My Summer With Auntie

Its been a few weeks since I returned from my manic summer flitting between departments of the BBC and other jobs, and it’s high time I picked up the pace and made up for my terrible absence over the last few months. I have lots lined up, but let me first share with you what has kept me busy for so long…

I was lucky enough to be awarded a rare and fantastic British Science Association Media Fellowship, along with nine others from across the country.  The media fellowships sponsor placements at a variety of media hosts, including the Times, and Nature News.  Myself, I was placed with BBC Online and Radio.  I won’t say any more, but will instead share the report I wrote as thanks to the BSA funders and supporters.

Apologies for the length, but scan to the bottom to find out what my various contributions were over the summer.

***

“Leila! Congratulations!”

It was the day after returning from my 6 week placement with the BBC. I was walking dejectedly through the centre of Oxford, wondering how on Earth I would get back into the swing of academia and how I would manage the switch from journalistic writing back to academic writing.  I had my headphones in and I was listening to that week’s Material World.

The interjection had come from a senior Professor in my department, who laid a hand on my arm, apologised for the interruption, and congratulated me again.

I was dumbfounded – what had I done to deserve such unprompted and public praise from one of the most indomitable people in my academic sphere?

She went on to explain that she and her husband (the Head of the Department no less) were lying in bed the previous night (too much information, but I’ll take the rough with the smooth), listening to this week’s Science in Action on BBC World Service.  They both apparently jumped with excitement when they heard my name in the producer’s credits at the end.  I could do little but keep saying thank and smiling dumbly

Lots of people have told me similar stories of how they came across the work I did with the BBC this summer by accident – often asking ‘Was that really you?’.  But this brief one-sided conversation with a professor I have revered since starting in Oxford really struck home the impact of the fellowship.  I was lucky to have been awarded by this placement by the BSA, and even luckier that those weeks were spent with the BBC.

My proudest possession

Summer with Auntie

I was brought up with the BBC.  It was a constant companion in our home while I was growing up, and it still holds a position of unattainable respect within my family.  What joy, therefore, when I found that not only I had been awarded one of the elusive BSA fellowships, but that that fellowship was to be with the Beeb.

I was not especially hopeful about being successful with the BSA fellowships.  I knew quite a few very talented people who were applying from Oxford alone, and I had to make the stipulation that I couldn’t carry out my placement in August.  Yet I still sat by the phone and the computer on the decision day, watching the clock and jumping at every loud noise.  After the call came, I was beside myself and was probably quite unbearable for several hours afterwards.

As it turned out, the entire summer was full of BBC.  I was also lucky enough to get onto a work experience program with BBC Horizon, and got into Radio 1’s good books by giving their Fun and Filth Cabaret a good review at the Edinburgh festival.  Despite some of these enterprises crossing over a lot in their USP, none were really aware of the other – giving me the first taste of what a immense thing the British Broadcasting Corporation really is.

Old and the New

Splitting my (and my BBC fellowship companion Hamish’s) placement between Online News and the Radio Unit had a certain kind of symmetry to it.  I’m not sure if it was planned like that, but three weeks with each served to demonstrate the fundamental contrast between the old and the new.  The ‘old’ world of radio was sharply different in location, pace and content to the ‘new’ digital world of online news.  Science news online was based in the iconic Television Centre along with lots of TV studios and the cast of Strictly. There were sparkles on the floor, and rooms with brightly coloured and improbably shaped chairs, and a Costa vendor in the corridor. The Science Radio Unit is in Bush House at Aldwych, a magnificent building stuffed full of marble colonnades, sweeping staircases and dark wood panelling.  The lifts were leather on the outside and velvet on the inside – the buttons were brass. The Beeb have seemingly accidentally captured the golden age of the wireless and keep it running alongside the very essence of modernity.

“Can I borrow your Dictaphone?”

The answer I got to this question in the online newsgathering offices epitomised my experience there.  Decidedly inappropriate, but delivered with such dry wit as to leave me with tears in my eyes even as I dialled up an interviewee. The staff of News Online were mostly men, but the most open, welcoming and patient men anyone could hope for.

