Episode 57 – Interview with science journalist Belinda Smith
This week we had the best time chatting with Belinda (Bel) Smith, science writer extraordinaire. Belinda became a science journalist after realising she wasn’t going to cut it as a scientist. Based in Melbourne, she’s currently science reporter at the ABC. Her work appears on the ABC News website and has featured in the Best Australian Science Writing 2016 and 2018. You can also hear her talking about science on local ABC radio and Radio National. In her spare time, Bel’s a GPS artist who runs routes in the shape of animals.
You can follow Belinda and learn more about her work here:
- https://www.instagram.com/animalpunruns/ (Bel’s GPS running art)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I am so excited to be with you today and as ever I am joined by my wonderful friend Michael. Hi Michael.
Hey Jen, it is great to be back for another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m very excited for this episode, Jen, because we’re very lucky to be joined by Belinda Smith, the online science journalist and producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the ABC, which is Australia’s national broadcaster.
And Belinda has been writing and editing science stories for over a decade, covering topics ranging from astronomy to zoology.
Ohh, I see what you did there, the A to Z.
And I especially know you’re passionate about zoology, Belinda, because the tweet that is pinned on your profile is a Strava chameleon.
Can you explain to our listeners what a Strava chameleon is? It’s very impressive.
I don’t know how much this has to do with science communication, but yeah. So when I’m not writing, editing, talking about science, I’m a Strava artist or a GPS artist. Which means that when I go running, I set my watch to track my run and I run in the shape of an animal.
Bel, I just love it. I’m so thrilled you’re joining us today because of course we want to talk with you all about your science writing, but just because I really wanted to ask you about your Strava art because I bow at your feet.
You and I are both runners. We’ve talked about running. We both love running, but I have never in my life attempted to do something creative like that. And I just think it is so cool.
And it’s kind of science communication, right? How can we use a GPS to track a pretty picture?
I guess so. I mean, it is, it’s got the technology there. I recommend it.
Get into it, Jen.
OK, well, what Strava animal are you planning next or you know, is it? Yeah.
Well, I am planning a Bendy gecko, so I’m going to Bendigo and it’s got little splayed toes and everything. It’s going to be a good one.
OK. Well, you’ve committed to it now in the podcast.
Maybe by the time this recording is released, that will be the deadline.
Maybe. Yeah, that’s right.
While you’re there, can you do a ‘Bendy-Coot’ as well?
And Belinda, your radio programs are also very popular. They’ve appeared on Radio National and on the BBC World Service as well.
And in addition to radio, you’ve also been an editor at The Conversation and Cosmos Magazine and contributed to the Best Australian Science Writing Anthologies in 2016 and 2018.
So we really are very lucky to have you on the podcast today. And we’re very lucky that we’ve gotten to work with you as well in the past, where you’ve given our science communication students some expert advice and feedback.
So you know, I think it’s fair to say that you really are a passionate advocate for science literacy. So Belinda, thank you so much for joining us today.
Oh, I’m delighted to be here.
And you’ve got a really fascinating career as a science journalist.
And I… The first question I want to ask is, how did you get started in this field?
Oh boy. So I actually didn’t really want to be a science journalist. I wanted to be a scientist.
So I did a science degree. I did Arts and Science at Melbourne when double degrees still existed.
Woo-hoo, me too.
And then I did my honours year and I did that in behavioural neuroscience. And I had it in my head, I thought, yeah, this is it. This is my career path. Because studying science, that’s kind of what you’re told. In third year, the academic route is kind of drummed into you.
And I just wasn’t very good at doing science, to be honest. I got a good mark for my honours thesis, but it got to a point where it was either do a PhD or do something else.
And over the years, I’d done a little bit of writing, but sort of informally. Just as you know, back in the day before Facebook, I had my own sort of email newsletter.
So if I was overseas, I lived overseas for a few years, I’d give these regular updates. And I tried to make them funny and interesting and a bit you know, a little bit educational, as nerdy as that sounds. But a lot of people quite liked them.
