My Naked Scientist Summer

Marika Ottman is an Aerospace Engineering student at Virginia Tech, in the United States. She completed a summer internship with the Naked Scientists...
11 September 2018


Marika is an Aerospace Engineering student at Virginia Tech, in the United States. When Marika's not flying her drone or working with a wind tunnel, you can find her exploring outside with a ridiculous amount of camera gear to document her adventures! Rolls-Royce supported an internship for her with the Naked Scientists, at Cambridge University, during the summer. Follow her blog post to learn about her experience with us.

Week 1: Living and Working in a New Country
I rode my bicycle to work on the left side of the road. As an American it was very disorienting! Regardless, I got to work and was only 15 minutes late. Way to go. My mentor, Katie Haylor, was excited to greet me at the office. She immediately introduced me to the team, and gave me access to The Naked Scientists “Bible” to explain how everything works.

Day 1, I looked through embargoed science papers to find a good news story. I found a few and discussed them with Katie. As soon as we agreed on a story about renewable energy, she said “Ok, now it’s time to call the lead author of the paper to discuss their work.”

I was terrified! This was my first day on the job and I was supposed to speak to a super smart scientist about their work, all of which is completely unrelated to my field. Better yet, they were located in Germany. Katie talked me through it, and it ended up being a great conversation on the phone. I asked the scientist more about his work, and listened to see if he could explain complex concepts in ways that are easy to understand. He was great! After the call, I booked him for an interview.

I was lucky in the fact that my first interview ever was with a researcher who had also never done an interview. We learned together. I gave it my best, but listening back to it I sounded very rigid and scripted. Listening to someone’s response while planning your next question is truly an art. I did not master it in the first week, but I knew which direction I had to go to improve.

By the end of the week, I had conducted two interviews: one with a researcher in Germany, and another with a researcher in Australia. I quickly learned how tricky time zones can be, but the researchers were very flexible and eager to help.

Week 2: Getting Into the Groove
Katie taught me the in’s and out’s of editing the audio from my interviews. It is tedious! I learned how to improve sound quality, take out any “ums” or stutters, and keep the context and validity of the interview. Covering an entire research topic in a 4 minute interview is tough! I also began to learn the magic of sound effects. What fun!

In addition, I started to write Science News articles. After years of writing super boring technical lab reports, this writing style was completely foreign to me. What do you mean it has to be easy to understand and entertaining? How am I supposed to be entertaining? Well for starters, The Naked Scientist love puns if you haven’t noticed. I frankly find it "punbearable", but I didn’t want to face "punemployment", so I quickly began to "punjure" up some puns for my articles. Is it working?

Week 3: Going Live on the Radio
I finally started to get the hang of producing one podcast and one article per week. I was improving my writing a lot, and my interviews were also getting better! I began to sound more relaxed and natural on the recordings, but I still had room for improvement in forming my questions.

Just as I started to feel comfortable at work, Chris told me he was going to be live on BBC Norfolk on Wednesday evening, and that I should join! The pit of my stomach told me not to do it, but an internship is all about learning and trying things outside of your comfort zone. Before my nerves could stop me, my mouth blurted out “Ok!”

Wednesday night I went on air with Chris for about an hour on a segment called “Ask the Naked Scientists.” Anyone could call in and ask any science-related question. I didn’t even have a degree in Aerospace Engineering yet, how was I trusted to answer questions on anything?

Apparently, it is coincidence-based tradition that the Naked Scientist on air never gets questions related to their field. However, as luck would have it, the new fleet of F-35 stealth jets had first arrived to the UK just minutes before I went on air. Consequently, most of my questions were about airplanes. Thank goodness! Overall, it was a fun experience. Even when I didn’t know the answer, Chris and I would bounce ideas off of each other and have more of a discussion. And when in doubt, I threw in a joke or two.

Listening back to myself on air, I heard how many times I said “yeah,” “um,” and “you know,” as placeholders. My family listened to the segment, and I received a phone call from my mother saying “stop saying ‘you know’ so much; you sound like such an American!” Oh, the horror. After that, I made a conscious effort to reduce my usage of placeholders.

