Tag Archives: BBC

Dallas-campbell-science-communication

Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

“Douglas Adams always talked about that. A funny thing he used to say where “The terrible thing about having a dictaphone as an aid to memory would be that when you press the on button, it has a terrible habit of turning your brain off.””

Dallas-campbell-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

There isn’t much structure in this interview with Dallas Campell, as it was just a rambling conversation.

I can only apologise for three things:

1) the background noise (especially his agent) – we were in a cafe

2) that I hadn’t pressed record sooner as the conversation was great fun!

3) the notes below are some of our ramblings but they don’t give a full outline of the conversation

Enjoy!

We start talking about the power of words, and the ability to remember things people tell you when you write them down.

“I’m in awe of people who can write. Can write with clarity and purpose and convey that sense of idea.”

and how there are some people who are brilliant with them (i personally think Dallas is pretty good with words…hence I let him do the talking!) And some (aka me) who question others to get them to say those lovely words. But doing interviews is more about putting people at ease than it is about forcing the answers out of them. And Dallas has much experience in this too.

We go on to talk about his adventures on TV. One of them is a documentary about the Secrets of St Pauls Cathedral, and the technology the program used to discover them. Dallas is also in awe of Wren because of his incredible talents as a polymath: someone who is intrigued by so many different things, and ends up trying them all out and being good at them too!

And this is potentially what draws him to science: Dallas has this incredible thirst for learning as much as possible about as many things as he can! But it’s not just the science, and the ability to be interested in many things. It’s really more about the cross-over between the two cultures that he revels in.

Dallas-Campbell-Supersized-Earth
Image credit: BBC

Another of his projects was Super-sized Earth, a BBC 1 programme where Dallas explored the frontiers of human understanding. Where he was trying to make people aware of the world around them. He then quotes Dawkins: “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity.” It was this that the programme was trying to wake the world up from.

Another documentary that is coming out soon is about treasure hunting (out early 2014), and to Dallas this was the ultimate Mr Ben adventure (a favourite children’s programme of his). A few weeks ago he was diving on a wrecked Spanish Galleon, in between Florida and Cuba…Definitely in it for the adventures.

So when he talks about science, it is always in broad terms, mostly based on his curiosity and tell amazing stories. Which is why he thinks he would be a terrible scientist: he simply cannot specialise because he is so interested in a wider range of things.

“I love the polar opposites: going from Christopher Wren one day….. and then off I go doing something about treasure hunting…”

But how he got into science communi….(uhum) errr leaning towards science presenting? It wasn’t accidental (art history, english and drama background) but it was more that he loved telling stories, and there are such great stories in science about adventures, excitement and curiosity.

We then get into a bit of a discussion about science at school…. Dallas didn’t like science at school. Unless you’re lucky and you get it, science is not associated with adventure. Instead it is an accumulation of facts, naming of parts. It took Dallas a long time to realise that science wasn’t about proving things, about collecting facts, about finding the answers and the end. It was more about continuing the search for questions.

“I remember when I found in a skip…”

He found some blank tapes when cleaning out William Willards office (BBC presenter). The tapes had the title “Growing up in the universe” and were actually 1991 Richard Dawkins RI Christmas Lectures tapes! And this just kick-started an incredible Eureka! moment.

We then go on to Science Communication, which I had already discovered is a term that Dallas doesn’t connect with.

“I don’t know its one of those terms that it’s such a narrow sounding term. And if you… and I suppose think of what i do as quite broad, so I don’t know if it applies”

So we try to find out why he is uncomfortable with the label of Science Communicator. Is it the idea of labels themselves? He doesn’t think it fits comfortably with him, instead: he is a storyteller of science instead…. But cliche or not, labels are useful. Alok Jha had a similar feeling towards the label Science Communicator…

“I agree with whatever Alok says. Listen to what Alok says about science communication and I’ll agree with that…. I haven’t listened to it yet.”

Science, to most people, is a subject studied at school, not anything more. And Dallas believes this is a shame.

“There is definitely a disconnect between people who aren’t involved in science at all, how they perceive science. There is something a bit odd about it….It’s a shame that they see science as such a narrow thing.”

It’s not like music or art. You wouldn’t say “Oh I hate music, I was rubbish at music at school.” This simply isn’t the case. Everyone enjoys music of one form or another. So why can’t this translate to science?

“Science is not a subject, its a method, a way of seeing the world.”

So how do we change science education at school? Let’s not go there… But mostly it’s down to the teachers. And maybe to provide students the opportunity to step back out of the classroom and books, and show them a little more of the Big Picture Stuff (referring back to the Dawkins quote above).

So even though he doesn;t like the label, he does believe this Big Picture Thinking (aka Science Communicaiton) is in a Golden Era at the moment. Prof Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins etc are all out there talking Big Picture.

Image credit: BBC
Image credit: BBC

One of Dallas’ favourite programmes has been Bang Goes The Theory (a programme on the BBC that he did with Jem Stansfield) which explores science of our every day lives.

Dr Who is also something he was involved with: a live show with Prof Brian Cox called The Science of Dr Who.

My favourite fact was that Albemarle Street [that the RI is on] was the first one way street in Britain because it was SO crowded with people desperate to come in and see these great lectures. So they had to invent the idea of a one way street.”

