By Robbin Koenig
When you think of the famous faces and voices associated with science documentaries and TV programs, which celebrities come to mind? Wildlife lovers might volunteer Sir David Attenborough. Physics fans may put forth Neil DeGrasse Tyson or the stars from Mythbusters. While the face of science still heavily relies on male personas, there’s been a growing call for gender equality in filmmaking. That change is already starting to happen on the other side of the camera.
At the 2018 Scientista Symposium, I attended the Careers in Science Communication workshop with unmitigated fascination. I have always been a nature and science film junkie, as well as an avid reader of science articles written for the general public. Growing up, I remember my parents boasting about their connection to Jane Brody, and today I continue to eagerly view programs such as Blue Planet, SciTech Now, NOVA, and many others for information and entertainment.
The symposium panelists discussed the nuts and bolts of the field of science communication and their journey to make science topics accessible. It’s an important area to garner support through public education. I had the opportunity to interview one of the panel members, science filmmaker, producer, and journalist, Harriet Bailey, about how she gained entry into this competitive arena and her current role.
RK: You mentioned at the symposium that you had a background in mathematics. What propelled you to enter the field of science journalism and what was your journey?
HB: I didn’t want to be an accountant! I was coming to the end of a pure mathematics degree with finance and academia looming in my future when I went to a three-day science communication course led by Sir Robert Winston (fertility expert with the friendly moustache) which changed my life. Not to sound ancient, but science content was rarer back then and both scientists and publications were harder to access, so there was invariably a gatekeeper to newsworthy research – embargoes, press briefings, media offices – all of which are around today, but more bypassable. I chased down this media/science overlap into a Science Journalism MA at City University in London and specialized in television.
Staying relevant and on top of the latest news is vitally important in any field, especially in news. Early career freelance journalists don’t have any money (much like late career freelance journalists), so I took any opportunities to get involved in the science journalism world – filming at conferences, writing press releases, research for peoples’ PhDs. I was on the board of the Associations of British Science Writers, presenting at AGM meetings and being in the thick of email threads that gave me insight into the hierarchy and gossip of newsrooms. After graduating and through university contacts, I got a researcher position at Al Jazeera English on their environment series. The next job for a BBC show about logic was through a colleague, working at a members’ bar in Soho, London.
That’s the practical side. The philosophical journey started out by trying to convince friends of the conceptual coolness of maths. Most people think they’re no good at maths, so I would come out with tales of monstrous moonshine and weird physical manifestations of topology. I love science – it keeps me fed – but I’m always cautious to stay skeptical and not become an uncritical champion for science, something I was seeing more of on TV. One thing that is very important to me is on-screen representation. Being one of very few female maths students I was aware early on about the gender divide within science and so I do the best I can with the tools I have – by featuring as many women and scientists of colour as possible in my projects.
RK: Why did you choose film to be your medium of choice to communicate about science issues?
HB: Science, more than most topics, needs analogies and stories to be relatable. Narrative is such a powerful tool – we see it in nature documentaries where footage of animals is edited into this tale that we as humans can empathise with. We have always been storytellers (think epic poetry in preliterate times to transfer information across the ages) and film is the most technologically advanced extension of that history. Images and sounds can convey far more than words alone. It is especially crucial in science, where you’re trying to relate what someone has spent years thinking about. Plus, there are so many fascinating and wonderful visuals in science; it would be an injustice to not show them! I think science also needs film as a measure of perspective as to where it’s headed, to get feedback and impressions from non-scientists, or researchers in other fields.
RK: It seems that you have had many roles in the filmmaking process. Can you describe some of them and discuss your professional aspirations for the future?
HB: Film and TV budgets are so tight you have to know how to do everything. A film project itself starts out as office-based research that progresses to manic shoots, resulting in hours of footage distilled into a sequence in a windowless edit room. Then, there’s distribution, screening and promotion, which is like coming up from underwater and taking a deep breath – oh, this is why we were doing all this work with countless sleepless nights and no social life!