And at the, it’s a very long story, at the pub that I worked at was a journalist, an ex-journalist from The Australian. And he said, “You should think about a career in journalism. You’re quite a good writer”. And I was like, “Oh yeah, maybe I could do that”.
But I mean, gosh, there are so few jobs in science journalism in Australia. I knew I couldn’t just walk into a job after my honours. So I did a one year grad dip in journalism at RMIT. And that actually got me some, got my foot in the door. I did some work with the Australian as a news reporter. And then I edited a bushwalking magazine. And I tried to incorporate some environmental science into that.
And from there, then I went to The Conversation and that’s kind of where it started to be more focused on science. And then from there I went to Cosmos Magazine and then kind of shuffled my way, sideways into the ABC.
And that’s where I’ve been since ooh, 2018 I think? Or 17? I’m not sure, the pandemic’s just kind of blurred a whole lot of time for me. So, you know…
Yeah, it’s a time warp. Who knows?
Yeah, it has.
Yeah, who knows?
It’s really interesting.
I’m curious, you know, you already knew how to write well. And then you went and did a journalism degree.
What extra things do they teach you if you already know how to write well?
Well, I think actually a lot of these degrees are more about giving you opportunities to go and do other things within journalism.
So the internship program at RMIT is excellent. So there’s spots at, you know, like Channel 9 or the Herald Sun. They have dedicated spots for RMIT Grad Dip Journalism students.
And so it’s great. So you get a byline. Very few students get a byline in a national newspaper. And it’s a really good way to kind of open some doors for you.
Well, I mean, it clearly did get your foot in the door. Because just before you said there are so few jobs in Australia for science journalists, yet you have one. So congratulations. It’s wonderful.
Oh, thanks. I’m incredibly lucky.
Very, very lucky to have the job that I have. It’s just, it’s great.
I mean, I never, I never like it when people, particularly women, say they were lucky. I understand that some things went your way, but I also think that you’ve earned it and you’re incredibly good at what you do.
And you’re very skilled and that skill and expertise has been rewarded with a fantastic job. And we all benefit, right? I read your stuff all the time.
Oh, thank you, Jen. No, that is true.
And also, you know, there’s always that imposter syndrome that we try so hard not to have. But it’s, I don’t know, I get it. I have it all the time.
I’m still suspicious. I think they’ve lied for ages. I thought, Oh, maybe they thought they hired someone else and they accidentally ticked the box next to my name when they came to the HR department.
We’ve got a whole episode about it, Bel. ‘Cause everyone we interact with, senior, junior, anywhere in between, we all experience that, that self doubt, I think.
And it’s entirely normal. And it’s a sign that we’re challenging ourselves to do difficult things, I think.
But hearing you talk about all the different places that you’ve worked in, the writing that you’ve done. I’m really intrigued; when you think back about all the stories that you’ve written. Are there any that stand out to you as being particularly fascinating? That have really stuck with you, that the science I mean?
Ooh, that’s a good one. The things that actually really interest me are the mundane, the science of the everyday. So I often get my story ideas riding my bike to work.
So I’ll, for instance, like I recently started playing football. And as an over-35, I got quite a few injuries and a lot of my teammates do too.
And so I thought, well, why is this and how can we best manage these injuries as masters, athletes? And just taking that sort of science that you can then use and apply to everyday life. They’re the kinds of stories that really grab me.
I also did a story about like, why do my hangovers feel worse after I turned 30? You know, those kinds of basic things that everyone thinks about, or most people think about, but maybe don’t think to ask about.
And often the science of those mundane questions like, why does my body start falling apart after I turned 30? Like, why I feel like…? Because I did my back vacuuming and I just went, what is wrong? What’s going on? Is there something physiologically like happening?
Yeah, the bad thing about that is you’re trying to do something good.
It’s not like you know, you’re leaping over walls or…
Exactly. 100%. Exactly. It was so frustrating. So they’re the kind of, they’re the kinds of stories that I find, I just really love because they just explain fundamentals about ourselves.
And you mentioned hangovers there, Bel.
Just asking for a friend. Did you learn anything interesting about the science of hangovers?