For someone who thinks science is not just for scientists, but is for everyone, he is also a fan of citizen science projects: the wisdom of the crowd.

“What a terrific way for people who aren’t scientists to actually get involved and actually understand a little bit about what scientists actually do all day.”

And we finished on that note…. I hope you enjoyed the ramblings….

“We’re very lucky in Britain to have such fantastic minds historically.”

You can follow all of Dallas’ adventures on Twitter at @dallascampbell

George-McGavin-science-communication2

Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

George-McGavin-science-communication
George McGavin
Credit BBC

“I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

So lets go back a few years – what was it that sparked your imagination and lead you onto the career path you are on now?
Several reasons. One, I was always interested in the outside world, the world of animals and plants. As a young boy growing up in Edinburgh I had a pretty bad stammer, so the thought of doing something in languages was really not a good idea! I did enjoy english and art, but biology seemed to be what I was good at, so it seemed obvious that I would do a zoology degree at Edinburgh. I didn’t really think of any other career path.

So what happened after Edinburgh?
After finishing my undergrad at Edinburgh I went to the Natural History Museum and Imperial College to do a PhD. I had a very happy 3 years there, although it was hard work! In those days you didn’t do much in your first year, which you then regret as you only had 2 years to finish the PhD. I woke up a bit and started working like mad!

As you were at NHM, were you doing outreach too?
The outreach work really began when I was at Edinburgh during my final year. We had a scheme whereby all the final year students were attached to a primary school in Edinburgh. I thought that was really great; we would head out to the schools and I used to do all kinds of things with them as we had access to things that they didn’t – heads of animals, skulls etc. I remember I once did a rat dissection for a primary school and it caused huge alarm amongst the parents! They thought I shouldn’t show a dissection of a rat to young children (who were about 8 or 9). But the children loved it, they thought it was fantastic! There was one boy I remember, and I hope he’s now a surgeon, because he was fascinated, but kept fainting! He fainted the first time and the teachers took him out and said “oh no this is terrible we can’t have this!” but he was fighting to get back in saying “No I wan to be a Dr I want to be a surgeon let me back in!” and then he fainted again! So I hope he did become a surgeon in the end.

What is it about outreach that you like so much?
The reason I like outreach, and the reason I did it during my job at Oxford, is that outreach is incredibly useful to everybody. I think you owe it to your science and the people who funded you to share it! I certainly get a great joy form sharing my excitement for animals and ecology with as wide an audience as I can. I don’t care whether its 5 or 80 year olds, its the same deal. And it was because of this that actually resigned from my post at Oxford after 30 years in the world of academia!

What happened after you resigned?

Really I had been doing a bit if TV for about three or four years at the some time as my academic job and I began to realise that I could not do both at the same time – I need to direct my energy to one thing. The experience of what I had done gave me the push to take it on full time

I (never really) wanted to become a TV presenter. Some people thought I was absolutely mad to be giving up a tenure position at Oxford University, but it all happened quite quickly.

It was December 2007, and I was on the way home from a Friday of tutorials. At one point I realised that what was important to me was to share my excitement and my interest in the natural world with an audience. My thought process went something like this: in a tutorial class I would have an audience of 4. If I was on a cruise ship, which I would occasionally do, I would have an audience of maybe 400. But if I did this on TV I would have an audience of 4million. So, I went home that night and wrote my resignation letter. I didn’t even have a beer, just typed it out! And that was it. It was a little bit scary for a couple of weeks…

How did this transition go?

Yes you do learn as you go along and you get better at it but you need to have the ability to communicate in the first place  –

Being on TV is not something that you know how to do instinctively, you learn as you go along. I get tonnes of emails from individuals asking “how do I get on TV? What do I need to do to get on TV?” And I rarely, if ever, answer these questions because I think you need to become an expert in something, and then go onto TV.

When I was younger I would never have considered for a minute that I would ever be on the box. If you had said to me at 15 (when my stammer was rather bad), “George, you are going to be a university lecturer for 30 years, and then become a TV presenter.” I would have laughed in your face and thought the idea absurd!

I think these things just happen. Whilst being at Oxford I became known as someone with an expertise in bugs, arthropods etc. So when there were news items I would get calls for a sound bite. At first was very scary, but I eased into it. Then it grew bigger and I started doing local BBC radio things a lot. After that it escalated again: I was asked to be a scientific advisor to Sir David Attenboroughs’ Undergrowth series. I was simply blown away. The following year they asked me “Would you like to go to Borneo?” I thought it was the same deal, to be a scientific advisor for the programme. But this time it was to be ON the programme! So I said yes, of course. And the next years we did The Lost Land of the Jaguar, and The Lost Land of the Volcano, both of which were successful. After that, I decided I could make a career out of it!

Which TV programme has been your favourite to work on so far?
Well I hope it hasn’t happened yet; I hope I still have great things ahead of me! But they’ve all been interesting in their own different ways. I thought The Lost land of the Volcano was very very good. And The Dark, which we did last year, was also excellent.

George-McGavin-science-communication
George McGavin
BBC: Strange Science of Decay

There was a programme I did in a glass box in Edinburgh which we just filled with food, and watched it decay over 8 weeks. That was called Afterlife: the Strange Science of Decay and that won 5 awards, it was a huge programme!

