New year, new intern

Megan McGregor's internship with The Naked Scientists
02 April 2020


Megan McGregor, a Naked Scientists intern, standing in front of a Nissan Leaf


Eight weeks of press releases, production and puns…

From the word go, the first job of an intern with The Naked Scientists is producing interesting science news stories. I really mean from the word go – after my initial cup of coffee on the first day, I was plonked down in front of a PC and asked to look through some embargoed press releases to find a good pitch.

Alongside some rapid learning about American time zones (institutes on the west coast, I know you’re doing great science, but your time zone is a nightmare!), I quickly learned some basic rules for what makes a new story interesting to the public. My internal monologue of “health, environment, space, …and finally” may not be the best approach, but it certainly helped to provide some focus when sifting through the many pages of press releases that greeted me every Monday morning.

It turned out that my favourite kind of story to pitch was for the “…and finally” slot – the segment that rounds out the news part of our show - and can be a slightly off-the-wall, but interesting, closer. My niche was, very specifically, animal-based “…and finallys”. By the end of my internship I’d covered: what makes the best zoo population; the re-introduction of beavers to the wild in England; and the discovery that seagulls prefer food first handled by humans! I think I ended up gravitating to these kinds of stories because inhabiting the audience-proxy role of fascinated observer for the recorded interview was easier. I was a fascinated observer, and I really did want to know more about these stories!

Inhabiting that role was important, because once you’ve successfully pitched a news story, you then have to record an interview with one of the authors. And it turns out interviewing is a skill for which I formerly had no appreciation and now am frequently fascinated by. Making your interviewee feel comfortable, so they can give the best, most-jargon free account of their science requires finesse and firmness. Steering an interview gently in the right direction, and not being afraid to stand your ground on the “no-jargon” rule, are skills that come with practice. But remembering that I’d never done it before certainly didn’t help with my nerves the first time around! It also turns out that even finding out what your “radio voice” is requires practice: in the first few weeks, I veered wildly towards spectacular over-pronunciation of my t’s and p’s, which just made my editing job much harder.

Once I’d settled down into a more natural interviewing voice, my favourite bit of the interview rapidly became the “difficult question”. Since the interviewer stands in for the audience, I tried to have this be the question I imagined my mum or dad might ask: why doesn’t this already exist? Will it actually work on a bigger scale? Why should I bother with being green if this is going on? I enjoyed these questions not because I like making people squirm, but because they were usually met with a very genuine response from my interviewees. When scientists have a successful press release, they usually have explained their experiments to many other interviewers before they get to me. A question from left-field gave them the opportunity to deviate from their self-imposed script, and that deviation usually gave a much needed glimpse of the person behind the science.

Producing my show

Just when I’d got used to the rhythm of news story production, there was a new challenge: producing my own show. Choosing the topic, contacting potential contributors, pinning down the story, editing the audio… a lot goes into half an hour of radio show!

The show hinged on what felt like a real Hail Mary play – trying to get someone to lend me an electric car to test drive. Chris was sure that we could find someone, but I’ll admit, I was not so convinced. Obviously, I was wrong, because we managed to team up with Octopus Electric Vehicles so that I could try driving a Nissan Leaf for a weekend.

Once this was locked in, the story of the show fell into place. We could use recordings of me with the car as pivot points throughout the show to address some of the practical concerns people have about these vehicles, and to get into the underpinning science in more depth.

After a mammoth week of editing in the run up to the broadcast, we had something that ran to time and made sense! Huge thanks are due to the contributors who gave their time to be interviewed, the producers and presenters at The Naked Scientists whose direction made the show something worth listening to, and to Octopus Electric Vehicles for providing me with the perfect narrative device!

An antidote to PhD cynicism

When you do a PhD, you research one teeny tiny corner of science, and that becomes your world for four years. At The Naked Scientists, each week I got to go on a virtual tour of a different researcher’s corner of science. The excitement of an author whose paper has just been published is contagious, and, stepping away from my own specialism, I was reminded of the enormous breadth of research that goes on every day. A rekindled appreciation for the “coolness” of science is not something I was expecting to get from this internship, but it is certainly one of the most valuable outcomes for me.

Thank you to the whole team at The Naked Scientists, for your patience and guidance. The obsession with audio quality may have ruined other podcasts for me, but I learned so much about an area I had no experience in, and developed a penchant for the science puns that are the primary elements of Naked Scientist humour!


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