The Naked Scientists Internship – thoughts from a past participant

Alexandra Ashcroft reviews, in detail, her internship at the Naked Scientists, funded by the Genetics Society. Feel free to contact her for further information or advice on the application process.

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From July – September 2017, I had the privilege of undertaking an 8-week internship at the Naked Scientists. Overall the experience was extremely rewarding; I gained new skills, spoke to many interesting people and just had fun. The core team at Naked Scientists are a group of incredibly kind and patient people.

I applied for the internship looking to gain experience in science communication as I am considering pursuing such a career after completing my PhD. In this regard, the Naked Scientists was an ideal place to do an internship as it provides exposure to two different mediums: writing and radio. Although there are commonalities to producing good written or good radio pieces, there are also profound differences. Interning at the Naked Scientists was thus an extremely efficient way to spend my time.

In addition, I wished to improve my communication skills. Being able to communicate complex scientific information to a variety of different audiences well is fundamental for a diverse bundle of careers. Should I have discovered that science journalism is not for me, my internship would have been time well spent.

I am glad to say that my time at the Naked Scientists surpassed these hopes and that I am even keener on pursuing a career in science journalism. However, although I very much value my experience in radio, I preferred science writing.

During my internship, I got thrown in at the deep end from day one and I loved it. Each week has a fairly standard set-up. Monday morning team members hunt down (the then embargoed) news stories that might make good pieces for Sunday’s show. After a morning meeting, where the team finalises and allocates the stories to pursue, the clock starts.

Each person has to contact the authors of their allocated research paper; perform a general interview that confirms the veracity and suitability of the story (and the ability of the scientist to communicate it to the general public); perform a shorter recorded interview; edit that interview for broadcast quality, all by 5pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

The fact that many of the authors of the best stories may be situated overseas, some with time zone differences that make interviews very challenging, compounds this hectic schedule. A team member told me that they have never done an interview with a scientist situated in Japan because interviews are effectively impossible to schedule.

Adding to the workload is the fact that you may research and do the first interview for the chief presenter, Chris Smith. Redundancy and back-up stories were also always built in to the news line-up. This meant that you might be chasing down up to 3-4 stories at a time – no week was ever boring!

One of the reasons back-ups were so important is that some authors may be unavailable or the author may be unable to get to a studio to record the final formal interview. The sheer volume of stories that had to be canned because of this last criterion astounded me.

This entire process provided an excellent learning curve – a recurring theme of this review is just how stimulating this internship was. Several skills are required to create a good news story: the ability to find a good story, interview skills and editing skills.

I believe that the most challenging of these is the interviewing skills, especially for a formal interview. When getting quotes for a written news article, it’s not so important if a scientist misses a step in the explanation, assumes prior knowledge or uses jargon. Writing grants you supreme control over the output of your content and if you need to fill in the blanks, use an analogy or simply cut a jargon heavy quote; you can. This is not the case with radio pieces.

The recorded interviews are short and fast. If you miss something, then, short of scheduling a new interview, you are stuck with it. I found it really difficult to engage with the interview itself whilst simultaneously envisaging exactly what my final cut would look like. This meant the overall narratives of some of my final pieces were sloppy. I did get better at it but I would still say that it’s the skill I need to work on most.

Another challenge I found with the radio interviews is coming to terms with hearing your own voice. I’ve discovered I’m terribly high-pitched and I sometimes drop my “t’s” and “d’s”. Radio pieces are edited in Adobe Audition (another steep learning curve) and I was surprised to see that my missing letters was actually visible in the sound waves. Hopefully, I’ll have walked away from the internship with the added bonus of improved elocution!

Learning how to edit with Adobe Audition was challenging, but fun. I found it fascinating how the editing process could change the nature of the piece. For instance, removing verbal crutches – the “umms” and the “ahs” – makes a speaker sound dramatically more articulate and intelligent.

The Naked Scientists also produces more playful pieces, such as “Question of the Week”. These pieces are termed “built” in that the parts are recorded separately; they often involve lots of sound effects. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on some of these towards the end of my internship. Learning how to mix and layer sound effects into a piece was extremely fun. Indeed, just being given the opportunity to extend the skills I initially developed in Adobe Audition for the weekly interviews was extremely rewarding.

After the hard deadline of 5pm Wednesday for the weekly interviews, Chris would select the pieces he felt created the best narrative for Sunday’s show. This did not mean that our weeks were cycles of feast and famine. Thursdays and Fridays were spent writing up the interviews at news articles for the show’s website.

In general, writing was my favourite part of the internship. I enjoy seeing a story or narrative emerging from what was previously a blank page. The deadline for the news articles is Friday, 5pm. This gives you a two day window to write a neutral, coherent, attention grabbing, and, above all, accurate article. Learning how to write coherently, accurately, and quickly is perhaps the most valuable skill the internship taught me.

One thing I did find surprising, though, was just how much I had to justify and argue for including the limitations of some studies in my articles. I believe the greatest attribute of the scientific endeavour is the debate that naturally arises from holding our peers and ourselves to the highest levels of scientific best practice and integrity. I felt it was a great shame that this debate, one of the core principals of science, was not consistently reflected by those seeking to promote and engage non-specialists. I believe this to be especially important given both the research reproducibility crisis and the emergence of fake news.

I also spent Thursdays and Fridays working on my own show: for the final week of the internship, I produced the final half of Sunday’s show. The first half typically contains the weekly news and the second deals with a single topic in a bit more detail. For this show, you get almost exclusive, but well-supported, creative control over the show’s output. Daunting, yes, but also extremely rewarding.

In the first weeks, I pitched ideas of what I believed would make an interesting show. This is harder than it may sound. You need to find the balance between cutting edge and not getting bogged down in alienating detail. It took me almost a month to find my topic: humans of the future, where we looked at advances in transplants, exoskeletons, artificial pancreases and prosthetic retinas.

After I finalised my topic, I began identifying scientists performing interesting and relevant work, and interviewing them. It’s a very similar process to that used in the weekly news, except the final edited interviews are a couple of minutes longer and not all scientists will undertake the second recorded interview. About half of these interviews are intended to be live. A rather nerve racking prospect given that people can pull out at any minute. I actually observed this happen to a colleague – someone pulled out towards the end of the day on Friday for a live interview on Sunday. She dealt with it in an extremely competent manner but I can’t deny that it gave me nightmares in the lead up to my show!

In conclusion, I not only really enjoyed my internship but I also profoundly benefited from the experience. I had the privilege to interact with an extremely friendly and talented team, who taught me a lot. I also got to hear about fascinating work being done by many interesting scientists – it was a pleasure to view a kaleidoscope of current science when my own research focus is much narrower. I would strongly urge anyone remotely interested to apply for the internship – you won’t regret it.

 

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