Oh I can’t remember now. That was, that was quite a long time ago that one.
I, no, I’m… Sorry Michael, I’m…
Read the article, Michael.
We’ll put it, we’ll put a link into the show notes. There’ll be an article.
That’s fascinating. Yeah.
You really get to I suppose, explore your curiosity. And you’ve got a sense, like you’ve got a lot of intellectual freedom when it comes to picking your topic.
I guess you can get inspiration from anywhere, right? Because there’s always a science angle to anything that you, any topic that you might think of.
I’m curious then once you’ve gotten an idea, you’re riding your bike, you’ve gotten an idea, what is the process then that you follow when you’re doing research on that topic?
And what are some of the challenges that you face, especially if the topic is complex and then you have to communicate those complex ideas to non-scientific audiences? So how does that process work?
So I normally get started by thinking about who I already know that might either be able to tell me a little bit about the topic I’m thinking of or point me in the direction of someone who can.
You can look online as well. Different universities have varying degrees of detail about their researchers and sometimes you can find someone who’s doing work in exactly what you’re wanting to write or talk about.
I often go overseas ’cause sometimes, you know, Australia does amazing research but doesn’t cover everything. And so one of the challenges is just time zones. I’ve done so many interviews super, super early or late at night just trying to get the right person. But it is worth it in the end.
You could research an article for, it’s like how long is a piece of string? You could just keep going and going and going and going. I wrote an article once about the difference between brown fat and white fat.
And I just thought, wow, there’s a book in this. There’s a book in fat. It’s all like, fat is just an organ. Like it’s not just a simple energy storage. It’s an organ, it secretes hormones. It has all these incredible effects on the rest of our body.
There’s more to it but I couldn’t, I had a deadline. I had to file the story and I had to get onto the next thing.
How much detail do you include? And that’s something I think a lot of people grapple with. And I think a lot of science journalists and science communicators, especially early on, feel like perhaps they need to tell the reader or the listener absolutely everything.
Yeah. One of our favourite questions to ask our students is what can you leave out? Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yeah, and that’s what I do, even now. I’ll write a draft. I’ll just throw down some dot points. I’ll flesh them out in as much detail as I kind of think. And then I’ll go through each line and go, do I need this?
It’s really great hearing about your process there, Bel. ‘Cause I think anyone who’s ever tried to write about something complex for a more general audience will actually be you know, will deeply be able to relate to what you’re saying.
And it sort of makes me think through your journey in your early days of writing newsletters and then doing your journalism qualification. You know, what do you think the key skills are, I guess, or the key tools are that you use when you’re trying to write something that’s both accurate but also engaging for your audience?
So I’m thinking, you know, if someone’s listening thinking, well, I’ve never even tried to write about science for a general audience. You know, what are the key things?
So we talk with our students about you know, opening hooks and narrative and all this stuff. But what do you reckon the key ingredients of an engaging piece of writing are?
Just got to tell a damn good story. So you’ve got to think about that. So you could convey the information in a series of dot points or you can create a narrative with it.
So that to me is the most important aspect of anything, whether it be radio, TV, digital, print. Make sure you’ve got this story that flows through.
And something that really helps for me at least are metaphors. If I’m interviewing a researcher and they’re trying to explain some really gnarly part of their work, I’ll say, “Is there a metaphor that you would use to describe this for a general audience?”
And so that can be quite handy as well to demystify some of the more tricky aspects of research. And if you’ve got a good metaphor that can go a long way to getting the story straight in someone’s head.
Yeah, I love me a good metaphor. And I suppose storytelling has been with us for so long. It’s how we pass information down from generation to generation. And I imagine that is not going to change anytime soon.
But what is changing is the field of journalism, I would imagine. I’m curious to get your thoughts on that, Bel. You know, what do you think? What is the future of science journalism?
I think like a lot of other aspects of journalism, science journalists are going to have to become multi-platform journalists.
So before where you might have someone who wrote for The Age and did science for The Age, that person will have to also be able to do little bits of social media, perhaps radio spots.
