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.

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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!

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