What was the scariest programme you’ve ever worked on?
Oh, thats easy. The scariest one I’ve ever had to do was last year when we made a programme with Dr Alice Roberts called Prehistoric Autopsy. It was scary because it was filmed “as live”, it’s been the biggest piece of TV I’ve ever done.

So we had three studio days with an 8 camera shoot and talk-back in our ears, as well as auto-cue on the camera. So even though it wasn’t actually live, it was filmed as live, so you were on camera the whole time. I had voices in my ears going “Right George, in 5-4-3-2-1 camera 2″ so then I’d turn to camera two and say my line. It was an adrenaline rush; I may have looked calm but beneath the surface it was pandemonium! That was a steep learning curve.

Had you had any training?
No, I hadn’t. I’m glad I got through it though, because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Anything from now on has definitely got to be easier.

What is one of the best things about working in TV?
One of the great things about this job is that you get to go and see some great things, areas of the world and animals that you would otherwise never see. If I had stayed in Oxford I would have maybe had one trip a year, I would have had to apply for grants to get funding which can be nightmare.

When working with TV they’d say “Right George, we’re filming Orang-Utans in Sumatra. Could you be at the airport tomorrow morning  at 5am?” And off I go! I don’t have to organise anything, I just turn up.

I used to think it was glamorous, going off to Guyana, or Venezuela. But the reality is that the airports are hellish and flying is hellish. I look forward to the days that we can be virtually transported.

On top of that, I hate long haul flying, especially in economy: 8/10 hours in economy is not conducive to you feeling great the next day.

What’s it like to film in places like the jungle?

George-McGavin-science-communication
George McGavin
BBC: The Lost Land of the Tiger

We’re not living it up in a hotel.

Filming  The Dark we spent a weeks in the jungle, and for one sequence we abseiled 150/160 feet into a crevasse in a Venezuelan tepui. We then spend 5 days in total darkness filming. It wasn’t comfortable: we were wet, cold, hungry etc, but the rewards! We filmed a new species of fish in the cave and a new species of cave cricket. It was an amazing experience.

I think audiences aren’t fooled by what they see. They want the real thing- the whole experience. They want to see you uncomfortable, cold, wet tired, hungry, bitten alive etc. That makes good TV.

So the perfect job for you then?
I think it is. I actually thought the museum job at Oxford was perfect for me: I’m doing teaching, research, going on the occasional trip, working in a fabulous museum. And then suddenly, at the age of 55 to get a second most amazing ob in the world doing TV presenting is amazing! I know that there are many people out there rather jealous. They thought “why should he get 2 brilliant jobs in his life?” I’m very lucky!

So, you’ve done live, TV, and writing! You’ve done a bit of everything!

I guess so. I think now I’ve written about 14 books, not all as sole author, some as a contributor or an editor. I’ve written a couple of kids books too. In fact, my new kids book comes out in October. Its a Bugs book, published by Walker Books. And it’s a beautiful pop-up book: as you open the pages scorpions and cockroaches appears out of the pages! So that’s aimed at young kids.

Which medium do you find the best at bringing across your ideas?

They’re very different animals. A text book I wrote called Essential Entomology took me a year to write, and it’s a very solitary existence. And even though I have a stammer, I’m a fair extrovert – I like being out there doing stuff! And I love a big audience, so my favourite is actually live talks.

The trouble with TV is you don’t have an audience. You have a camera man who is interested in the shots: is it over exposed? Then you have a director who is interested in other things, you’ve got a sound man whose merely there to make sure the words are intelligible, and there are no helicopters or dogs in the background.

But you do have to remember that you have a virtual one, which you can’t see. It’s very difficult to engage emotionally with an unseen audience. That’s why live stuff is so much more enjoyable because you can work the audience. It’s really a performance art: the best speakers you’ve ever heard are the ones that regard it as a performance.

It’s impossible to tell your audience, whether students or not, what they need to know in an hour. That’s what books, libraries and personal study time is for. What you’ve got to do in that hour is to fire them up, to inspire them, to make them excited and make them want to go and find out more! The best people on their back legs in front of an audience are the ones that make it fun, entertaining and exciting. There is no excuse for a dull lecturer who stands up and drones: you put people off.

Well we’ve all had one or two of those…
We’ve all had them, and it’s a great shame. Lots of universities tend to put that sort of person in front of the 1st years, and the inspirational ones in front of the older students. And that’s just the wrong way around! They should be putting the inspirational ones in front of the first years. By the time you reached your third year you should be self-motivated enough!

So that’s what you’re doing: you’re simply getting that fire going, which will hopefully blaze away for the rest of their lives. If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.

Do you think educating young kids in science is important?

I think education for young kids is very very important, as the name implies “Primary education” should be the most important education. I think between the years of 5 and 8 you’ll learn more than you’ll ever learn.

I think that the most inspirational teachers should be put in front of young kids, not the older ones; you need to catch them early. If you wait until they’re 14 or 15 then girls and boys and iPods become important and you might lose them.

So what else is next for you?
So there’s the children’s book in October.

I’m just finishing filming for a BBC 1 documentary on swarming animals which will be out this autumn . We filmed honey bees in California: I had about 80 thousand bees all over me. We filmed Bats in Austin, Texas where I was hanging at the top of a cave entrance with thousands of free-tail bats flying around my head and peeing in my face (great stuff!). We filmed reindeer, red crabs and much more.

