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Speaking to… Dr George McGavin

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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.

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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?

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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!

Extinction: Not the end of the world?

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Extinction: not the end of the world?

This is a feature podcast, originally created for I, Science, the Imperial College Science magazine.

In this science communication feature podcast, I explore how the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Extinction: not the end of the world?, was put together. I speak to Alex Fairhead, the exhibition developer, and Dr Norman Macleod, the senior scientist on the development team, to find out how the scientists and museum curators share their expertise to create a unique learning and interactive space.