A daily reader of the news website, I was at first a little starstruck to be sitting two desks away from none other than Jonathan Amos and Environment Correspondent Richard Black.  Their kindly but crude banter soon put me at ease and I launched into three frenetic weeks of writing, phoning and formatting.

News editor Paul Rincon patiently showed me the ropes and, somewhat worryingly, set me loose on the news.  The first story I wrote was about bacteria that can process uranium in soils – something I know nothing about.  It was at this point that I also realised that I knew nothing about how to write a BBC news story.  Copying a template from a random article I scavenged off the website, my first lesson was this.  Never, ever, write a paragraph with more than one sentence.  Even when I tried to sneak two very innocuous short ones together, they were spotted and pulled apart.  Offensive though this was to the secret prose-lover in me, it makes a lot of sense.  In terms of reading news, it really does help, and makes the writing completely anonymous, as it should be.

I learnt other musts for an online article, things the casual reader would never usually notice: headlines must be between 31 and 33 characters, long titles no more than 55 characters; the first four sentences must summarise the story, including the authors and the journal, to be used on the Ceefax pages.  I didn’t even know Ceefax still existed. ..

All in all, the workload was pretty intense.  It was a rare day that I wasn’t writing a story with another one or two queued in the system and yet another one on my list of possibles.  That’s the thing about news – it keeps on happening.  I was initially surprised that the stories were a little tardy in coming out after an embargo had been lifted; the story usually would have spread around my twitter feed well before the BBC articles came out.  But when you consider the monumental feat that the rarely more than seven-strong team pull off in covering all the news, you really have to hand it to them.

Incidentally, the answer to my question was ‘No, use your finger like everyone else’.

Bush House, home of BBC Radio Unit (for now)

“Bonjour, avez-vous un attaché de presse?”

Three short weeks later and I was to abandon TV centre for the leafy theatrical hubbub of Aldwych.  The Radio Science Unit, high up in Bush House had an entirely different feel to it.  Here the staff comprise almost all women, and almost all were focussed on working for their individual programmes.  All the science radio programmes come out of that office: Material World, Science in Action, Health Check and Click weekly, and the series of Frontiers and Discovery.  You really couldn’t ask for better exposure to science radio.

The day I started, the unit were inundated with various other work experience students, and by pure fluke of desk placement, I was taken under the wing of Science in Action producer Ania Lichtarowicz.  Science in Action is a 20 minute pre-recorded programme focussing on world-relevant science and is broadcast on the World Service.  I was completely unprepared for this – expecting to work on Material World I had only swotted up on their themes and format.  I don’t think I had knowingly ever listened to the World Service.

But Ania was extraordinarily kind and acted more like a mentor than a boss.  She gave me sole responsibility to research and prepare interviews that were then recorded in the studio with presenter Jon Stewart down the line from Los Angeles.  In later weeks, she taught me how to and left me to edit these interviews – cutting them down from around 15 minutes to four…  This was by far the skill that I was most pleased to learn: something entirely new and utterly engrossing.

Researching international stories for the World Service is nerve-wracking if you’re not fluent in about twenty languages.  Just listening to Ania switching effortlessly between Polish, English and French riddled me with inadequacy.  More often than not I found myself switching to the British default: loud and slow. “Hello! Do. You. Have. A. Press. Officer?!”  Not the most professional perhaps, but it got me by.

I was sad to leave the unit after working on just three programmes.  Despite having worked just as hard as I did with News Online, there seemed to me so much less  to show for it.  But the Radio is targeting a different group of people – probably people who would loyally listen each week, whereas I would be foolish to think that everyone who visited the website would be reading my articles.