I’m also working on a three part series coming out next spring which is called Planet Primate (or something like that). For this show we’ve been around the world filming lemurs, aye-ayes, chimps, orang-utans, macaques. We even got some behaviour that has never been filmed before, which is unbelievable. So that’s going to be a big series, and I’m hopeful that will be the biggest thing I’ve done yet.

Then, in three weeks time I’m off to film infant orang-utans which will be super cute, obviously! But that’s the bit that I’ll do the final part of the series, talking about the fact that although there are more than  600 primate species in the world, more than half of them are endangered. And there is only one species of primate that is doing well, and that’s us.

So it will be an eye-opener.
I think it will be quite amazing. Some of the behaviours we filmed won’t be able to go on the show as they are quite extreme. As the show will be an 8pm airing, on BBC1 when there will be young children watching it. So unfortunately some of it will have to become archive material, most of all the bit where a group of male chimpanzees rip a live monkey apart. Remove the heart and eat it whilst it was still beating.

That must have been quite frightening to watch?

I often get asked this. One instance people remember is when I crawl into a hollow log in a forest and it was about 80ft long, and full of scorpions, spiders, bits and pieces. And I wasn’t scared. The excitement of being there, the drama of being there and finding out what was in there was so high that you forget completely that there might be something in there that might kill you. So on the principle that great TV often involves the presenter being bitten or stung by something, it’s usually fine!

For those of us who would like to go into TV presenting, what golden nuggets of advice do you have?
I think someone like that is born rather than made, but you have to have  passion for what ever it is you are doing, whether its geology or particle physics. You need to be thinking you would rather be doing this than anything else in the world. And if you don’t have that I don’t think you can really start out in TV.

Anything else?

I’m 59 now, and I’ve been a full-time TV presenter for 5 years. I hope I can an extra 5, or 10 years more. Come on, Attenborough is in his 80’s, so if he can do it, then I can! I think I’ve got a few more years in me!

Minna Headshot (Credit Tamas Bansagi)

Speaking to…Minna Kane

Minna-Kane-science-communication
Minna Kane

“I’ve managed to travel to some great places and been exposed to some great scientific research.”

 

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to…Minna Kane

Name?

Minna Kane

Where are you based?

Currently, Boston, MA but I’m about to move to the DC Metro area. I also work on projects in the UK.

Who do you work for?

I’m a freelancer so I’ve worked for different people over the years including the BBC in the UK and NOVA in Boston.

What type of science communication do you do?

I produce science documentaries both in the States and UK. I’ve also done bits of voice-over work and recently presented a show for BBC Learning. Prior to TV I used to work in healthcare communications (PR and advertising) and the writing skills I developed there have allowed me to carry out other short-term projects (alongside TV work) for companies like Thomson Reuters.

Who is your main audience?

My TV work has a mainstream audience which includes both adults and kids. My writing work tends to be specialist.

How did you get into it?

Straight after completing my BSc I joined the graduate scheme at Weber Shandwick. After a couple of years working in healthcare communications, I decided I wanted to pursue TV. As I had done my BSc at Imperial, I knew about their Science Communication course and thus enrolled (I chose this over the Media Production course as I wanted to get a broad understand of science communication along with studying completely new areas for me, such as the history and philosophy of science. I then tailored my practical modules to TV and radio). As part of the course I did work experience at an independent production company and they offered me a job as a researcher. I’ve now been working in TV ever since.

Why do you do it?

I enjoy what I do and love the variety and flexibility it offers. Also, I’ve managed to travel to some great places and been exposed to some great scientific research.

Why do you think science communication is important?

When I was at school I used to enjoy science but hated the rep it had: “it was too hard”, “geeky”, “elitist”, etc. I always thought if there was a way to break away from this more people would feel they “could” like it and realise their potential in the subject. I still believe this and am yet to really fulfill this in my own work (though it is a goal of mine). Nowadays I also think having dialogue with the public is important as they fund lots of science research.

What do you love about science communication?

I enjoy learning new things and as every project is different I am constantly doing this. Depending on what you want to do in this sector there is also an entrepreneurial element – if you have a great idea, there is funding there to support you accomplish it.

What has been your favourite project?

There are a couple of things that stand out for me. I really had fun presenting the show for BBC Learning – it was nice being on the other side of the camera as I got to enjoy the experiences the production team had set up for me (such as driving at Silverstone Racetrack). Also, when I first moved to Boston I worked on the first series of the NOVA show “Making Stuff”. It was hard work as I had lots of responsibility and it included lots of travelling. Despite this it was fun and a great way to see parts of the States (and the down day and evening drinks in the Bahamas wasn’t bad either).

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes, I am currently partnering with Leeds University, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and Rainbow Winters (all in the UK) on a project about Britain’s colour heritage. The subject is so broad but we’re focusing on pigments and dyes and it is great because it intersects science, art and textiles. I’m very excited about it for a number of reasons including the fact it is something different from what I’ve done before.

