GUEST POST: “Discovering the Joys (and hardships) of being a Scientist on TV”

July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Despite a rather lengthy history — a mini self-started career even, I’d say — of interviewing scientists for mass communications, I have to admit that even after all this time and all this experience, I’m still on the fence when it comes putting a finger on scientists’ attitudes towards explaining their work to the lay men.

(Source)

Certainly, I think that many scientists genuinely love to talk about what they do — some of them needing more training on that special skill than others albeit — while some hold grudges towards journalists, and still others have fear.  (In fact, I think that last one, fear, may just be one of the most unanimous underlying qualities of all the scientists, graduate students, and researchers I’ve ever interviewed, whether that fear is blatantly apparent, quietly detectable, or instinctive yet undetectable.)

I suppose there’s just something a wee bit scary about going straight from the lab bench to a stool in front of a teleprompter with glaring lights in your eyes, wired mics slipped beneath your shirt, and a wide-angle camera hovering in front of your nose.  On top of that, I think what’s more intimidating is all the psycho-intellectual difficulties of making science understandable (and exciting!) to the average person.

But for those scientists out there who are brave enough to engage such a challenge, let me introduce you to my good friend Marcel Pinheiro, a Biology graduate student finishing up his PhD in Dr. Bols’ lab at the University of Waterloo.

You’ll recall that Marcel was my road-trip buddy, camera guy, moral supporter, and scientist extraordinaire who accompanied me to the CBC offices in downtown Toronto last November 2010 to interview host Bob McDonald.  This past May, an interesting turn of networking events got Marcel in front of the camera this time — and he was kind enough to share his experiences of being a “talking scientist” for Discovery Education with us. So, without further ado, here he is:

This year, the beginning of Spring brought with it an unexpected email to my inbox. I was contacted by a producer from Discovery Education, the web-based educational branch of the honoured Discovery Channel, who asked me to contribute to a new segment. The goal was to produce a concise introduction, aimed at middle-school children, to the organisms referred to as Protozoa. A “talking head” scientist would talk about the great diversity of these organisms, which vary from the humble Paramecium and Amoeba to the devastating parasite causing malaria, and would be used to narrate videos of these organisms.

And that’s where I come into the picture.

As one of the researchers asked to provide an engaging scientific relevance to all of this introductory material, I of course agreed to help – but before I get to the experience of appearing on film, I’ll provide a little personal back-story.

As a young impressionable mind, the mid-1980’s to early 1990’s explosion of television targeted directly toward young children had me awash in the day-glo of Saturday morning cartoons and Disney-produced edutainment.

Personalities such as Bill Nye, Beakman, and the perennial Mr. Wizard taught me the fundamentals of biology, chemistry, and physics. I can’t deny their influence on setting me on the path to research. Needless to say, the opportunity to get a first-hand taste of this edutainment industry wasn’t something I was about to pass up!

I responded to the initial email and began scheduling our filming day. At the time, I was told it would only take a few hours. Naively, I believed that with the limited experience I had with public outreach – having just collaborated on a departmental seminar about that very topic – this would certainly be a breeze.

Truly, the actual science wasn’t all that difficult; it was introductory material for middle-schoolers, after all. But what was surprising, and what my graduate student physique, fueled by long hours standing at the lab bench and short walks for coffee, was ill-prepared for, was how grueling filming can be. Repeating takes, the intense lighting, and hours of maintaining a level of enthusiasm comparable to that necessary to keep a room full of undergraduates awake during your guest lecture…it was exhausting.

Over all, it was a unique and fun experience – one that I would recommend for anyone brave enough to endure it.  And by the end of filming, a whopping 10 hours over two days, I think I can offer a couple of pieces of advice:

Firstly, know your audience. If you’re doing a piece for young students, you are going to need to engage and interest them. That means basic language (without talking down to them) and lots of real-world examples and analogies. If it’s appropriate, show up with the same mindset you would have if you were lecturing to a room full of students. It’s tough to be in front of a camera and bring the same enthusiasm it takes to engage hundreds of students. But if you can do this, you will keep your audience interested, and the piece will be much better for it.

Lastly, patience. You may be asked to read from a teleprompter or endlessly answer the same question, and you’ll be exhausted after a dozen takes, but the longer you can facilitate your director’s requests, the better the final product will be. And, really, that is the ultimate goal. If you’re producing material to be viewed by the public and the result is something that interests and informs them, then you’ve done a great job and you might even influence them to go out and learn more about the science.

I hope Marcel’s personal experiences will help the many scientists out there who have a fear of cameras, lights, and microphones, but who still wonder what it might be like to talk about science on television.  He’s honest about the hardships of filming science.  It can indeed be daunting for many who are used to strict data generation and analysis, but in the end I think scientists ought to brave their fears and take the challenge — they’ll quickly discover that the joys of bringing science to a world outside of their lab room are far more excellent and rewarding.  Thanks Marcel!

Off-Camera Notes: On Water Bringing People Together

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a brief hiatus from shooting — the timely onset of final assignments, term lab reports, and second midterms had (albeit regrettably) left me not much time to be a TV star of any sort these past two weeks — we got back into the groove yesterday afternoon.

In my interview with UW’s Environment and Resource Studies professor Rob de Loë, we chatted about the importance of water governance and policy.  Ultimately, I was impressed to realize just how socially significant water is: beyond being something merely for us to drink, for crops to grow, or even, for the major role it plays in our ecosystem and wildlife habitats — water, as this fundamental source of life, actually brings people together.

(Source)

“We always hear that saying that, oh, ‘great wars of the future will be fought over water’,” de Loë quoted, waving his hand dismissively. “I’ve always had something against that saying.  Water is of utmost importance, and yes, we quarrel over water.  But ultimately, what water does is it brings communities of people together, to work with one another on this great quest to find the means to survive.”