The most famous curry house in the world, oh, and some science too

For most people carrying out this year’s BSA fellowships, the British Science Festival on the 10th-15th September came at the end of their placements.  I only started at the beginning of September, so had just a week of journalistic experience under my belt by the time the festival started.  For this reason, I was full of trepidation on the train to Bradford – everyone else would be old hats, jaded sitting around in trilbies and smoking while they leafed lazily through their shorthand notes. Perhaps my concept of newspaper journalism is stuck a bit in the 1950’s…

Bradford had only ever previously entered my conscious as the location of the ‘World’s Most Famous Curry House’, and the ‘World’s Largest Naan’. I didn’t ever imagine the city as a hub for scientific research I have to admit, but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter.  He point of the Festival was not to update on the latest measurements of a particular sub-atomic particle, or to debate the minutae of new climate data.  It was to showcase some of the most exciting, public-friendly science being done by British scientists at the moment.  Sure, so the science may not have been all that new, or even completed yet, but the point was it was interesting.

It was a bit of a change of pace – starting work at 8 rather than 9:30 – but I still wrote at least one story a day for the duration of the festival.  Topics like cancer drugs from flowers, sticking food waste in a microwave to get fuel, and launching giant balloons to stop climate change, were all genuinely fun to write about.  A last minute press conference on dark matter on the final day resulted in an article by me that remained the most read on the entire website for three days.  Testament, if any was needed, that the festival really does have surprises up its sleeve.

BSA Media Fellows Class of 2011

The festival was a great chance to catch up with my fellow, er, fellows, and hear about all their diverse experiences.  I didn’t have as much contact with them as I’d have liked, as the BBC team (16 of us in total) were given a room to themselves.  Quite apart from the misplaced air of superiority this gave us, it physically separated us from the rest of the press pack and the decisions and discussions being made.  I think this stood in the way of some of the networking I would have liked to have done, and didn’t really help with my image of jaded, trilby wearing journalists conspiring against us.

Over-viewing

In all, the seven weeks (three weeks with online, three with radio, and one at the festival) I spent as a BBC journalist this summer was one of the most enriching experiences I could have hoped for.

The undeniable joy of seeing your name in a byline, or hearing it at the end of a radio show, is the most immediate return for the work you do.  But almost equal to that were the personal emails I received from the researchers I had contacted for comments and interviews.  Without fail they were gushingly thankful for the coverage I had given them, and I felt proud that I had made a little mark in honest, fair and unbiased reporting of science.

I hope I can use the lessons and skills I learnt on this placement to continue to make that mark.  I came away brimming with ideas for novel short-form reporting, and for advice for my researcher peers.  As a researcher, there is nothing to stop you putting yourself forward as a press contact for your work, whether is a world-changing question or a day-to-day data collection.  If you sell yourself well, the best reporters will be able to make everyone in the world want to do what you do.

Moreover, this summer I have met some amazing people with the same values and drive as me, and I hope they will continue to be friends for many years to come.

Further Reading and Listening

Online

6/9 Bacteria ‘nano-wires’ clean up uranium contamination

7/9 Socialising enhances fat conversion and loss in mice

8/9 Meteorites delivered gold to Earth

10/9 Fish living in dark caves still feel the rhythm of life

12/9 British flowers are the source of a new cancer drug

13/9 Earth’s rarest metals ranked in a new ‘risk list’

14/9 Giant balloon to be launched to test climate fix hope

15/9 ‘Microwave waste’ to get biofuel

16/9 Dwarf galaxies suggest dark matter theory may be wrong

20/9 Stimulating brain with electricity aids learning speed

20/9 Can we predict when and where quakes will strike?

20/9 Old fossils solve mystery of earliest bird extinction

21/9 Asteroid thought to kill dinosaurs may not be guilty

23/9 Lock of hair pins down early migration of Aborigines

27/9 Fluorescing bacteria used to encode secret messages

28/9 Dipping tongues allow bees to drink the sweetest nectar

29/9 Self-healing materials take cue from nature

30/9 First superfast muscles in mammals help bats catch prey

4/10 Climate swings increase extinction risk

Radio

6/10 Science in Action (Researcher)

13/10 Science in Action (Co-producer)

13/10 Material World (Researcher)

20/10 Science in Action (Co-producer)


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