I’ve also just finished filming on a show for the second series of “Making Stuff” which will be aired on PBS NOVA in Oct/Nov.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Get stuck in – there is no excuse really as you can blog, create videos for YouTube, and make podcasts all from the luxury of your home (these are all great ways to showcase your talent if you’re new and looking to break-in). If you think you know what area of science communication you want to pursue try and get work experience in it and volunteer at science festivals if that’s your thing. To me, all this should be a given and so the best piece of advice I can offer is to network. This comes in all shapes and doesn’t have to be daunting! In this freelance industry you often hear about jobs through your network – most of the work I get is through referrals – so be sure to do the best job you can and get on with people. If you don’t personally know anyone in the field you want to enter, find someone and drop them an introductory email. You will probably be surprised at how willing they are to offer advice and they may be your lead to a great job. Even though I had been working in the UK before moving to the States, I didn’t know anyone in TV here so I bit the bullet and just dropped someone an email and they led me to someone else and so and so on.

You may also want to consider an MSc Science Communication course. I did the one at Imperial and really enjoyed it. These courses tend to be good as you meet lots of like-minded people, they help you get work experience, and the people you meet (both on the course and at work experience) all become part of your network. However, these can be expensive so don’t feel this is the only route. I have met many great science communicators who didn’t do one of these courses and they are extremely successful.

You can follow Minna on Twitter at @MinnaKane

Jack Croxall

Speaking to… Jack Croxall

Jack-Croxall-science-communication
Jack Croxall

“Learning and communicating things about how the world works is an incredible way to spend your life, I find I’m surprised and fascinated by something every day.”

 

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jack Croxall

Name?

Jack Croxall

Where are you based?

A small village in rural Nottinghamshire, it’s lovely!

Who do you work for?

Myself! I’m a science writer and an author, but I’m also the co-creator and editor of Unpopular Science, a website which aims to share and discuss the science stories which missed the front pages with anyone and everyone.

What type of science communication do you do?

I write a lot of short articles for Unpopular Science and other media outlets, but I’ve recently got into writing/presenting little videos and have even tried my hand at radio a couple of times. I think a science communicator should always be attempting to gain experience in a variety of mediums so he/she can reach as many people as possible. Science is for everyone, not just scientists; the best communicators will use a variety of platforms to connect with as wide an audience as possible.

On the author side of things, I have recently released my debut novel Tethers.The book is a Victorian adventure story that sees two teenagers, Karl and Esther, drawn into a treacherous conspiracy. That conspiracy has been engineered by a group of scientists who have discovered something with world-changing potential, and the novel asks the question, just how much does the justification of ‘the greater good’ allow a scientist to risk.

Who is your main audience?

We try to make Unpopular Science as accessible as possible, which means keeping things fun and simple, as well as clarifying any jargon. We try to include links and facts at the end of our articles that may interest anybody involved in the specific field we are talking about, however. As for Tethers, the genre is young-adult fiction, but, to me, that does not mean that only teenagers are welcome. The novel has a variety of themes and characters of different ages and so I would hope that anyone, young or old, would find something to enjoy amongst its pages.

How did you get into it?

I started writing science stories for student publications and blogs whilst I was an undergraduate. I quickly worked out it was something I enjoyed immensely, so, after I graduated, I sorted myself out with some work experience at BBC Factual. That cemented my desire to become a science communicator and so I enrolled on a postgraduate course to learn more. There I met Charlie Harvey who I eventually set up Unpopular Science with.

Why do you do it?

Quite simply, because I love it. Learning and communicating things about how the world works is an incredible way to spend your life, I find I’m surprised and fascinated by something every day. On top of that I feel as though I’m doing something worthwhile and important, and I’ve met some truly wonderful and remarkable people along the way.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Science is a hugely important aspect of our society and no one owns the right to scientific knowledge. A science communicator’s job is to bridge the gap between the public and experts in a specific field, essentially helping to share the knowledge around so we can all benefit from it.

What do you love about science communication?

I’ve already written that I love learning fascinating new things, but I love it even more if I can be the one to inspire that reaction in other people.

What has been your favourite project?

Probably writing Tethers. I had to learn a lot of new skills and do a lot of research to produce that book, and I am immensely pleased with the result. When I was younger and reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (based around The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics) I never dreamt that anyone would read a story that I wrote and possibly even enjoy it. So, when people write a review or get in touch with me, it really does make me so incredibly happy and thankful!

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

As well as continuing to work on Unpopular Science, I’m currently working on the second instalment of The Tethers Trilogy, but I’m also planning on making a few more videos.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Start practising and get on social media and start connecting and chatting with other sciency types! If you want a platform for your work, we consider articles from anyone, no matter what their experience level! If your work isn’t quite up to scratch, or it doesn’t quite match our ethos, we’ll let you know what you need to do to change it, or where you can take it if it matches another outlets brief better. So please, get in contact, we’d love to hear from you!

You can follow Jack on Twitter at @JackCroxall and Unpopular Science at @UnpopularScience

Speaking to… Gareth Mitchell

Gareth-Mitchell-science-communication
Gareth Mitchell

To start the 2013 interviews, Speaking of Science is proud to have Gareth Mitchell, an expert in radio and science communication to be in the first audio podcast of the Speaking to… series.


You can follow Gareth on Twitter at @GarethM or listen to Click on the BBC World Service.

Fran Scott

Speaking to…Fran Scott

“I never quite know how to describe my job. Sometimes I call myself a Science Demonstration Developer, other times a Science Translator. Recently, I was referred to as a Professional Experimenter, which I quite like the sound of even though I don’t technically ‘do’ experiments.”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Fran Scott

Fran-Scott-science-communication
Fran Scott

Name?

