Robert Spencer: Naked Internship

Wherein we witness time dilation of eight weeks into one very short internship...
04 April 2022


Robert Spencer


The Naked Scientist is a household name where I grew up, so naturally when an email containing a link to apply for an internship fell into my inbox, I jumped at the opportunity. What happened next was a lot of learning...

Into the Deep End

Starting at the Naked Scientists is a full-on experience. On your first day you will need to source and pitch a science news story to the team. You are then given a topic to cover that week and must contact the researcher involved to arrange an interview. After a recce phone call, the interview and some editing, you have your first output by midday that Thursday.

Being thrust into the deep end means you learn to swim very quickly and I picked up a lot of skills over a short period of time. It also avoids any trepidation: you don’t have time to be nervous about emailing that person or doing the interview. The deadline is approaching!

Learning to Speak Again

Communicating mathematics (my academic field) is famously an unsolved problem. Even amongst ourselves, mathematicians often struggle to strike an appropriate level of information density, clarity, informality and complexity. It is almost expected that most people attending a seminar in mathematics will not understand the speaker to the end of their presentation. Sometimes it feels like this includes the presenter themselves! So coming to the Naked Scientists and communicating scientific topics to a lay audience was always going to be a bucket of ice over the head for me. But this was part of what appealed about the experience when I applied. Through teaching and learning mathematics, I’ve started to take a keen interest in how concepts are communicated and relished the opportunity to learn more about pedagogy.

Looking back, I think you can see the arc of my learning process quite starkly. My first news piece was far too technical for this platform (though still a fascinating titbit, I maintain). The point at which I clicked for this piece was half way through the interview, when I realised that I found it particularly interesting but only because I was already very familiar with the concept. When I imagined myself trying to explain the concept (and without pen and paper, to boot) I had to admit that I’d assumed far too much of the listener.

However, dialling the content down is not necessarily the correct response. I’d later discover that within every “simple” story is a fascinating kernel of truth waiting to be told. Its often a small thing – a surprising application of the science, a character in the story, or a well placed “but why?”, but it really can make the story. Learning to find these kernels and to expand them into a story the listener cares about is a long journey and I am sure I have only scratched the surface!

My Back Half

Each week the show is split into the first half: news and current stories, and the second or “back” half. As part of the programme, each intern produces a back half on a topic related to their field. My show went through many iterations, from a expose of Symmetry (a neighbour to my research) to Cybersecurity (cryptography is an application of my area) and finally to Cyberwarfare (motivated by the invasion of Ukraine).

This was a challenge for me, as I prefer a degree of stability and certainty within which to work and I find moving goalposts difficult. Further, the current nature of the show meant I had to keep a close eye on the news to ensure my content was up-to-date. I’m sure such an overdose of news consumption wasn’t ideal.

However, I was glad to find that once things were lined up, they started falling into place. Cyberwarfare and cyber in general are very broad, complex topics and I think the coverage we gave did an adequate job of exploring them.

A World of Sound

I’ve learned a lot, and have a lot more to go, but a few points stand out to me. Firstly, I was struck by how keen people are to talk about their stories. Researchers in particular love their work and asking them to talk about it always elicits a contagious enthusiasm.

I’ve also learned to edit, adjust and compose sound. From the words people say (and how many of them are “um”) to music and special effects, sound editing is a fun and diverting experience. Special thanks must go to Harry for letting me watch over his shoulder as he took a lifeless piece and consolidated it into an interesting listen.

Of course this has a major downside which is that I now notice sound much more analytically. Podcasts I used to enjoy are ruined, now I notice the excessive sibilance or uneven levelling. Interviews which are clearly cut now make me wonder what else was said, and frequency cut-offs are jarring! On the other hand, I do appreciate well made sound more now: the other day I listened to a ten second clip from a podcast half a dozen times just because I enjoyed the auditory experience.

Moving Forward

Science communication has always interested me, but I’d judged it to be outside of my Circuit before this internship. Having the opportunity to bring scientific topics a little more to life has been a fantastic experience which I have enjoyed greatly. I hope that I can take the skills and techniques I have learned forward with me, into academia, industry or wherever I end up.

My internship at the Naked Scientists has been a sharp contrast to my work on my PhD, but a very welcome one, and I valued the fact that at the end of the week, I had produced a unit of work that I could show for my time. Having the ability to explore outside of my field was also a lot of fun and I learned a lot about trees, clocks and spiders! I find the world we live in fascinating, and being able to share that has been a awesome experience. I’d like to thank the NS team: Chris, Harry, Julia, Otis, James and my fellow interns Trish (briefly), Anoushka and Evelyna for making it so great and being so amazing to work with!


Add a comment