The SMC Experience

Last night I attended the SMC Volunteers Reunion.

I’m wearing flip flops today.

I’m wearing flip flops because my feet hurt.

My feet hurt because I spent 3.5 hours standing up last night, shouting at the top of my voice.

I could have sat down at any point. It’s not like there weren’t ample chairs in the room, but I wanted to talk to people. So I stood up. I mingled. And I had to shout, because it was a loud room.

That’s one thing you learn about the Science Media Centre, they’re loud.

You know who won’t have aching feet today? Fiona Fox. Fiona didn’t need to stand up. Fiona didn’t need to mingle. All Fiona needed to do was grab a glass of wine, sit down, and wait for them to come to her. Which they did, in droves. The scene of Fiona surrounded by adoring fans seemed reminiscent of a book signing. To be fair, none of the team needed to stand up. If “SMC: A book from the front line” ever got published, there would be more than one author in the byline. But Fiona made an early decision, and it wasn’t a bad one. I don’t know how her voice is faring, like I said, it was a very loud room, but I can guarantee you her feet won’t be hurting.

The people in that room last night were some of the biggest names in the field of science media, and they all have one thing in common – the SMC. As I made my rounds, I asked people who they were, what they did, and what brought them to the SMC. I found myself talking to editors, press officers, journalists, PR officers, writers, policymakers… Big names. Big jobs. Big characters. Loud voices, in all the meanings of the phrase.

All of us belong to the elite group that is the SMC ex-volunteers. I say elite, because in the field of science communication, it’s a little bit special. I’ve met a few volunteers before, but the number of those is far outweighed by the number of people I’ve met who want to volunteer. I’d always felt a little bit smug about my internship there, but when I met the ex-volunteers last night, I finally felt justified, because I saw where SMC volunteering can get you. Someone told me that if you have the nouse to get an internship at the SMC, you’re going to right way to make it in the field of Science Communication.

Despite my lack of experience in other internships, I am fairly certain that the SMC is an experience like no other. It must be, if something as simple as a reunion can leave you in physical pain.

The SMC is the biggest driver of accurate, evidence-based science information in the news media. They provide a unique service to both scientists and journalists, making sure that both get fairly represented when science meets the headlines.

They also provide a unique service to young science communicators. The internship at the SMC is well established, well run, fairly funded, and the most insightful experience into science news media that you could possibly obtain. Around 100 people have kept a watchful eye over the sacred inbox of the intern, and I had the privilege of meeting a sizable chunk of them last night. Some of the ex-interns harked from last month, some of the ex-interns were there when the SMC was still in its infancy, desperately trying to enable science and science journalists to get better names for themselves in the wake of the MMR scandal. All of them hold a special place in their hearts for the SMC. It was very pleasing to see that years away from it don’t numb the emotions that you develop when you intern there.

The success stories were obvious. I was meeting them. I was also told of the less-than-successful stories. In rare cases, SMC interns just don’t work out. Commonly, I was told, these interns aren’t from science backgrounds. So how does that equate to a bad intern? Well, when you intern at the SMC, like any internship, you have to work hard. The unique motivation for working hard at the SMC is because you love science. The SMC team aren’t just paid to do their jobs, they do them because they love science, and they’re passionate about keeping accuracy in science in the news. If you’ve ever written ‘I am passionate about…’ on a CV, I hope you really mean it. Because I’ve seen passion, and it’s incredible. If you don’t love science, you won’t love the SMC.

Even if you do love science though, it can take a little while for entirety of the SMC ethos to sink in. When you first join the office, you are playing catch-up in a game that started a very long time ago. Names are flung around, opinions are given, stories are remembered and discussed and it is impossible to get involved in all of them. At first, sitting back and listening is the only way for an intern to get by. The tasks you are assigned can seem a little tedious. The endless flicking through newspapers, the very specific way in which they communicate with each other in emails, I didn’t entirely see the point of it. But that’s why they ask you to spend a month there – so that you have time to get it. By the end of my time there, I understood the dangers of missing a poorly-reported science story. I knew that the email format was part of the language that they used, and that language had evolved so that they could communicate as efficiently as possible. Their time was precious.

Despite the value of their time, they aren’t too busy to teach, when the right opportunities to learn present themselves. Give it time, and you’ll get the information from them that you need. They have an amazing capacity for patience with bungling interns, because they are genuinely keen to see you do well. What they can do for you is just as important as what you can do for them. Persevere, and you will become an important part of the team.

At the time, you may not realise how beneficial it is just to watch them operate, but I honestly think that just being around them is one of the biggest learning experiences of the job. Being immersed in the media landscape, from the frontline of science reporting is a rich environment indeed. Like many rich things, the experience can’t always be consumed all at once. It takes a bit of time and reflection to fully realise exactly what you’ve learnt from your time at the SMC.

One thing was overwhelmingly clear to me before I left, however. I had the bug. Their passion for science is infectious, and you can’t be around them without sharing it. No matter how much you think you loved science before you walked in the door, it becomes more. The SMC is locked in a neverending battle with an endless stream of foes, and by the end of my month there, I felt like I had my own role in the fight.  Turning away from it to go back to my ordinary existence was bittersweet.

A relief to take a break from an intensive job, tinged with the guilt of an honourable discharge from an ongoing war.

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About nicolajrolfe

Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe is currently looking for her next opportunity to make a big splash in East Kent industry.
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3 Responses to The SMC Experience

  1. Jon Parker says:

    Thanks for this great insight. I am hoping to intern at SMC later this year and this has helped confirm that it is definitely for me. What were your next steps after your internship?

    • nicolajrolfe says:

      I’m glad it’s helped you! It really broadened my interests, so I’m still gaining experience in lots of areas, including science communication, science writing (this blog!), science policy, public engagement (through a voluntary role at my university) researcher practise and researcher development (my new job).

  2. Amy H says:

    Hi Nicola,

    I found your blog post through the SMC website. Thanks for the post! I’m hoping to get an intern at the SMC in 2016. I’m wondering if you could recommend a specific intern role that is suits a final year PhD? Thank you very much.

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