Naked from afar
“I heard you on the radio last night” has been a relatively common conversation starter over the last month or so.
I was just as nervous as the other contestants while waiting to take the stage in The University of Western Australia’s 2019 Three Minute Thesis competition, where PhD students have three minutes to explain their research to a general audience. I had no idea that these three minutes would change my life.
The Naked Scientist himself, Dr Chris Smith, was in the audience that day. After a competitive interview process, I was awarded an internship with The Naked Scientists! I would go to Cambridge during their summer of 2020.
However, the best-laid plans are bound to change, and in this case, the entire world changed and I was not going overseas in 2020. In light of this, we decided to postpone my internship until I could make it to the UK.
After waiting a year to go to Cambridge, we decided that the best way forward would be for me to do Naked Science from my lounge room here in Perth, Western Australia. Having just submitted my PhD thesis weeks before and with the financial support of The University of Western Australia, I was raring to go.
Why I was so excited
As a marine biologist and shark researcher, I have always felt that communicating the latest research is vitally important, as I study some of the most misunderstood predators on earth. I also have a passion for sharing fun facts about our planet’s predators as they have quite a battle for survival on their hands.
Communicating science aligns with my future career path and moving forward I plan to pursue both, communicating science alongside conducting my own research. By sharing that they are more than just their teeth, I can help people learn more about sharks and other predators - turning their fear into fascination and aiding conservation efforts as well.
At the time I began my internship I had already been interviewed on national TV and radio along with a handful of podcasts, and I had been invited to host a radio show in Perth. I hadn’t had any training to do any of this and welcomed the opportunity to learn from the Naked Scientists – the best in the business.
However, what I had already done was nothing compared to the fast-paced world of science broadcasting. I was excited to refine my science communication skills on a variety of topics and I was not disappointed.
During my time with The Naked Scientists, I covered an assortment of research from mining and medical electronics that dissolve when done to dinosaurs, glaciers releasing mercury and the mystery of Australia's missing water.
I knew little about many of these topics before covering the story. With some preparation and background reading, I found that researchers had a story to tell and were happy to share it. I’m happy to say that I established friendships with some of the interviewees which are already turning into collaborations.
How an international Internship worked
As you probably already know, The Naked Scientists is a weekly radio show that is broadcast on the radio internationally, including on the BBC in the UK, the ABC here in Australia and is also available as a podcast. The show has two main components, the first half-hour is the latest breaking science news and the second half delves in-depth on a different scientific topic every week.
Each week was a new adventure in the newsroom. Due to the 7-hour time difference between the UK and Australia, I had Monday to write and polish my news articles from the previous week and find interesting news pieces for the upcoming show.
Monday evenings we would have the news meeting on Zoom, where the team would get together to choose which news items to cover in the week ahead. When we had our stories for the week, the next task was to schedule a research call with the author of the paper to discuss their work. I would usually send those emails Monday night, during the working day for North America and Europe.
On Tuesday I would schedule the research call – depending on the time zone – and take notes during the call to understand the research and decide what questions to ask during the interview.
Tuesday evenings we would meet on Zoom again to provide feedback on the show from the previous week. We also discussed future shows and the entire team would suggest guests and provide advice to the producer of upcoming shows.
I always enjoyed these meetings, and although the least experienced, I always felt that my opinions and feedback were not only welcomed but valued.
The rest of the week was spent recording interviews, refining my presenting and editing skills and writing news articles.
Adam Murphy was my go-to producer, we’d chat most afternoons to answer any queries I had and provide feedback on my work. I’ll miss our afternoon discussions over cups of tea. My tea drinking increased a lot during my internship!
It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to a ‘new normal’. During my internship not only did I drink less coffee and more tea, but we also went into lockdown in Perth. As we were all working remotely from home, this had little impact on producing the show.
Pesky problems solved
My work hours changed to writing and interviewing in the morning, editing in the afternoon and having meetings in the evening. The big issue with remote working was getting broadcast quality sound – it’s a little tricky trying to replace a BBC studio with an iPhone and my own personal little microphone.
Fortunately Ben, a former intern living in Perth, helped me out with the ‘hands on’ aspect, he even lent me his microphone. When I knew what to look for, I was able to get my hands on some professional recording gear.
Now with the equipment side taken care of, it was time to focus on my scripting, speaking and writing skills with help from Chris, Adam and the team.
After some initial hiccups of background noise from home (who knew that birds and dogs could tell when I was recording and would use that time to call and bark), I figured out soundproofing (lots of soft furnishings) and it was all downhill from there.
Having done the hard yards myself to find out what worked best using what I had available at home made it easier for me to get the best quality audio using what my interviewees had on hand.
One highlight of my internship was producing the Question of the Week – when a listener sends in a question for us to tackle. My frosty topic was testing the old saying that all snowflakes are unique.
I really enjoyed finding a researcher to interview, writing the script and editing it all together into one piece for the broadcast. The challenge was to make sure the information flowed well and told the story in a way that was not only entertaining but easy for the audience to understand.
As there were at least five of us producing news pieces for the show, it was a highlight when my piece was selected for the broadcast. I’m proud to say that this happened more than once and was in no small part due to the assistance and encouragement of the team.
It was so much fun to hear my work featured on the BBC and ABC – it was great to share this with my family as well. Some friends noticed my jokes, as humour is not only accepted on the show but encouraged – so jokes reigned supreme and I often chuckled while writing the scripts.
Towards the end of the internship, it was my turn to produce a show – with the full support of the team. Naturally, I wanted to talk about the ocean and as it had been a while since The Naked Scientists produced a shark show, I was able to highlight some lesser-known shark species and behaviour in my show.
The beauty about doing my show at the end of the internship is that I had spent the previous month or so listening to the rest of the producers share tips and tricks about how to present and produce a show. By the time it was my turn to produce, I had a clear outline of what I wanted to say and who I wanted to interview on the show.
After sending lots of emails and having numerous Zoom interviews to find guests for the show, the show date arrived. As I was in Australia I could only pre-record my segment and I missed the live recording of the show. The show was a great success, all the segments and guests were amazing and I am immensely proud of what the team accomplished.
During my internship, I learnt some valuable skills that will help me forge my career. Alongside presenting and learning how to write and speak clearly, I learnt other less tangible skills.
Getting my thoughts in order to write a script, having facts flow from one point to another clearly and logically, learning how to interview along with the basics of storytelling are useful in all avenues of life - whether it's for presentations, writing and management.
I am very grateful to Chris, Adam, Phil, Eva and Sally for showing me the ropes and giving me valuable advice and support, not only about broadcasting but also invaluable tips and tricks for life after a PhD and my new career trajectory of science communication and research.