Fran Scott

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance, so that means who I work for changes from one day to the next. At the moment I have approximately six employers including CBBC, Radio4Extra, The National Schools Partnership and an independent television production company called 360 Production. In the past I’ve done work for (amongst others) BBC Learning, BBC Vision, Dorling Kindersley and Horrible Science.

What type of science communication do you do?

I never quite know how to describe my job. Sometimes I call myself a Science Demonstration Developer, other times a Science Translator. Recently, I was referred to as a Professional Experimenter, which I quite like the sound of even though I don’t technically ‘do’ experiments. But names aside, my general role involves designing science demonstrations. You know when you see a try-at-home activity in a book, or a visual demonstration of a scientific idea on television…that’s what I do. People come to me with a science idea that they need explaining to their audience, and then it’s up to me to design a demonstration that (hopefully) helps that idea make sense.

Anyone who works in Science Communication will know that there are a lot of what I call ‘the classic demonstrations’ out there, and sometimes I do end up using these (usually with some sort of modern twist), but what I really like to do is come up with brand new demonstrations. My current favourite is lighting hydrogen rockets with my finger.

Working in this field for a number of years now, I have built up a reputation for not only being able to explain science in novel ways, but for also being a stickler for the facts. So I’m now also often asked to consult on passages for books or scientific resources, or to write explanatory scripts for television shows.

Who is your main audience?

It really depends. I most enjoy working for an audience who think they have no interest in science. You then have to work pretty hard to make everything as exciting, fun and clear as possible; which no matter how many re-edits you have to do, just makes you a better communicator in the end. It’s difficult when sometimes you only have three sentences to explain a complex idea, but I like that challenge. I like the challenge of stripping out all the jargon, and just saying what is actually happening. I’ve found over time that this approach works best for those who a new to science (children or non-science adults), so I do tend to work with this audience the most.

How did you get into it?

To be honest, I never realised there were actual jobs in ‘Science Communication’, for many years I didn’t even know the term! I had resorted to the fact that I’d only get to ‘play with science’ in my days off. All that changed, when in my final year of University some of my friends took me to the Science Museum in London. That was it. For the rest of that year I took monthly trips to the capital, heading straight to the Museum, harassing them to give me a job. The staff there (particularly Anthony Richards; Head of Interactive Galleries) were incredible. They gave me tours, advice and then, once I’d got through my finals, a job!

While at the Science Museum I used my time wisely, testing explanations on the public seeing what made the penny drop and what left them puzzled. Many lunch hours were spent down in the Museum’s workshops, where the exhibits are built or (constantly) being mended. I’d also use my weekends and holidays to do work experience in other areas I was interested in.

Since being a kid and reading (badly) the News autocue at National Museum of Film and Photography (now the Media Museum) in Bradford, I’d always wondered how people got to work on TV, or even got to write a book; both sounded like fun, and the jobs obviously existed, but how on Earth did you get to do that? With a whopping five weeks holiday a year, I thought I’d try to find out.

I wrote letters and sent emails to anyone who had inspired me in the past. Nick Arnold (the author of the Horrible Science books) was one such person. I wrote to him thanking him for writing the series and asking for work experience; to this day Bulging Brains is the most cleverly written neuroscience books I’ve read, and I’ve read a few! He wrote back with a (paid) job offer, helping him research the books. I was absolutely over the moon.

It then transpired that the sister of my flat mate of the time knew Jamie Rickers, who at the time was presenting ‘Prove It!’ on children’s ITV, which I watched religiously for ideas. Armed with his email address, I wrote (another) begging letter. This time I got a reply (my first from the TV world). Jamie was lovely and although ‘Prove It!’ was no longer in production, he offered me two weeks (unpaid, of course) work experience on GMTV Kids. Wow.

Those two weeks were the opportunity I never ever thought I would get. I worked my socks off. Every day I was the first in and last to leave, I made hundreds of cups of tea, I bought the team biscuits, cakes and doughnuts I couldn’t really afford, I hosed down far too many gunge-covered overalls, I deep-cleaned the kitchen, I went on six prop shopping trips a day and I enjoyed every single second. There was a thrill about the studio, about being part of something that people around the country were going to watch.

GMTV Kids offered me a job. It was difficult to choose between that, and the Science Museum. I chose the Science Museum. Yes, I loved working in TV, but I loved working with science more. But I now knew that I wanted to work in Science TV.

I applied for every BBC Work Experience placement I could, multiple times. I emailed the Producer of every children’s science programme who’s name I could find in the credits (once I learnt the secret of the BBC email addresses). The annoying thing was I only ever heard of the programmes after they had been made, and at that time many of the children’s science shows weren’t getting a second series commissioned. I just kept on missing the boat. But I carried on doing work experience.

But, after a tip off from my friend Greg Foot (who’d I’d met during one of my work experiences), I heard of a brand new children science show that was being made for CBBC, by an independent production company called September Films. I went for interview and got offered a job as a Runner. Despite all the advice, persuasion and logic, I left my permanent job with a lovely pension, sick pay and holidays, for a six-week job with a drastic pay cut.

On day three of this job, whilst delivering the tea to the Series Producer (who’s now a good friend), I saw he was looking up ‘How to Make Giant Bubbles’, I mentioned that you just need glycerin, and offered to go and buy some. He asked me how on Earth I knew that. I told him. From then on I was banned from making tea.

