Sam Brown's Naked Internship

A brief(ish) summary of my internship with the Naked Scientists...
27 November 2018


Week 1

Arriving for the first week was an interesting experience, as having passed my driving test at 17, I’d not driven in the 10 years since (not having had much need in Cambridge or London). After a weekend refresher from Faye, my better half, I set off to the Naked Scientists alone down the M11, exactly 126 months since my test, to the day. Thankfully, I survived the first journey of many, as did everyone else on the road, I pulled into what looked like an extra section of the local pub carpark, and headed in to be welcomed by the team.

No messing around on arrival though. Mondays are news days where the aim is to look for the best papers published in the last few days, or even about to be published, as we get a sneak preview with journalistic credentials ahead of the embargo date. Luckily, the Naked Scientists share my enthusiasm for tea as fuel for the working day and I was soon well away, lining up my first interview with a psychology professor from Yale.

Professor Crockett was a fascinating interviewee, and this is where I discovered my first editing problem: If you have a lot of good content but only 4 minutes for a piece, how do you figure out what to keep and what to cut? It is a difficult balance, and one I didn’t get to grips with for a number of weeks.

Considering this problem over the next few weeks did lead me to something I should definitely mention though, as it became my golden rule of interviewing: Do your best to get the audio right during the interview. This doesn’t mean perfect answers in one attempt, quite the opposite. This means if you would prefer a shorter answer, some jargon left out, to remove a stumble or cough, ask politely if they would repeat the answer with the change that you would like. This will save hours of effort in editing.

Week 2

Week two was a tough week. With fascinating news regarding a lecture on a possible proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, a maths problem over 150 years old, I set about trying to find someone to talk to me about it. I thought this would be simple, there are plenty of mathematicians in Cambridge who I could call upon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single response from those I contacted, in Cambridge or further afield. When I mentioned my difficulties to a mathematician post-doc friend, he suggested that though many considered the proof likely to be incomplete or incorrect, no-one could yet see it in full as it was not published, and many were unwilling to speak on record against the well-respected proposer of the proof.

And yet it felt like the story was an important one, I noticed it was getting attention from the mainstream press too. Being late in the week by now, Chris suggested I write a feature article instead. I think that the attention that the news was getting was largely to do with the idea of an unsolvable problem from years ago, rather than the solution, so I structured my article to be more about the problem itself. This also taught me that I should always try to have a backup story for the news, in case the original plan fell through.

This week I was also in charge of Question of the Week, an interesting problem regarding the different sensations when standing in shallow water with, and without, wellies on. Luckily, I was more fortunate with replies for this problem, and had my first experience of multitrack editing, having to stitch together the different recordings of the voices we had with some fun sound effects.

Week 3

This week was the first of the monthly Q and A’s during my time with the Naked Scientists. The build-up for this week is slightly different, as there is no news segment to be broadcast. Instead, four live guests are brought into the studio for the full hour, answering questions from the public sent in throughout the week, and live.
Still, the interns are tasked with producing a news item each week, so I went looking for a story. This week was the 60th anniversary of NASA, and Professor Andrew Coates from University College London agreed to talk to me about all things space. This again gave me the opportunity to write a longer article, about the past, present and future of NASA, and I found that I really enjoy this more narrative style of writing.

This week also included my favourite part, being live on the air with Matthew Gudgin and Chris, in an hour long “Ask the Naked Scientists” segment for BBC Radio Norfolk. This is an hour where people could phone in and ask absolutely anything that they like, and we tried to answer. Being forced to think on your feet is really exciting, especially if you don’t know the answer, as it means you have to get creative and come up with the best idea you can, from the science that you do know.

Week 4

This week’s interview went off without a hitch. Having terrible vision myself, I was fascinated to learn all about how the stem cells that form in us as embryos develop into the cell that allow us to perceive light. I had to have my jargon filter turned up this week, as the science behind this study could have been quite tricky. Thankfully, Professor Robert Johnston did a great job explaining the development, and he was keen to give credit to his whole team at Johns Hopkins University for their amazing discoveries.

I realised this week that while I enjoyed finding and recording the news, I wasn’t very good at writing the news. Presenting the conclusions up front felt a bit like telling the punchline of a joke at the beginning, and then working the story backwards. While I understand the widely used method is to give people the most important part first, to aid with retention of the headline, it’s just not how my brain works.

