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The Real Meaning of Science with Liz Bonnin

On Thursday 6th November, I had the pleasure of interviewing BBC Television presenter Liz Bonnin. Liz has presented many TV programmes over her career, from BBC Bang Goes the Theory since it first aired in July of 2009 and Operation Snow Tiger to specials like the BlbBC Horizon Series to BBC Stargazing Live. She’s used her Biochemistry background to inspire people of all ages into science. One thing that I did learn throughout the interview was that, as Liz says, science isn’t a subject, science is about asking questions about the world around us and learning more about Earth – that’s the real meaning of science.An edited transcript of her interview is below, along with an audio file of the whole interview. In this interview she talks about her TV career before TV and the real meaning of science… 

Claire: Hi Liz, How are you?

Liz: I’m very well thank you Claire, how are you?

Claire: I’m good thanks, thank you for spending the time to talk to us, we really do appreciate it! Some of our British viewers may recognize you from BBC Bang Goes the Theory and specials like Stargazing Live, but do you have any stand out moments from your TV career?

Liz: I’m very lucky that I do what I absolutely love and so when I’m sent to do anything to do with science or natural history, it’s pretty much  a stand out moment for me, it’s like a dream come true. Although because you mentioned Stargazing, last year they sent me to Norway on theBang-Thumb-REV-Final hunt for the Aurora. It was a little bit of an ambitious project because they wanted us to capture the aurora live from an aeroplane, so you can imagine the technology that was necessary and the incredible amount of luck to do it in the couple of minutes we would be on air. However we achieved it and I managed to see the most ridiculous auroral displays, so that definitely sticks out in my memory. I’ve also been very lucky to be able to combine my Biochemistry background with my wild animal background and do lots of programmes on the intelligence and behaviours of animals which I’m really fascinated about.  Because of those shows I’ve encountered grey whales in Mexico that came up to the boat and present to their calves and play around the boat and like to be scratched, which is really, really surreal because of all the cetaceans they’re the most primordial looking they’re very unusual,  That was a very powerful moment and I’ve encountered elephants and tigers and I’ve just been really lucky, so it’s very difficult to pick one! But because I studied tigers for my Masters, being able to film a programme about Siberian Tigers or the Amur Tiger in the Russian far east was definitely up there in my dream come true moments and I’ve been very privileged to have been able to do that with the BBC – that was definitely a gold star moment for me anyway!

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The Amur Tiger

 

Claire: I can imagine!! Have you got any TV programme or documentary that you haven’t filmed already but would really like to?

Liz: I’ve loads!! There’s a massive long list that I keep pestering people at the BBC about! I’d like to continue discovering this wonderful planet of ours.  I think next on my list, I’d love to do something with the snow leopards, they’re obviously very difficult to film and very difficult to reach and study. For me you don’t necessarily have to have the animal on camera all the time, you can tell its story, through the people that research these animal, which is very much what we did for Operation Snow Tiger. There are lots of long term projects- one five year project – so I’d love to do a series on that and the scientists that work at studying this big cat.

Claire: That sounds amazing!

Liz: Well I’m not doing it or anything there’s no commission yet, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that at some point in the future!

Claire: Well fingers crossed!! If you don’t mind me asking, what did you do before TV?

Liz: Before television I, well I went to University and I studied Biochemistry, I sang in a band for a while , I travelled a lot, and kind of floated through a lot of my twenties, not really being too serious about getting my career together.  I wasn’t at pains to figure it all out very early and it’s something I like to advise people about when they ask me about either a science career or a television career. You don’t have to stress yourself out too much with knowing exactly what you want to do, things tend to fall into place as long as you’ve got something you’re passionate about and you’ve discovered that in some way.   I did my Biochemistry as I say and then and went back to do a Masters many years later, here in London , doing Wild Animal Biology, studied, travelled sang a bit and then got into TV!

Claire: So have you got a favourite thing about your job?