Off-Camera Notes: Things I Have Learned About TV Production and Journalism Etiquette

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Recently, I came to a very important conclusion regarding TV journalism: what happens off-camera is just as important — if not more important — than what actually happens on camera.  (Now, somewhere off in the distance, a professional videographer must be doing the accusatory finger-point and shrieking blasphemy.)  However, I speak honestly from my own experience: most of my best interviews on camera have been preceded by superb off-camera interactions.  By this, I mean the stuff that precedes the actual interview and everything in between: the tone of e-mail exchanges beforehand, the promptness of responses, the helpfulness of your/their response, the proper use of comma splices (yes, I definitely just wrote that there are proper ways to use things that you are never supposed to use in the written English language), and whether or not they share your (potentially very awkward) sense of humour when you finally do meet in person.  These are all things that contribute to the eventual on-camera chemistry between you and your interviewee.

Honestly, the more I become acquainted with show business (not that I really know it at all), the more I am grateful to Mr. Bob McDonald.  Although our encounter in the CBC Studio back in November of 2010 was, er, humbling (to say the very least!) I readily profess that everything I learned about off-camera journalism etiquette, I learned from Bob McDonald.

Of course, there’s still so much to learn.  In an attempt to make the RogersTV experience much more worthwhile to me as an aspiring science journalist, I have started to make a list of things that I have learned since taking on this role as a community producer for Science Matters. The following list is definitively non-comprehensive, and in no particular order of importance:

  1. In e-mail communications, comma splices can be acceptable, even cool. [sic]  (This took me a while to understand, since I have the tendency to be a grammar nazi.)
  2. When giving introductions and sign-offs, LOOK THE CAMERA IN THE EYE.  No one is interested in looking at the white of your eyes, and plus – that’s just awkward.
  3. Interviewing scientists is NOT like interviewing artsy people. The former generally have no idea what you are doing or why you have a microphone in your hand; the latter will try to act for you the whole time, potentially making you feel very, very awkward.  Be prepared to stand aside, watch them talk, and feel awkward.
  4. Try to be as friendly and approachable as possible once you meet the interviewee.  It’s best to be warm, but not too personal.  If you accidentally become “too personal” with your interviewee beforehand, it changes the tone of your interview, and makes it feel, well, somewhat disrespectful.
  5. Under no circumstances is it ever OK to bash past interviewees. Not on camera (of course!), not off camera — NO-NO-NO-NO-NEVER.
  6. Do not try to look like someone you are not. (ie. For as long as Bob McDonald is not getting his teeth fixed for the camera, I will not be wearing cover-up for my interviews.)
  7. Do your best to avoid bad jokes. Seriously.  Not everybody is as friendly as you are – and some who are cruel enough will make it a point not to laugh.

Lights, Camera, Astronaut.

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

All that really matters is that I’m standing beside a body that’s been 4.7 million miles around the Earth’s orbit.

Peter’s Quadrants: Four Types of Journalists

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

By some magical stroke of fortuitous nonsense, I was the clandestine uninvited guest to an invitation-only conference, “Journalism 101 for Scientists”, held in UWaterloo’s Davis Centre fishbowl  this past Tuesday.  On legitimate grounds, I did meet Peter Calamai before the conference, of course; but this post is about an awesome diagram that the man drew during the conference itself:

Stop laughing.  Aside from the illegibility, the illustration is perfect: it depicts — succinctly and humourously — the four types of journalists as a function of the amount of information they ask from their prospective researcher-interviewees, and the impact of their stories, once published or broadcast.

To do justice to its rightful and respective creator, I have affectionately named the following figure, “Peter’s Quadrants”:

What kind of journalist are you?

Peter’s Quadrants: Four Types of Journalists

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

By some magical stroke of fortuitous nonsense, I was the clandestine uninvited guest to an invitation-only conference, “Journalism 101 for Scientists”, held in UWaterloo’s Davis Centre fishbowl  this past Tuesday.  On legitimate grounds, I did meet Peter Calamai before the conference, of course; but this post is about an awesome diagram that the man drew during the conference itself:

Stop laughing.  Aside from the illegibility, the illustration is perfect: it depicts — succinctly and humourously — the four types of journalists as a function of the amount of information they ask from their prospective researcher-interviewees, and the impact of their stories, once published or broadcast.

To do justice to its rightful and respective creator, I have affectionately named the following figure, “Peter’s Quadrants”:

What kind of journalist are you?

NOTE TO SELF: Find Interviewees with Awesome Brothers

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

You know things are going to turn out good when the person you’re supposed to interview/meet up with is with their brother and their brother is super-cool.

  1. When I was walking towards Rob Gorbet for an interview at the Solar Collector in Cambridge, his brother Matt saw me from afar and eagerly motioned to Rob, pointing at me excitedly, all whilst prancing around in the snow in a black full-body suit.  It was at this point that I knew I was going to like them.  It turns out Matt was an excellent interviewee.  Despite our shoot outdoors in what must have been some ridiculous subzero temperature, I distinctly recall leaving that interview feeling pretty darn warm inside.
  2. When I met Peter Calamai pre-Journalism-101-for-Scientists conference today and he was dropped off by his brother Paul, who introduced himself to me with a great big smile that radiated oodles of sunshine (despite, yet again, a day that boasted a ridiculous subzero temperature).  He also made sure to tell Peter to call his cell phone if he needed anything at all, and this told me that their brotherhood was strong.

I am sincerely starting to become convinced that one can make a relatively accurate preliminary judgment on the likeability of an unknown person based on their relationship with their brother.

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