Right now, I’m a producer, the person who gets things done behind the scenes, all the stuff that you don’t see in the film – research and story development, treatment and grant writing, logistics, permits, hiring crew, budgeting, wrangling footage, finding a last minute interviewee because your first one is ill, mapping out a room-sized circuit for a kid-powered computer, negotiating a dewar of liquid nitrogen. I worked my way up from runner/ production assistant to researcher and am aiming for a director or editor position. I bought my first camera recently and am figuring out what lenses and filters do, whilst getting into editing more. These days you have to be adept at the whole production chain. Being a one-woman show will serve you well.
RK: What has been your favorite project so far?
HB: I love all my children equally! But if I had to choose, the one I’m currently working on about bioacoustics in Borneo. Each project is an extension of the previous one and you bring bizarrely unique skills along with you. I like retracing my employment history and reliving the crazy shoots and experiences it took to complete each show. Mission Pluto for National Geographic was incredible for the access we got to NASA and the scientists and engineers involved. It was truly inspiring to see what decades of precision calculations can achieve – like hitting a 90 mile square with your spaceship after 3 billion miles in space. And the flyby was some of the most emotional science I’ve witnessed. The Joy of Logic for BBC was a lot of fun to make. The format was witty and playful. We got to experiment with how to visualize some barmy abstract concepts. Filming gibbons in the rainforest this past month is definitely up there though – I have a new-found appreciation for wildlife cinematographers and their infinite patience with an environment that really doesn’t want to be filmed.
RK: Do you have any role models?
HB: I greatly admire the directors and producers I’ve worked with. Watching their professionalism and stoicism in the face of some pretty challenging scenarios really informed the way I tackle projects and even the way I go about my day-to-day life: Problem solving with polite persistence.
RK: What do you enjoy most about your job and what are your greatest challenges?
HB: Telling people about my job is always a joy. Being allowed to delve into a subject and ask questions of people who’ve dedicated their whole lives to it is such a privilege. Every programme and project is a mini-PhD and having the opportunity to call up the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission or spend a day in the rainforest with people collecting the data that informs global policy is unforgettable. You work very closely with these people and want to do them and their story justice. That doesn’t always mean you agree with them or like them, but there is a mutual respect for work and dedication to a cause.
The greatest challenge is finding parking in New York City.
RK: What advice would you give to anyone who wishes to pursue this career path? How much academic preparation and experience is required to enter this field?
HB: Be open to weird projects. Be visible. Meet people. Have ideas to pitch at any time. Special access to a place, a person or event is golden. I studied for a Masters in Journalism, but that’s not necessary to get into film production. It’s a cliché, but all you need is a camera and an idea. If you want to be a presenter or contributor to a science TV programme in this day and age you have to have accessible content. There are so many people out there that do and it’s so easy to record a video and have a website – even just a minute introduction on a bio page – that there’s no excuse not to. When casting for contributors, channels want to see what people are like on camera, just as much as know their qualifications (for some, screen persona is more important than qualifications…) so make it easy to share a link. Practice pitching your ideas. To be a producer and more behind the scenes, again I would start off where you are now – can you create content based on the daily life of a scientist and share it? You may see what you do as routine, but the general public still think of scientists as white coats and white men. We need to change this!
The best thing though is to meet people – go to conferences, there are so many meetups in New York and across the country, science talks, film screenings with Q&As, parties, Tinder dates, you just never know. And bring those ideas!
RK: What was the best advice given to you?
HB: Don’t turn the camera off after an interview. People usually come up with extra phrases of brilliance when they think the pressure is off.
About the Author
Robbin Koenig, M.A., M.S. is an educator with an avid interest in technology and science education. She has taught students in prekindergarten through high school. Robbin enjoys volunteer work, exploring the N.Y.C. cultural arts scene, and anything pertaining to wildlife.
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