Liz: The best thing about my job is being inspired by all these fantastic people I meet, for example there was a fantastic guy called Victor Lukarevsky, who’s a Russian Scientist who is obsessed with Tigers and Leopards. He’s one of the most passionate, generous, kind, intelligent warm , just a good guy, good egg, good human being, that I’ve ever met.  As well as selfishly loving my experiences in television because I get to travel and learn things and see things what has taught me above all is that there are some really fantastic individuals on this planet that are to me the unsung heroes of the world that really just dedicate their lives to protecting our natural world. It’s been a lovely eye opener for me to know that there are these incredible people out there who do this incredible stuff, that puts a smile on my face to think we might just be okay!

Claire: Is there anyone past or present that you admire most in the world of science? – I know you’ve mentioned one person, but is there anyone else?

Liz: Well, yes, I’ve mentioned Victor and  of course there’s the Charles Darwins, and the Marie Curies and the Isaac Newtons all these incredible, ground-breaking geniuses who really just changed the world for the better in ways that we can only dream about. For me, it’s about the people on the ground, the scientists who are haven’t become world famous, not for lack of all their hard work and their furthering of our scientific knowledge.   They are nonetheless just as important and Victor is certainly one of those people but also what comes to mind is, do you remember when there was the big BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? We went to do a piece on that for Bang Goes the Theory. In one big hangar in incredibly humid very, very hot temperatures, all these scientists were working tirelessly night and day  to save all these birds that had been affected by the oil spill.,There was this massive sort of factory, a group that was washing these pelicans, a group that was warming them up a group that was feeding them, we were there filming and they were just getting on with it.    I just had to take stock of all these incredible people doing this work, with no recognition, they’re to me the scientists that we should admire the most.

s630_Longitude_960x640Claire: I totally agree! I know you’re supporting the Antibacterial Resistance for the Longitude Prize but what do you think the next major scientific milestone or discovery is going to be?

Liz: That’s a very good question, there are so many areas that need attention. It’s impossible to predict what the next milestone will be because by the very nature of how science works, everything is progress from the last bit of research, the last project the last study from the last research paper so who knows who’s going to have a ground-breaking discovery that will fast track that area. But what I think is interesting, is how more so than ever all the different scientific disciplines are communicating with each other more. What I’m excited about is this thing called open source, which quite a few scientists are doing. It’s where the focus isn’t on economic gain, the focus is on bettering our planet for the future. This means sharing your ideas with other scientists so the progress of that idea is fast tracked and when it comes to sustainability issues on our planet, that’s what a lot of young scientists are doing. It’s so refreshing in so many ways, and I think there’s a massive lesson to be learnt about not focusing on how much money you can make but focusing on doing what we’re all supposed to be doing protecting our planet for the future. Yhat’s where I’m really excited about with respect to what’s coming next in science, the more the disciplines talk to each other, the more exciting the scientific discoveries are going to become.

Claire: In the future, I’d really love to become a science television presenter…

Liz: Are you sure? I’m not trying to warn you out of the job, but it’s a hard job  Obviously I’m very lucky and I get to travel, but it’s a tough job too!

Claire: I think the one thing that attracts me to, is the challenge behind it, and I’ve tried to get as much experience as possible by doing this with the Young Scientists Journal and on my blog.

Liz: All that is really good, good on you! How old are you Claire?

Claire: I’m 16…

Liz: Oh you’re only a baby!! Do you need any advice??

Claire: What I was going to ask you is if you’ve got any advice for anyone who wants to go into a job in science or science communication??

Liz: Science communication is not just television presenting, what’s been lovely for me is that I’ve been able to understand how much I can do aside from just the presenting aspect. We do love talks and we get together at the Cheltenham Science Festival, the Big Bang Fair so that’s science communication and if you’re into that I think first and foremost you just have to be passionate about it for the right reasons, You want to be part of a movement that helps to inspire the next generation, because sometimes when it comes to television presenting, some people might be attracted to it just because they’d like to be on television. So I think people who do well in science communication are not so much great presenters they’re people who really know their stuff and really care about it and once that passion comes through everything else can follow. You know you don’t have to be the most well versed presenter or with the best voice for voice overs, but you need to have that passion coming out and that’s the way to inspire others and to really make an impression on others with respect to the issues about the natural world or all the wonders of the natural world;   I think it’s about hard work and dedication like everything else in this world, you know that you might want to do. But I think passion above all else is what will get you through. 

