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