Podcasting your science: vaccines - from concept to clinic
Dr Sean Elias and colleagues created a short series of podcasts about their research. Here, Sean describes his experiences and what he learnt.
I will be honest the idea to start making a podcast series came completely from nowhere. I happened to read a department email advertising a call for people to make podcasts and I thought, 'why not'. After a casual introductory meeting sold me on the idea I enrolled on the course 'Podcast your Science' run by Oxford Sparks and IT Services. After learning the basics of how to record and edit podcasts I declared my interest in making a series with the Sparks team.
My idea from the start was to do a series of podcasts about Vaccines and the work done at the Jenner Institute in which I worked. Vaccines are always a hot topic for public debate and there is a lot of miss-information out in the public domain, particularly on the internet. I wanted a narrative style podcast that provided clear information but that also encouraged debate. At this stage though I was still unsure exactly what I wanted to include and how to structure it.
While still thinking about my series structure and content I was further inspired after meeting Professor Vincent Racaniello at a conference and public engagement event at which he was the Keynote speaker. Professor Racaniello is well known for his podcast series 'This Week In Virology' (TWIV) which has been running for years and has nearly 400 episodes. I got to watch a live recording of an episode and speak to him for advice. At the public engagement event he also gave a well-received talk on the role of podcasting in science communication. This experience definitely helped me think about the structure of my podcasts and the value of having guest speakers to give variation.
So now I had a better idea of what I wanted to do. I decided on a 4 part series, starting with an introduction episode and then specific topics with guest scientists discussing their work. I also wanted one of the episodes to focus on the clinical trials we perform at the Jenner Institute to act as a possible recruitment tool if people were inspired to volunteer and help out the vaccine research community.
It was now time to actually make the podcast. I borrowed all the recording equipment I needed from Oxford Sparks, noted some final useful tips and dove right in. This was great fun and though a little time consuming initially due to unforeseen challenges I quickly picked up the pace. The first challenge was adjusting my written episode drafts to sound fluid when spoken. This was easily solved by just trial and error and became less of an issue as I gained experience. The main difficulty I encountered was finding a quiet place to record as the microphones were much more sensitive than I imagined. Air-conditioning units, hard surfaces (echoes) and general background noises offered different problems depending on where I recorded. For my own parts I mostly resorted in recording in my flat at night when the world was at its most quiet. For guests I did the best with the rooms I had available in the department. Editing did the rest of the work.
I actually found the editing relatively easy, the Sparks/IT course had prepared me well. This was all done using the free software 'Audacity' which is incredibly easy to use. Once I had cutaway the 'ums' and 'ahs' and hidden the background noises I had a first draft. I had great support from Sparks regarding how to take this to a finished product; tweak here and there, speak a little slower here, add some music and ta-da, Episode 1 complete. +3 episodes later and I had my series which I was delighted with.
I really enjoyed the process and would encourage anyone to try themselves. From my experience at talking to people considering it the main hesitance is people worrying about how they sound on a recording, especially those for which English is a second language. Just remember you have unlimited takes when it isn't live and practise makes perfect, you will find a style of speaking you like eventually. I would definitely recommend the courses run by Sparks and the IT department, but if you have a friend who does podcasting I'm sure they could also get you started. Sparks have some great beginners' equipment available to borrow so there is no need to invest anything more than your time. If you do decide to have a go I wish you the best of luck and hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Thanks Sean! If you'd like to have a go at making your own podcast about your research, just get in touch and let us know what your ideas are.
Image credit: Patrick Breitenback via Flickr