Claire: Thanks for the advice! I think the thing for me is that TV presenting I suppose is science television presenting is science communication on one of the grandest scales…

Liz: So you do reach a big audience through television, but the world is changing and we’re talking about the future of programming. People don’t watch as much telly in the same way as they used to in the past, that’s why it’s important, you know you’ve got a blog, you’re doing this online there’s a lot of other ways you can communicate science and television is just one of them. So really you don’t reach as bigger television audience as you used to. We’re really aware of that about other ways to reach the people you want to reach, to communicate a certain aspect of science, the natural world or whatever and that’s why for me sometimes I think I’ve traveled so much in a year that I haven’t been around to actually meet people and give talks to schools and all that kind of stuff, I think that’s really important as well.

Claire: On the subject of science programming I know that Bang Goes the Theory isn’t returning, but do you think this is down to lack of public interest in long running series and only with documentary specials, like stargazing and the Horizon specials?

Liz: No I think Bang has been on air for almost 6 years, I think we did 8 or 9 series? Like everything else there are very few formats that last for forever and especially in the changing world of television at the moment and how science changes so much. The BBC just decided, okay maybe time to stop that and they’re replacing it with other science programmes that will go on air at the same time on BBC1. So we’re very much committed to producing programmes for a BBC 1 audience as well as the Horizons and other programmes on BBC2 and BBC4, It was just time to look at another way of communicating aspects of science to that audience.  It wasn’t a reflection on the public’s interest or reception of it because the ratings were just as good as they had ever been, it was just a decision to change the format and shake it up a bit. So thankfully it’s really good to see that we’re still committed to putting out those kinds of programmes on BBC1 in the future and they’re working on two of them at the moment already so it’s all good!

Claire: Apart from obviously making science fun, do you think there’s a way of dispelling the myths of science and promoting science in schools?

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A Family of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica

Liz: I think there is, it’s a difficult one because for me it all comes so naturally, it makes so much sense that science by its very nature doesn’t have to be sold because it’s just so cool. It’s describing the world around you. What’s interesting is when you are privy to some discussions about old science is that it’s an old man in a lab coat and there’s no creativity attached to it, I don’t know where that’s stemmed from but it’s really and truly not the case and never has been the case with respect to science, I mean most scientists I know are really… there’s one of my best friends who’s now in Antarctica chasing penguins and putting out these monitoring cameras and having the most incredible time of his life, we are a bunch of very creative, very positive adventure seeking people from the most part. I think everything else, our culture and popular media tends to characterize different careers as certain things that aren’t necessarily true, anyway having said all of that, I think our role as science communicators is just to remind people that science is about describing this incredible planet of ours and beyond, I think once you just remind them of that, this will reignite their curiosity for the world, the rest does the job. I think people make this mistake of thinking science is a subject like law. For me science is about asking questions about why you’re here, how does your body work, what does that plant do, how far is that star from our planet – to that to me is science. It’s almost like reminding people what they were like when they were children and they couldn’t stop asking questions and they were so excited about the world, that’s what scientists are, and that’s what us science communicators are trying to do is remind them of their of their childish enthusiasm and curiosity about the world.

Claire: Do you have an earliest science memory – anything you did as a kid that made you particularly curious about the world around us?

Liz:  It’s only when people started asking me this obviously when I was in this career that I had a think about it. I do remember when I was living in the South of France in the countryside where we had a little wood by our house, there was often a lot of really cool birds that would land on my little balcony outside my bedroom.. I remember staring at these little birds and looking at their eyes moving in their sockets and imagining their tiny hearts beating in their little fluffy chest and wondering how on earth something so small could work so perfectly. Seeing the birds cock their heads towards me, I remember thinking what is it thinking? You know nature is so perfect, I wanted to understand how on Earth they could be so perfect and so awesome! So that’s my earliest memories and I think that’s why I studied biochemistry, to know how everything works down to chemical equations basically!

Claire: Wow! I think that’s everything, thank you so much for your time Liz, it’s been enormously appreciated!

Liz: That’s not a problem; it’s been a pleasure talking to you Claire, thank you! Bye!101932135__260539c

 

You can also hear this interview –

 

 

 a video with pictures will be up in due course!

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