of people, the incredibly vibrant science community in Cambridge, and my new routine. Hopefully, we’ll come across each other in the future!

Wrap-up

I am so thrilled I got the opportunity to do my eight week internship with The Naked Scientists! This has been an amazing experience, and I am extremely thankful to Simon McKirdy and Murdoch University for supporting my application and providing funding for me to come here; and for Chris Smith and The Naked Scientists team for welcoming me into their operations.

Initially, I felt like there was a little bit of frustration in having to learn things that I was completely unfamiliar with. There was also some frustration at times when I got something wrong, but due to deadlines or logistics, couldn’t fix it. It all goes to show how much I had been operating within my comfort zone, and how pushing those boundaries can lead to such amazing learning and personal and professional development.

At the end of the internship, I could really see my growth trajectory and how I had developed in the two months at Cambridge. And I met so many amazing people, and had so many laughs with both the team and with the scientists, that it really opened my mind to how science is and how it could be portrayed. I aim to continue using the skills I’ve gained, hopefully both on the interviewer and the interviewee sides.

I am certainly excited and ready to go home, but feeling bittersweet about having to leave.

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