The programme was ‘Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab’, and it was a fantastic spring board for me. As the only scientist on the team I was given a complimentary amount of responsibility. I designed all the in-studio science games, oversaw the explanatory graphics, briefed the presenters and also designed some of the larger science stunts. I even ghost wrote and advised on the accompanying book and science kits.

That was 5 years ago. Since then, I’ve just made sure I’ve stock checked each year, looking at what I’ve done, and what I’d like to do. I’ve concentrated on what I’m good at, and what I enjoy the most. I’m extremely happy with the jobs I have at the moment. Yes, it’s taken time, but if it was easy everyone would do it.

Punching-table-science-communication
Punching table credit Jonathan Sanderson

Why do you do it?

Like I’ve said even if I didn’t do this as my job, I’d be doing similar sort of things in my weekends and holidays anyway.

However, over time I’ve also realised that I’m (hopefully) encouraging others who are in a position similar the one I was in when a child. In that I loved making things, testing things and so I thought I loved science. But, looking at adult scientists, they all seemed a little bit, well…strange! They didn’t seem fun, or even to enjoy what they were doing, and this was not the type of person I wanted to grow up to be. The only exception to the rule were the presenters of How2 (a popular children’s television show) who seemed to not only know their science (and general knowledge) but also know how to have a good time.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m completely ‘normal’, or that I don’t have my quirks, but by actually doing science, enjoying it and showing the fun things you can do with it, I hope to show those younger Frans out there that you can do science, without the posh accent, white coat and bad hair cut. And that being ‘brainy’ and ‘fun’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

What do you love about science communication?

When I was growing up I often said that I was born approximately 300 years too late, as I always thought I would thrive in the days of the Enlightenment. A period where Scientists (even though they didn’t have that name yet!) would spend their days ‘tinkering’ on machines, apparatus they had built themselves, testing, probing and investigating the world around them; what I call ‘playing with science’.

Throughout my MSci (in Neuroscience) I slowly realised that a career in the lab (well, in a Nottingham Neuroscience lab anyway) was not quite like this anymore. So, I set about just doing what I love; building stuff, and just generally ‘playing with Science’. People then started to pay me for doing this.

So what do I love about my job? Well, everything! I am one of the lucky ones who actually gets paid to do what they freely do in their days off.

What has been your favourite project?

I’d have to say my favourite project has been my recent work with CBBC; I’m the off and on-screen Science Consultant for a new children’s science entertainment show called ‘Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom’. Not only do I think it’s fantastic that Science is being paired with well-known and well-loved names such as Dick and Dom, but also (on a rather selfish note) I love the fact that I don’t have to ‘hand-over’ my demos. In the past I’ve designed demos and then briefed the presenters on how to perform them, which, depending on the concentration span of the presenter, had varying success. Though, of course, I was more than willing to do this, after-all that was my job! But demos are like naughty children and if given any opportunity to misbehave, they will. And so relying on others to perform your well-designed demos was always difficult as there was so much that could potentially go wrong.

With my recent CBBC projects, I see the demos through to completion, designing them, but also presenting them. I love this, as I know all the bases I need to cover to ensure the demo performs to its maximum potential. On the other side of the coin, if something does go wrong then it’s completely and utterly my fault, as there is just no one else in the equation. But I like that sort of pressure.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Science Communication is a vast field so as with anyone, I can only advise from my own experience, therefore I can only really help those wanting to go into science television.

My first tip would be try every route you can. Yes, apply for the BBC science department, but also apply to every independent production company that makes programmes you like.

Science at the BBC is difficult to get into, during my time there I was the often the only non-Oxbridge graduate, and the only one not to have done some sort of Science Communication course, but don’t let that stop you. Being different, taking a different route, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I like to think of myself as refreshingly different. What you need to do is show a company why they should employ you, even though you’re not their stereotypical employee. Show initiative, be confident (but not arrogant), be brave, send cheeky emails. Find out names, people respond to other people; application forms don’t. And remember, if you don’t ask, you’ll never get.

Independent production companies have a much more open door, but staff turnaround is high. Sending them just one email isn’t going to get you anywhere. Send one every month, or better still pay them a visit. Someone will, eventually, give you an opportunity.

When you do finally get that opportunity, work your socks off. Show that you will do anything. Never, ever complain. There are thousands of other people who would love that opportunity, just remember that. Television is hard work, if you don’t like working hard, it’s not for you.

If you want to work behind the scenes, then just work hard, really hard. Getting ‘in’ is the difficult part. Once you’re in just make sure you do a good job and you’ll be fine (as long as you can cope with 6-week contracts, intermittent cash-flow and 14hour days). Research what you’re doing. If you don’t understand something; look it up. Acronyms are used far and wide and can be intimidating, a quick google will keep you up to speed. Or, better still, find yourself a mentor, someone who won’t judge you if you ask (what you think is) a stupid question. Buy books, read them, read them again, make fact sheets, read them; the more you know about everything, the better you’ll be at the job.

What if you want to work in front of camera? Ah, well that’s different. In a normal job, if you work hard and are good at what you do then eventually you will progress through the ranks. Television presenting is different; there are absolutely no guarantees. You can go for hundreds of screen tests and get nowhere. Yes, even Brian Cox was refused entry onto our television screens for years (and years!).