I think it’s becoming this more of, sort of more all encompassing job. I’m a little bit slow on the uptake. I don’t have TikTok. But I think it’s just that we are. And then the next platform will come along and people have to adapt to that. That’s where it’s going.
So do you think it’s like a bit of a double edged blade? Because on one hand, we have all these tools that I guess, in some respects make our jobs easier.
And I guess this goes for lots of different jobs in lots of different fields. Technology makes our jobs easier. But it also raises productivity expectations as well. So we’re expected to be on more platforms. We’re expected to be doing more things.
And you know, now we’ve got Generative AI, ChatGPT, that’s really transformative. What’s that going to do to productivity expectation? That’s something that I worry about.
Yeah, me too.
No, that’s a good one. I actually think we will be okay for a while.
When I say ‘we’, I mean science journalists and journalists in general. Maybe not sport journalists or business ones, but I think anything that requires a bit more of a human touch, that sort of deeper analysis I think will be all right.
But I know I’m picking up what you’re putting down. There’s a lot of, you know, I feel like these expectations as things become more automated, we might be expected to produce more.
I don’t know. I think it depends on the workspace. It’s an interesting one. It’s an interesting time and I’m extremely excited for it. I think it’s going to be… This is the new, the new dawn of humanity.
Yeah, I think as long as the productivity expectation goes in the direction of emphasising quality over quantity.
Hmm, yeah. Yeah, for sure.
The other thing that all this makes me think about, Bel, in terms of how the field of journalism is changing is just the ongoing issues about fake news and science misinformation, pseudoscience.
You know, how…? What do you think the role of a science journalist and a communicator is there? I mean, obviously, we all absolutely pride ourselves on sharing accurate information, but there’s a hell of a lot of people out there, whether it be on TikTok or elsewhere, who aren’t sharing accurate information. You know, how do we tackle it?
Oh, I mean look. Throughout the whole pandemic, it’s just been something we’ve spoken about a lot at the ABC and within the science units. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in my climate reporting.
Yeah it’s, look, it’s an uphill battle a lot of the time. And like you said, Michael, this easy dissemination of information also comes the you know, the drawback of easy dissemination of disinformation and misinformation. So, yes, absolutely.
And I mean, we all strive for accuracy in our work. And when it comes to something like I don’t know, like COVID vaccines, back when COVID vaccines were just sort of, the trial results were just coming out and the UK started rolling them out. And there was a lot of misinformation and disinformation. I think just also general confusion getting around.
And that’s where a lot of all that bad stuff stemmed from. People just didn’t really get it. They didn’t really understand the basic science of vaccines for one, the basic science of the new mRNA vaccines. And so part of what I tried to do and my colleagues is demystify that.
So people get all the information and it becomes less scary if they know what’s going on in their bodies, try to counter some of that disinformation by presenting the facts in a way that’s hopefully engaging and easy enough to understand.
Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Thank goodness you’re out there doing.
Yeah, doing the good work. You know, it’s more important now than ever to, to be putting out accurate information. It is a really interesting space.
And I think it’s more important now than ever to have accurate science journalism. And maybe some of our listeners are thinking, this sounds great, I’m hearing a bit of a call to become a science journalist myself.
So for any of our listeners out there who are thinking maybe I’ll pursue a career in
science journalism, what advice would you have for them?
Well, just try to build up your portfolio as much as you can. Get bylines. Get your voice on the radio. And just, just do it, right?
Like I know it seems so obvious, but I get quite a few people were saying, “Oh, I want to be a science journalist. What do I do?”
And I was like, I’m like, “Oh, what have you done so far?” And they’re like, “Oh, oh, nothing really?”
Okay, well, you got, you have to start. If you’re a student, join something like SYN FM and get your voice out there because nothing, practice does make perfect or practice makes you better, right? Like you’re never going to be perfect at anything. But you know, practice will get you better at a skill and it will get your voice and your name out there.
And to be honest, that’s really, that’s really key. If you’ve got a really great TikTok following, awesome! That’s great. Leverage that, you know, use that to get into places like the ABC where you know, social media is such a big part of the platform or big part of like getting the information out.