Week 5

This week was my first face to face interview, and I was excited to see the differences. I’d accompanied Izzie and Tamsin the week before to observe a live feature recording, so I was sent off on my own, recorder and microphone in hand, to see Professor Cathie Clarke from Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University.

I found it much easier to have a less formal conversation, rather than a direct interview, when face to face, as you can react to the person opposite and judge when they would like to interject. I suspect that was in no small part to Professor Clarke being extremely easy to talk to, which lead me back to the same problem as I had in first week, too much interesting content! But I was excited to try further in person interviews in the following weeks.

Week 6

Interesting issues with several potential story leads and some unfortunate car problems (for my interviewee) led to this interview being conducted in person only on the Wednesday evening, and so a mad scramble on Thursday to get the edit done in time. When it became apparent that we already had enough news for the main show, I was able to slow down and really enjoy editing this piece, adding in a few sound effects and music for the first time to lighten a complex but very interesting story about supermassive black holes.

Later in the week we also began to narrow in on the topic and potential guests for my show. As 3D printing had been covered not so long ago, eventually we settled on a manufacturing theme. Not the easiest thing to sell, and I understand the trepidation, as it is the same reaction that I get all the time when I tell people that I studied manufacturing engineering. But that is why I wanted to share my fascination with the marvellous machines that make the things we see all around us, from solar panels, to scuba diving tanks, to pancakes and packing peanuts. If you read my other article or listen to the show, you can find out a bit more about the brilliant processes involved.

Week 7

Second Q and A week, and my third face to face interview in a row, I felt at ease with the interview and more comfortable with the format. I think one of the reasons that I preferred in person interviews is that it forces both sides to become engaged and involved with the conversation, rather than simply waiting for the next question because, well, they can see you sat right opposite them.

Dr Owens gave me some great audio to work with, especially as by this point, I was sticking to my golden rule: Get the audio right before getting to editing. Editing this week was simple, but still time pressured, as I was also looking for an answer to the next question of the week, and thinking about my show.

With a firm date now set for my show, I contacted potential guests to whom I had previously mentioned that I would be interested in having them on. Through some bizarre coincidence, the day of the show was the only day that many of them couldn’t make, and by the end of the week there was only one confirmed guest. No need to panic, you can get a lot done in 7 days if you really try.

Week 8

Show week, show time. I hounded a few old colleagues and teachers, chased people in circles for a few days and generally made a polite nuisance of myself until I ended up with a four person line-up pretty darn close to what I had originally intended when first discussed with the team many weeks earlier. 3 had even agreed to come on live, even better!

Mid-week I drove on over to the Centre for Industrial Photonics at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing to conduct an in-person interview with Dr Francisco Orozco, about laser micro-machining and marking. This interview was a lot of fun, being back in my student stomping ground, and I even enjoyed the editing this time.

The question of the week involved time travelling babies, and their ability to survive in the present. With an interesting reply from a professor of human evolution and some extra, clever responses from our forum, this was a great question to round off the show.

Sunday rolled around, and along with the piece from Francisco, we had Professor Sir Mike Gregory give us a Manufacturing 101, David Wimpenny fill us in on additive manufacturing (or industrial 3d printing) and Mark Pickford tell us about the impressive, environmentally friendly processing done by Seacourt Printing. It felt really good to use all the skills I had been developing to put together a show that I really cared about, and I at least think it came together brilliantly, in no small part thanks to the help and skills of the rest of the Naked Scientists team.

Wrap up

I’ve learned a lot in my time on this internship, not least of which was how great and dedicated a bunch of people there are working at the Naked Scientists.

I now feel capable of quickly and confidently assessing new scientific proceedings, generating interesting questions and talking points for the topic, and structuring an interview. I have learned to edit audio tracks, how to incorporate other links, sounds and music to help give the piece structure and keep It interesting.

In addition to these more technical skills, I have developed other softer skills that I think will help me throughout my career, regardless of field I end up in. Whatever happens, I’d love to stay in touch with the whole team at the Naked Scientists, and help produce some content in the future to maintain the skills I’ve developed and help grow the fascination for manufacturing and other STEM subjects. I would recommend applying for the internship to anyone that asked, wholeheartedly and without hesitation.

Oh yeah, and I’ll also remember that wombats have cube shaped droppings! I don’t think I’ll ever forget that…


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