BSA Media Fellowship blog: CEGE’s Dr Lena Ciric
18 November 2019
Summer 2019 saw UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering’s Dr Lena Ciric join other UCL Engineering colleagues on BSA Media Fellowships. In this post, Dr Ciric talks radio broadcasting, science communication, and seeing journalism from the other side.
Thursday 25 July 2019
I have got used to a new routine. The BBC Science Radio Unit, where I am for three weeks this summer, does not come to life until 10 or 11am, so this morning I’ve had a leisurely breakfast before finally getting on the train at 9; usually it would be 7am. I get an email from one of the UCL press officers to tell me a journalist from the Times wants to talk to me about our press release. A paper by one of my PhD students is coming out the following day and, among other things, it shows that London ponds and rivers contain many antibiotic-resistant genes. I also have an email from the Guardian asking for a phone call later in the day to discuss the study. By the time I get to Broadcasting House, I’ve talked to the guy from the Times and my BBC colleagues have also seen the press release and are keen to talk to me. I’m excited!
Later in the day, my BBC email receives some messages from the Science Media Centre – an institution that sends press releases and manuscripts to other experts in the field to get their perspective on the work out to the press. It’s like a second round of reviewers’ comments, but sent to all the media outlets. Some of the comments are rather critical. The Guardian decides not to run the story and cancels our call. At the same time, I am preparing to go into the recording studio to help put together a piece about a newly discovered species of algae that shows the tree of life to be different to what we have previously thought. I’m stressed and a bit disappointed…
The recording of the algae piece goes well and I hear nothing more about the press release. I go home not knowing what to expect. The next morning, I wake up and find that both the i and the Daily Mail have run a story about our paper. Nothing in the Times… Did I say something wrong on the phone? Or did Brexit trump antibiotic resistance? It has been an interesting day – and a challenging one, wearing both my academic and journalist hats simultaneously.
I spent most of July this year at the BBC Science Radio Unit in Old Broadcasting House, Portland Place, as part of my British Science Association (BSA) Media Fellowship. The scheme offers scientists a placement in a media organisation in order to learn how the media works. It is meant to encourage better communication between the scientific community and the media. While at the BBC, I spent time setting up features for Inside Science (Radio 4), Science in Action, and Health Check (both on the World Service). This involved looking for possible stories by reading press releases and relevant journal papers, calling the authors to check if they were good communicators, then setting up studio recording with each show’s presenter (the person you hear on the radio) and producer (the person who puts it all together). It was a steep learning curve. Sometimes I felt like a spare part; sometimes I felt on top of the world. The different pace and change of scene were refreshing, and gave me a new perspective.
The main reason I applied for the fellowship scheme was because I wanted to learn how to communicate science better to a wider audience. I have done many public engagement activities, but these have limited reach. Here is what I learned:
- There has to be an element of news. Is it a new paper? Is it a new policy? Is there an important meeting taking place that day or week?
- The story needs to have broad appeal. It should be a bit different… Or contrary to what we might expect. It needs to have a good narrative.
- Good science does not necessarily make a good news story, and bad science can... It’s all about getting the audience hooked.
- The novelty of the science does not necessarily make the story. Sometimes the novelty simply gives the context to tell a broader story and start a wider discussion or conversation.
- Journalists are a lot more approachable than you think. At least those at the BBC are… I found everyone to be very friendly. They made the effort to come and introduce themselves to me, ask me about my research and what I was working on. They were also keen to give a true representation of the science.
- A lot of the time, talking face to face or on the phone is a lot more efficient than sending emails back and forth. Be polite. Get to the point. Be honest.
- Work closely with your press officer. Get in touch if you think you have something that will have media appeal in good time. Check the terms and conditions of the journal and the funder. Get involved in writing your press releases. And, a good picture can make an excellent story!
Links to all of my outputs while at the BBC are below. In the end, I contributed to two features (algae and autism), appeared as a journalist in one (youth science forum), and as myself in another (antibiotic resistance genes). I also had the chance to write an article for the BBC News website (new superbug).
Dr Lena Ciric, October 2019.
Dr Ciric is a Senior Lecturer in UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, and is also Director of UCL’s Healthy Infrastructure Research Group.
Please note, some links lead to external websites.
- BBC World Service Science in Action: New species of algae (listen from 17:50 mins)
- BBC World Service Health Check: Compensation in autism (listen from 0:55 mins)
- BBC World Service Science in Action: London International Youth Science Forum (listen from 21:30 mins)
- BBC Radio 4 Inside Science: Antibiotic genes in London waters (listen from 20:30 mins)
- BBC News article: New superbug on the block
- The i news article: river antibiotic resistance
- The Daily Mail news article: river antibiotic resistance
- UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering
- Dr Ciric’s CEGE Profile
- Healthy Infrastructure Research Group webpage
- UCL Engineering BSA Media Fellowship article
- British Science Association
- Caption: Dr Lena Ciric at BBC Broadcasting House.