Because I mean, most of the science stories that we do, they’ll end up on Facebook. They’ll end up on TikTok. They’ll end up on the ABC Health Instagram, those kinds of things. Or even like the ABC News Instagram, which has hundreds of thousands of followers.
So if you just get yourself out there, get your name, your voice, whatever, that’s the first step. Because without that, a prospective employer is not going to, they’re not going to come looking for your work.
They’re not going to say, “Oh, can you send me some, you know, examples of, of your writing or your, your talking.” They’ll look for it online and if they can’t find it, you’re invisible in more ways than one essentially.
Yeah, visibility really matters. We talk about it with our students a lot. Irrespective of the sort of work that you want to end up doing, even if you don’t want to be a journalist. Just when someone googles you, they need to get a sense of who you are, what you believe in, what you stand for, what work you’ve done.
You know, online visibility is a big deal these days.
It is. It’s tricky. So my name is Belinda Smith and when you google my name, you get a lot of different… So yeah, there’s I think, there’s a lawyer in Sydney and there’s a footballer…
I feel your pain. I feel your pain.
There’s so many people with my name.
There’s another Michael Wheeler at Melbourne Uni.
Oh, no. Oh, yeah look. Yeah. So you sort of need to, to get your name up those Google rankings. It can be tricky.
I think if you google “Belinda Smith science journalist”, you might get me, but sometimes it can be hard.
But you’ve got to be there. You just have to be there in some way, shape or form.
Yeah. And it’s, it’s interesting talking about these other Belinda Smiths that are out there with all of these different careers being a you know, a lawyer or whatever it might be.
Because that segues really nicely into the next section of our podcast, which is our rapid fire questions.
The first one being that if you had an alternative career Belinda to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Can I, can I be really out there or can, does it just have to be actually…?
Oh yeah, the more out there, the better.
We love out there.
Yeah, we’re finished talking about serious stuff now.
Oh, look, I’d have to be an astronaut. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. That was what I, what I wanted to be when I was a kid.
I either wanted to be a kid, a kid… I either wanted to be an astronaut or a forensic pathologist. After watching The X-Files as probably someone who was way too young to be watching The X-Files.
But I did my work experience in Year 11 I think at the Victorian Centre for Forensic Medicine and that turned me off the autopsy side of things.
So you know, astronaut it is.
Fair enough. And imagine the possibilities with Strava and doing a spacewalk.
I know, right? Oh my goodness, could you imagine that? Oh.
Yeah, 3D Strava animals.
We need Strava to adopt additional dimensions.
If you’re listening Strava.
Ok Bel, second question.
What is your proudest professional moment?
Oh boy, oh boy. Proudest professional moment. I, you’ve stumped me. There’s a few that spring to mind.
I think a while ago, a while ago, sometime during the pandemic, I made a program about antivirals and where they came from, the successes that have happened during like the HIV crisis and then how antivirals spun off into, you know, treatments for hepatitis and then now to, to COVID.
And I interviewed one of the early researchers, I guess, from the US. And when I sent him the finished product, he was like super stoked with it.
And I think the, part of like the joy of my work and what makes me proud of a piece is when I’ll send it to a researcher who I’ve interviewed for it and they come back and they say, that’s the best write up I’ve seen of their work, or that’s the most interesting take I’ve heard of you know, this piece of research.
And so that to me, they’re little, they’re little moments, but they’re the ones that make me most proud of what I do.
I’m not doing it to get approval from these people that I speak to, but it is nice. It is nice to hear.
Absolutely. I think that’s something to be very proud of.
Yeah, definitely. Because you’ve understood their work and probably expressed it in a way that they’ve, haven’t thought of before.
And I guess that can be really yeah, really rewarding for both them and you when that happens.
And I guess you’ve covered a lot of different science stories in the past. I don’t know if you’ve ever covered time travel. But if you could go back in time, Bel, and
witness any science event or discovery, what would it be?
Oh, gosh. I don’t know.
