Tricia Smith: Naked Internship

Teaching a scientist how to communicate in 8 short weeks...
14 February 2022


Tricia Smith


I'm not a science communicator, but I love talking about science. So what's a girl to do at the tail end of a PhD, when writing a thesis feels like a never ending task, and the opportunity crops up to work at the Naked Scientists and speak to researchers about all kinds of cutting edge research? Well she applies, of course...

When I saw the internship position my interest was piqued. The Naked Scientists had been on my radar since 2019, when I appeared as a live guest on the show, speaking about my research in tissue engineering. But that interview, a few internal seminars, and one conference presentation was the total of my science communication background. My main communication background came from sport, and in that regard, I was usually the one being interviewed, not the one doing the interviewing!

I felt completely comfortable speaking on live TV, recorded video, and to journalists about my sport, but I had always found speaking about my research more stressful. I think this was down to perceived expertise. As a PhD student, you essentially become a ‘world expert’ in your particular niche, but it’s hard to fight the imposter syndrome, to feel really secure in your expertise and knowledge. In sport, I knew I wouldn’t say the wrong thing, that I had the right answers, that I was an expert. So what better way to get better at communicating science, than by doing something that I found stressful and uncomfortable, that I felt like a novice in, that was completely foreign?

What were my expectations?
Honestly, I thought that things would feel more “office-y” than they did. During my PhD I worked in an office and a lab, but a research office, with no dress code expectations, and a broad range of ages and experience. I’m not exactly sure what more office-y actually means, but I suppose I expected my colleagues to take themselves more seriously than PhD students and postdocs. I expected to feel a distinct difference between the casual working environment of my research group and the Naked Scientists, but in reality I found that the way I was used to working from my studies was easily transferable and shared a lot of similarities with the Naked Scientists work culture.

One thing that really helped from my PhD was feeling comfortable working independently. After the first few days, you’re really left alone to arrange your own interviews, be creative with your editing, and write interesting articles, so long as you meet the weekly deadlines. If you want someone to review your work - they’ll gladly help, but they also trust that once you’ve got the first one or two news stories under your belt, you’re ready to work independently and produce good content. Not having publishing rights on the website is also a great safety net.

What did I learn?
Your voice is the most important tool you have in radio: the tone, pitch, and volume can lead the audience in a particular direction, convey a particular emotion, and signpost the critical information in a sentence. Now, nobody likes listening to their own voice. I especially dislike the formal ‘telephone voice’ that I inadvertently put on when I’m nervous, or I feel like I have to be serious, or formal. As it turns out, your voice isn’t particularly engaging if you sound like you’re reading your homework out loud!
The most emotionally exhausting, and most enlightening experience I had whilst at the Naked Scientists was a two hour lesson with Sally and Julia on how to modulate the pitch of my voice: how to break out from the formality, and speak more conversationally. Never have I tried so hard to smile while speaking, never have I thought so actively about how I sound. For the first time, I felt self conscious about my voice - the way I spoke rather than what I said. It was draining, certainly, but I noticed an immediate improvement in how my voice overs sounded, and in the tone of my interviews.

What does it take to make a show?
My show was on the 16th of January - at the end of my 6th week at the Naked Scientists. But it doesn’t start there. From week one you’ve got to start thinking about your show. There are a few things to consider when pitching ideas:

  1. Why should I care about this topic?
  2. Why is this topic suited to radio?
  3. Why is it relevant right now?

At each Tuesday production meeting, my idea was shaped, refined, picked apart, and fleshed out in greater and greater detail by the Naked Scientists team. Finally, after the new year, it was time to start making the thing!

Making a back half is a much greater undertaking than the front half news. There’s pre-recorded segments, live interviews to prepare, a script to write, and you can’t forget about the news story either. Harry was invaluable in helping me with all the nuances of making a back half good: how do you weave four or five different speakers into a coherent storyline? How do you take the listener on a journey? What story are you trying to tell?

In total, I recorded about an hour and a half of audio for the back half, and recorded ‘on location’ with two different organisations in Cambridge. In the end, the pre-recorded sections amounted to about 14 minutes of air time - a lot of preparation and editing, for only half the length of the back half! Preparing speakers for the live show was a new task, and when Sunday arrived, and all the preparation was done, sitting in the BBC studio as Harry and Chris hosted was both nerve wracking and exciting. Would something go wrong? Technical issues with the live guests, running over time or under time? Would the story flow as we intended it to?

Fortunately, lightning did not strike the studio and everything went off without a hitch. The live guests were fantastic, and I was simultaneously proud, pumped, and a lot less stressed. I’m not going to pretend that doing something for the first time isn’t stressful! But sometimes a little stress is worth the reward.

What were the best bits?
A highlight has to be my visit to CMR Surgical, where I had a demo of the Versius surgical robot system, and spoke with co-founder and chief medical officer, Mark Slack, about what he thinks will be possible in the future for medical robotics. A close second is managing to get a recording of a glaciologist in deep-field Antarctica trying to make a snowball. That was recorded on a phone, sent via USB stick on a plane to Rothera research station, and from there, emailed to me in time to include in the show.

Overall, speaking with researchers every week about such a diverse range of fields was definitely the most consistently rewarding. Detecting coronavirus infections with smartwatch data appealed to the data hoarding athlete side of me. Learning that action video games can improve literacy and executive functions made me feel less guilty about the occasional minecraft or halo gaming session. Finding out that brewing Kombucha could also create self-healing living water filtration membranes was admittedly left-field, but in a really cool way. The internship allowed me to rediscover my love for science in a way that is totally opposite to a PhD. After thinking about one thing for four years, it was refreshing to have the opportunity to learn about so much in such a short time, and learn how to share that with the world!


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