Week 4: The Magic of Cambridge

This week I was in charge of “Question of the Week” in addition to my normal duties of science news podcasts and articles. The question was “how do astronauts weigh things in space?” I am an ambitious person, so the first specialist I could think of would be an astronaut. After incessant googling, I came across a man named Michael Foale. He went to Queen’s College in Cambridge before becoming a NASA astronaut and the Commander of the International Space Station. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find his contact information. He had a whole publicity team that I would have to contact to book him for an event. I left work that day feeling defeated. Maybe I could research a physicist to contact the next day.

After cycling home to my dorm, I had realised that I locked myself out of my room...again. I went to the porter to let me in. As we were walking to my room, he said to me “it’s interesting that you’re studying aerospace engineering. The girl that lived in your dorm before you is the daughter of an astronaut!” We arrived to my room, and I saw that the name above the door was “Foale”. No way! I was just googling her father at work! I got her email address from a hallmate. I contacted her and told her about “Question of the Week.” She immediately got me in touch with her father, Michael Foale, and the rest was history. Listen to “How do astronauts weigh things in space?” to hear how it turned out.

Week 5: My First Face-to-Face Interview
This week I got to visit a researcher at the University of Cambridge to discuss his work for an interview. The other two interns only started last week, so they came with me to watch the interview. No pressure! Once we arrived, I eagerly waited at reception with my headphones on and my microphone at the ready.

The scientist came down to greet me. He had just gotten off the phone with the New York Times to tell them about his work. Oh man. A lot of pressure. We went up to his lab and started the interview. I quickly learned a very important lesson: DO NOT ASK YES OR NO QUESTIONS. I made this mistake, and my interviewee looked at me with a confused expression, and simply answered “yes.” Was I conducting an interrogation or an interview? After I had realised my mistake, the rest of the interview went very well! Having a face-to-face interview allows for more interaction than remote interviews. It feels much more like a conversation.

Week 7: Show Time
This week my show was due. My topic of choice was the evolution of fighter aircraft. I had made 5 minute podcasts all summer without a problem, but now a 30 minute show? I was quite overwhelmed at first, but the entire team pitched in to make sure I had all of my interviews scheduled, my sound effects recorded, and my edits reviewed. It’s amazing what The Naked Scientists team is capable of!

I used my show as an opportunity to see places and meet people that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see. The Naked Scientists is a well renowned program, so my affiliation with the show gave me access to incredible experiences. Scientists rearrange their schedules to work with us. It is amazing how flexible and accommodating they become for our interviews!

For my show, I got to visit Rolls Royce in Derby to see jet engines up close. I also made a field trip to IWM Duxford to conduct an interview inside of a Concorde. They were truly once in a lifetime opportunities.

My show ended up coming together beautifully, and went on air without a hitch. My interviewees were incredible, and the team helped make my vision a reality. Thanks everyone!

Weeks 8-10: Cruising
After I finished my show, I was cruising. Everything felt easy in comparison. Some weeks, I was producing twice as much work as I did at the beginning. I finally got the hang of things! I continued my weekly assignments as the other interns started working on their big shows. I helped when I could; I even invited myself on a field trip to take a ride in an autonomous vehicle.

On an extracurricular note, I enjoyed Cambridge as much as possible. These relaxing weeks consisted of punting, swimming in the River Cam, cycling to Grantchester meadows, and sneaking into all of the different colleges. I couldn’t have been placed in a more beautiful city!

Week 11: Wrapping Up
My last week was bittersweet. I finished one last podcast and wrote a feature to wrap things up. I reflected on where I started and how much I learned throughout the summer. My first week, I was terrified to have a 15 minute conversation on the phone with a scientist. By week 12, I was able to prepare for and conduct an interview within one hour of having it assigned. I have become much more confident in interviewing people and I have learned how to ask the right questions. My writing has improved drastically, and I have developed my own style. Although my internship with The Naked Scientists is over, I am not done working with the amazing team. Stay tuned...


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