Douglas Adams' book 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' introduces the babelfish, a small yellow fish that "if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language".
After hearing on many occasions that science needs translating from technical language into something everyone can understand, I decided to have a go...
I'm new to this so will ease myself in with some posts about events I've attended recently about communicating science.
Monday began as it did last week: searching for news. We
found a lot of interesting stories, and divided them between us. We all
struggled today, as most of the stories came from the USA, and so there was a
lot of waiting for people on the other side of the world to wake up!
The portable recording equipment
On Tuesday it became apparent that a few of the stories
weren’t going to work out, so I called a researcher from Cambridge whose paper
we had seen a press release for on the university website. The phone call did
not turn out as I wanted it to, and instead of doing a research call I ended up
booking a face to face interview with her for that afternoon! This prompted
some speedy tuition on how to use the mobile recording equipment (right), and some less
speedy navigation around Cambridge to find the zoology building.
I made it through the construction site and eventually found
the reception. I was then led down to the “beetle lab” where rows of boxes of
soil (and beetles!) were kept in cupboards. It was on the walk down that I
discovered the professor had actually been on Radio 4’s Today programme that
morning talking about her research! No pressure for her next interviewer then…
We got down to the lab and, after brushing the beetle off my
chair; I sat down and set up the recording equipment. Everything worked:
The interview went OK – she was excellent as she’d prepared
answers for the questions from Radio 4, but I could have done a bit better.
It’s definitely harder when you’re doing the interview face to face.
After another navigational fail, I made it back to the
office and successfully uploaded the audio from the interview before calling a
potential interviewee for Kat in the states. That all went OK so I went home on
Tuesday feeling pretty good!
Me getting nervous before my live Q&A!
The last one to leave the building
Wednesday morning saw the group meeting and editing my
piece. Chris then mentioned that he had a regular slot that evening on BBC
Radio Norfolk where he answered science questions live from the public. And
that he would like an intern to go along with him. Guess who volunteered! I
couldn’t decide if I was excited or terrified, but it did mean I spent most of
the rest of the day fretting. I did manage to get my news piece finished before
heading down to the studio and dialling up Chris.
We were soon live on radio! I was quite nervous at first,
which I’m sure you can tell, but as soon as I got a question I knew the answer
to I relaxed. I am very glad I did it, but I’m not sure I would have said that
at the time. You can listen here, starting at 2hrs10 ish.
Thursday saw some final editing tweaks and then writing up
the story to a news article. I discovered (too late) that you should never
re-record questions and cut them back in. This prevents any chance of twisting
what your interviewee has said. For me, this meant re-doing the edit I had spent
Wednesday afternoon doing! The end result was worth it though, and I was
pleased with the edit. It didn't make the news for 5live, but it has been published as a special. Thanks to Rebecca Kilner for talking to me!
The Naked Scientists are an award-winning broadcast organisation that produce weekly shows, articles, news stories and special podcasts. Thanks to funding from The Royal Academy of Engineering I am about to embark on an 8-week internship with them - keep reading to find out how I get on.
The week before I was due to start at the Naked Scientists,
I was at conference in Rio de Janeiro on the subject of Chemical Challenges in Renewable Energy. At the conference, I met a previous Naked Scientist, Ben Valsler, who was able to give me a bit of an insight before I started. I’m very
glad for this; as he warned me that I would be starting very much from the word
go, including helping out for their live radio shows on Sunday evenings. It was
pretty exciting to hear about all the different things I would be doing, but it did involve some last minute rearrangements as I’d only planned to live in
Cambridge Monday to Friday!
So, arriving in from Rio at 17:30 the day before starting
was perhaps an error, compounded by traffic on the motorway from Birmingham, meant
I arrived half an hour late and without the one thing I needed (my passport) on
my first day! This all turned out to be fine and I was quickly introduced to
one full time member of the team (Graihagh) and the 3 other interns who had
been there for varying periods of time already. We’re based in a large country
house, Madingley hall, in a nice green area north west of Cambridge.
