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Getting naked for science

Alan volunteering at The Big Bang Fair

Alan volunteering at The Big Bang Fair (Copyright: Alan Boyd)

Who are the Naked Scientists? And what’s it like to work with them? Alan Boyd, a PhD student from the MRC Institute for Hearing Research in Glasgow, found out on an eight-week MRC-funded foray into their audio world.

Call it what you will: science journalism; science communication; public engagement with science. Whatever the name, it’s about taking sometimes abstract, often difficult and almost always important discoveries in scientific research and making them accessible to the general public.

Over the past 10 years, the multi-award winning Naked Scientists radio show, podcasts, websites and live shows have become a major conduit through which people around the world receive their weekly dose of science.

The Naked Scientists occupy an office and a cupboard in the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge. Upon starting my internship, three things were clear. Firstly, this office had windows. As a PhD student in the depths of a hospital, that’s something I’d long ago dismissed as an unfathomable luxury. Secondly, lab meetings were to be replaced by strong coffee and continuously tight deadlines, flanked by publishing embargoes (which I nearly broke at least twice) and preparation for the radio show on a Sunday evening. Thirdly, the Naked Scientists remain disappointingly unfaithful to their name…

Despite being involved with science podcasts and magazines for a number of years, before joining the Naked Scientists I had successfully avoided both interviewing scientists and doing anything remotely ‘live’. My interviewing skills were immediately tested when I was asked to put together a five-minute report from the British Society of Audiology conference, while also presenting my own work.

From this I learned that it’s often more difficult to interview your friends and colleagues than it is to interview scientists you don’t know, essentially because your friends will be too concerned with giving you the answers they think you want.

The Naked Scientists broadcasting from BBC Cambridgeshire

The Naked Scientists broadcasting from BBC Cambridgeshire (Copyright: Alan Boyd)

I also discovered that scientists often require very little encouragement to talk about their research. The skill of the science journalist/communicator/public-engager is to home in on the answers that are not only interesting and concise, but also give a fair representation of the work being done. Turning 1.5 hours of interviews into 2.5 minutes of audio is no mean feat.

This experience, combined with daily telephone interviews with researchers from around the world in the recording cupboard (a tiny room crammed with audio equipment and a phone) soon rid me of my worries as an interviewer.

My inexperience in live broadcasting was tested when I had to present my own one-hour show on auditory science. So much preparation goes into a show that even after planning it for several weeks beforehand, there was last minute work to be done. However, once the show began, the preparation, the quality of the guests (Owen Brimijoin and Peyman Adjamian, from the MRC Institute of Hearing Research’s Glasgow and Nottingham bases respectively) and presenter Chris Smith’s 10 years of broadcast experience carried the show. My nerves were greatly reduced by conveniently forgetting the thousands of listeners beyond.

Interestingly, the show received a larger number of listener questions than usual, perhaps highlighting a public interest in hearing-related issues. So if Robert Winston or Michael Moseley are unavailable to do shows, I don’t mind stepping in. I’ll do it for free, and I ask only for an office with windows.

Alan Boyd

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