If you do want to go into Science presenting, I would say that the best route, the way things are going, is to stay in Science. It may seem silly advice, but the media is increasingly wanting actual practicing scientists to communicate it. Even if the show they’re presenting is not in their field of expertise, the fact that they do have an area of expertise is an instant tick. So, if you want to be a science presenter, find the science you enjoy, do that as your actual job; get job security (well, you have to admit by comparison even a 3-year contract is massively secure), the sick pay, the holiday pay and then try and enter the presenting world as a ‘tv’ outsider. Make sure the contributor- heavy programmes like Horizon and Bang Goes the Theory know who you are (new presenters are often found by being a contributor first) then wait. And by ‘wait’ I, of course, mean constantly self-promote (horrible word isn’t it?); go to development meetings at different production companies every week, forge relationships with Producers on ‘The One Show’ and ‘BBC Breakfast’ ensuring you’re their go-to science expert, present at every science festival that will have you, make a showreel, make a better showreel, write a blog, get on twitter, write hundreds of programme treatments, become a STEM ambassador, be willing to help any Researcher/AP/ Producer that calls you up (for free, of course), know of every single science programme out there, know who produces it and make sure they know who you are. But through all of this never, ever describe yourself as wannabe tv presenter. You are a scientist. Let the Development Producers come up with the idea that you’ll be good in-front of camera, even though we both know that’s what you actually want to do.

If, like me, you want to work in science tv, but also thought you’d give presenting a try then my advice would be choose who you tell. Every man, woman and dog wants to be a presenter it seems and if you confess that you too belong to that tribe then you may not be taken seriously in any behind the scenes role. I have two different groups of tv contacts, those that know me as an Researcher/ AP/ Consultant and those that know me as a presenter. A lot of the people I have worked for in the past do not even know of my in-front of camera work. I knew that they would have made (incorrect) presumptions about my commitment to the job if they knew of my presenting credits, so I chose not to tell.

But as always, whatever job you get, do the best work you can. If you don’t pull your weight behind the scenes, then you’ll never get recommended for presenting work. And enjoy it, after all that’s why you didn’t want a 9-to-5 job in the first place.

Friction-science-communication
How strong is friction? Credit British Science Festival

You can follow Fran on Twitter at @Frans_facts or visit her website here.

Stephen McGann

Speaking to…Stephen McGann

“Do it because you love it. Enthusiasm is the most connective form of communication.”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Stephen McGann

Stephen-McGann-science-communication
Stephen McGann

Name? 

Stephen McGann

Who do you work for?

Freelance – so that means everybody. I’ve just finished working as an actor on a BBC TV series called “Call the Midwife.”  I play a doctor in the early years of the NHS, which can involve communicating quite graphic medical detail for a general audience. This feeds into my sci-comm interests rather nicely. I wrote about these experiences for the Imperial College Sci-com blog Refractive Index.

Most recently, I’ve been developing corporate communication skills training for a business in the Middle East, whilst planning the next stage of my academic studies in the field of Science Communication. Also, I’ve just begun collaboration on an great new theatre science project with a children’s theatre group in Essex.

What type of science communication do you do?

As much as possible! It’s such a diverse field, and I like to experience as many channels of science communication as I can. I enjoy STEM print journalism, and spent some time writing for the BBC Online Technology website. Also, my past experience in Arts media has given me some useful insights into live presentation, interview skills, radio and TV, narrative structure, and PR. I enjoy using these media as a means to communicate complexity in a connective, engaging way.

Who is your main audience?

All of us. Like many, I’m sceptical of the idea of some generalised non-science ‘public’ . The best sci-comm I read or watch is multi-layered – allowing for concurrent access points for audience comprehension and appreciation at different levels of expertise. For instance, the night sky is awe-inspiring to the youngest of minds. Yet it is also full of complex physics. Both things needn’t be mutually exclusive in a good communication. Drama understands this layered narrative. Good Sci-comm does too.

How did you get into it?

Like all the best things I’ve done – Circuitously! I am what might charitably be described as a mature *cough* student. I returned to STEM education ten years ago, after many years spent in screen and theatre Arts. My undergraduate degree was in computer science, followed by an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. I was driven by a lifelong interest in the popular view of science, and felt that my communicative work experiences might have something to offer.

Why do you do it?

Because I believe there has never been a more important time to engage with complex scientific issues as a global citizen. Science is ours. It belongs to all of us – not simply to an imagined elite. It brings enormous societal benefits. It saves lives. Yet this power entails a collective responsibility to understand, explain and listen. This can require some intimidating multi-disciplinary skills – yet there can be few more useful vocations in the 21st century.

What do you love about science communication?

Its breadth. It is a field which embraces science education, exhibitions, policy, journalism, history, broadcasting, philosophy, documentary, sociology, PR. An enormously varied and vibrant world.

What has been your favourite project?

At Imperial I worked with two fellow students on a project to construct a hoax scientific documentary. This aimed to demonstrate how easily our personal human biases can be manipulated – despite scientific background or training. It was enormous fun to be so duplicitous and unethical for the sake of research!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Do it because you love it. Enthusiasm is the most connective form of communication.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @StephenMcGann or read his blog The Theatre of Reason