Every Monday morning there is a group meeting run by the producer
for that week to determine which news stories will be covered. They then get
distributed among the team. You might get a topic that you will end up leading
an interview on, or you might be asked to research a paper that someone else
will cover instead. Either way, you start by trying to get in contact with an
author for the paper. This can be challenging if they are working in a country
with a considerable time difference! You then need to have a conversation with
them and work out if you think they are suited to being an interviewee. Can
they describe their research clearly and enthusiastically? Before agreeing to
definitely interview them, we ask for a sound check, so that the listeners will
be able to hear them clearly.
In my first week, I wouldn’t be interviewing anyone for the show, so I did a couple of research calls to “scout out” potential
interviewees for other people. I was lucky, as both of the people I contacted
were happy to talk and very good at communicating. They also sent through
pretty good sound checks.
My job for the week would be to write one of the short news articles and I found the most challenging part of this choosing a topic!
Overwhelmed by the number of new articles published this week, by the end of the day I had only managed to get my shortlist down to 5.
Tuesday morning saw me return to my shortlist and get
started on my news article. I needed to contact the paper author and arrange an
interview. I would then record the interview so I could have accurate quotes, and get some practice in using the studio and editing for
My usual inability to make decisions struck again, and so I
made two article frameworks and sent off emails to the corresponding paper
authors. One of them was pretty prompt at replying, so I arranged to speak to
him on Wed afternoon.
I then went down to the studio (out of the estate, and just
down the road) to have a look as another intern went down to do a recording.
It’s a small room in the zoology building, with a microphone and some sliding
knobs. It looks complicated, but when you know which buttons to press, it
actually is quite simple. The key point is to make sure it’s recording
All of the shows are transcribed, and it’s our job to check
through them before they go online, to make sure they match the audio that
I also had a meeting with the managing editor, Chris, who ran
through the day to day runnings of the group, and asked me whether I had any
specific aims for the placement. It was good to talk to him, and it seems that the opportunities available are limitless!
The Naked Scientists have a group meeting every Wednesday
morning, to discuss the previous week’s show and the items for the coming
weekend. This was really interesting - hearing what Chris and his team want
from a topic, and the different ways they can be presented. I mentioned that I
had felt a good pre-arrival intern guide would have been great, and so managed
to get myself assigned the task of creating one! I also arrived in to an e-mail from the other potential interviewee, so ended up deciding to make both of the news stories into articles.
For everyone else, the rest of Wednesday was a day of
editing like mad to get the news articles finished before the deadline at the
end of the day. I finished off my news articles and in the afternoon had my
first interviews. The first one was a bit of a disaster: I had no idea I
started every question by saying “Umm... So...” and how having a microphone in
my face would make me unable to talk normally. But once that was over, the
second one was much more relaxed and I was able to have a really interesting
conversation with the researcher.
Thursday for me was my first chance at editing – I went
through both of my interviews and took out all the “umm”s and “so”s from both
me and my interviewees. This is a strangely satisfying experience when you get
it right and just as frustrating when you don’t! The challenge is getting a 15
minute interview down to less than 5 minutes of airtime. I was quite pleased
with the work up of my second interview by the time I was finished, and wished
I had recorded it properly so I could submit it as a news article. It has made
me look forward to next week’s opportunity. I also did some odd bits to help
out other people, like booking a meet and greet for one of our guests who will
be speaking live from a different location on Wednesday, and trying to track
down some information from a researcher in France.
During my time here, one of the permanent staff Georgia will
be acting as my “mother hen”. Essentially, she will be my first point of
contact if I have any questions about anything. On Thursday afternoon she was
able to listen to my interview and also read my two news articles. She was very
positive about them, but also gave me some really useful feedback. It’s only
when you go through something with someone that you really understand what kind
of output they are looking for. After some edits and hunting for pictures, my
articles were ready to go online – you can find one on why cavefish have no eyes here and another one on a record breaking artificial leaf here. After
this week, I really can’t wait to get started next week on a piece to go into the