Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Asha Tanna talks about her transition from writing into science.
Asha Tanna has been a broadcast journalist and television presenter for more than 13 years, covering everything from news and entertainment; to politics and sport. In 2010, she decided to go back to university to re-train as a Primatologist (monkeys and apes). In September 2012 she will start her new job as Science Reporter for Channel 4 News. You can keep updated on Asha’s latest field trip to Uganda in her blog, whogivesamonkeys, where she posts once a week about day-to-day life in camp and in the forest. In her spare time she enjoys scuba diving, playing the piano, running and cooking. You can find her on Twitter @whogivesamonkey.
At present, part-time freelance national broadcast reporter/presenter, studying a Masters of Research in Primate Biology Behaviour and Conservation full-time at Roehampton University in London (I finish Sept 2012).
End of September 2012/ beginning of October I start my new job as Science Reporter for Channel 4 News full-time.
What is your scientific background?
I completed relevant modules from the final year of the Biological Sciences undergraduate degree at Roehampton last year (achieving 2:1). This enabled me to qualify onto the MRes course in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation, which I am doing now. I am currently carrying out 3-month’s data collection in Uganda which will be analysed and written up back in London for my thesis.
I do not have science at A-level, so it’s been a massive challenge. I have an English degree from Portsmouth University and post-graduate diploma in Print Journalism.
What is your current job?
I study five days a week both on and off campus to meet assignment deadlines and prepare for any interactive seminars we have. Then I work two days a week for Channel 4 News as a freelance, on-screen general reporter. The shifts are 11 hours and the pressure to produce high quality, in-depth reports which are clear, concise and engaging, is always tough, especially during the weekends, but that’s part of the attraction. I love reporting and I thrive off adrenaline.
I have not had much down-time during the last 12 months, as I’m juggling work with academia, but it’s only for a year and the sacrifice will be worthwhile if I complete my science qualification successfully. I have been a broadcast journalist for nearly 14 years and I’ve worked for every terrestrial news channel in the UK. It’s been a life-long ambition to work for Channel 4 News because of its credible reputation and highly regarded programme. It’s the only news bulletin that takes a more detailed look at issues affecting people globally and its coverage of international news is brave, bold and challenging.
At the moment, I am carrying out field work as a researcher for three months in Western Uganda at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in the district of Masindi. I am investigating human/wildlife conflict issues surrounding a specific tree species – Cordia millenii. This species of tree is an important food source for wild chimpanzees within the Budongo Forest Reserve (BFR). Chimps are an endangered species of great ape and their conservation is of high priority. The tree is also a valuable timber source as it’s ideal for making boats and canoes. I am discovering evidence of illegal pit-sawing of this tree in several compartments of this protected forest which I suspect is fuelling the fishing industry locally by Lake Albert (30km away). There are data which states the number of boats along the shoreline has dramatically increased in the last 40 years and they are believed to be made from Cordia. I will be carrying out the second part of my study, by Lake Albert in the area of Buliisa, next month to test whether my claims can be substantiated. C.millenii is disappearing quickly from what I have seen here and read in other parts of Africa. There are concerns that if it disappears altogether from BFR and other protected forest areas, it will be detrimental not only to primate species, but it could also impact on the whole of Uganda’s fish trade if boats and canoes can no longer be made.
Can you give detailed steps you have taken to get to your current position?
I never dreamt I’d return to study later in life, least of all to complete a Masters in science. I was made redundant in 2009 from my job as a presenter at Channel 5 News. I turned freelance and for the first 9 months work came flooding in as a presenter and reporter for various channels (BBC News; Sky News; Sky Sports News; More 4 News, BBC Inside Out). However, it took a while for the impact of the financial crash to hit the media world and by the end of September 2009 my shifts dried up and I was struggling to make ends meet, despite my extensive contacts. Friends tried to reassure me it was just a blip but unfortunately the drought turned out to last 18months. During this time I was forced to look at my life and decide what I should do because I could not support myself. I decided if I was forced (reluctantly) to leave journalism completely I wanted to have another professional qualification. I’ve always been fascinated by natural history so I plumped for the thought of working in conservation or research. Primatology didn’t jump out at me straight away it was only after completing a distance learning diploma on primates that I became hooked. I secretly hoped I would be able to eventually combine my two skills to work as a natural history broadcaster/programme-maker and it’s still a long term goal.
“I would like to be able to bridge the world of academia and journalism with credibility and gain the respect of colleagues on both sides.”
I have learnt a lot about the discipline of science in the last two years and although I am not an expert I have a better understanding of how to interpret data than I did before. I would like to be able to bridge the world of academia and journalism with credibility and gain the respect of colleagues on both sides. I honestly believe without this handbrake manoeuvre back into education, I would not have got the staff job as science reporter at Channel 4 News. I had been freelancing there since April 2011 and the position came out of the blue at the end of last year. It’s wonderful to have a specialism and it’s something I have been looking for, for a long time.
I’d like to continue reporting and presenting science in an easy, engaging and entertaining way for both news and programmes/documentaries. I’d love to do a series on primates and to make investigative, conservation/wildlife programmes tackling illegal trafficking and other difficult issues.
Advice for other scientists?
“Some reporters are not scientists and if they don’t understand, may misinterpret your data and press release if they can’t get hold of you to ask further questions.”
The media often gets a lot of flak for the way it presents science. If you’re sending out press releases please make sure you’ve written it clearly for a lay person without jargon. Some reporters are not scientists and if they don’t understand, may misinterpret your data and press release if they can’t get hold of you to ask further questions. Access to relevant people for an interview, or access to a lab to see testing, or even broadcasting quality amateur video, is really crucial especially for TV. No matter how great a story is, it probably won’t run if there are no pictures.
“Don’t get discouraged by knock-backs, you have to develop a thick skin in the industry.”
If you are considering a career in broadcasting using your specialist knowledge, bear in mind the fierce competition. You may well have to start off as a runner or researcher first. Don’t get discouraged by knock-backs, you have to develop a thick skin in the industry. Be determined, have great ideas for programmes and brilliant access to people and locations. Be a team player, be enthusiastic and, above all, be a good story-teller who can sum things up simply.
For more career transitions, check out Ian Mulvany’s post, Paige Brown’s post, Alom Shaha’s post, Rebecca Caygill’s post and Josh Witten’s post. You can also follow the conversation online using the #Transitions hashtag.