I don’t want to go for one of the obvious ones. You know, I reckon I would go back and I would warn Marie Curie not to get too close to all that radium.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Oh, that’s a good one.
That’s a great one.
I like that?
OK, we’ll lock that in.
Yeah, she’s like one of my, one of my, thank you. One of my like science heroes.
One of my, you know. Oh, she was so amazing. And yeah. Oh just yeah. What a, yeah, anyway.
I can go on and on about her. But I won’t, ’cause this is rapid fire.
OK, love it. No. We’ve locked that in.
Yeah, we’re not doing very well on the rapid fire today.
But that’s ok, we love chatting.
Fourth question. And there are only five questions, so you’re nearly off the hook, but fourth question: Is there a topic in science that you’re super, super curious about, but you just haven’t had the opportunity to learn anything about yet and it’s sort of still out there you know, on your big todo list?
Hmm there are… I think every journalist has a story that they would love to pursue, but haven’t been able to for some, some reason.
And for me, that story is the… Okay, so the biggest ape in the world, Giganto, was a three meter tall orangutan. Now clearly extinct. And all we know about it is its teeth and some bits of jawbone that have been found in caves.
And the reason why we only have teeth and like none other bones is because back when Giganto was alive, giant hedgehogs would eat the skeletons of these massive apes to build for the calcium, to build their quills.
So we only have teeth and a couple of jawbones. And they’re gigantic teeth, as you might expect. And so there are caves in China which are being excavated, which hold these, these remains of Giganto. And I would love to go there.
And I would love to go there and go into the caves with the paleontologists and learn more about the ecosystems in which the, this Giganto lived and how it lived. But I just can’t get there.
I’d love to, but I just can’t do it.
ABC, If you’re listening, please send Belinda to those caves.
I really want to know about that too.
Well, Beijing, if you’re listening.
Let me in, into the country.
Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
And these giant hedgehogs. Do they have remnants of those around as well?
That’s, that’s literally all I know about them.
There is so much about this story which I think is just fabulous.
And it just needs to be told. And I’m the one to tell it. But I can’t get there so…
Oh, well. Now, that’s fascinating. I really want to know that. I’m going to come back to this point again. That’s, I know what I’m going to google after this.
But Bel, thank you so much for all of your great advice today. And I suppose I wanted to finish off with the last question of: if you had to pick one top tip for writing online science articles, what would it be?
My one tip would be to not, don’t write correctly the first time. And by that, I mean, don’t write a sentence and be like, Yep, that’s done, 100%, good, move on to the next one.
Just brain dump. So the way I do it is dot points, sort of lay the story out in a way that you kind of want it to be, flesh them out and just, just type.
Doesn’t matter if there’s typos, if punctuation’s wrong. Just get it all out, put your quotes in and then just go through over and over and over again, just refining each time.
Because the quickest way to writer’s block is to write a sentence, be like, that’s great. And then not be able to write the next sentence and you can’t move on. But you need to move on.
Because in digital, in the digital world, we need to be quick and we need to get things out you know, soon. And it depends if there’s a story breaking. You just need to get it out.
So the way to do it for me, at least… I mean, I watch a lot of people write. My partner’s a scientist and he writes in a way that he gets every sentence right before he moves on to the next one and it drives me insane. Just brain dump.
And so, I mean, different techniques work for different people, but I find that’s [the] easiest way because you get all down and you’re like, Wow, there’s a story in there. Now I just have to pull out all the bits that aren’t necessary, maybe tidy it up a bit and boom, you’ve got an article that’s there.
That’s certainly the approach we teach our students, to shitty first draught. Get it all down. Don’t get trapped in the perfect sentence vortex. You can fix it later.
Brilliant. Well, much appreciated, Bel. I think that’s fantastic advice.
And I’m inspired to go out and do a little bit more writing, maybe apply some of those tips.
Also, researching about these giant, giant apes. So that was a fascinating chat. I can’t believe we’re out of time already. So much appreciated.
Oh, thanks so much for having me.
It’s so great to talk to you both.
Yeah. Thanks so much, Bel.
We absolutely loved speaking with you today.
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners, for your support.
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