NAME: Dr. Helen Quinn
CURRENT TITLE: Science Producer for TV documentaries
AREA OF EXPERTISE: I have been working in television documentaries for about ten years, specialising in programmes about Earth Sciences.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 10
EDUCATION: I was lucky enough to study for a BSc in Physical Geography and Geology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and with Edinburgh, often referred to as the birth place of modern geology, I was in my element. I then continued my earth science studies and undertook a PhD looking at long-term climate change in Antarctica, heading south to the ice for a field season as part of my studies. I wrote up my findings as academic papers, but the science of Antarctica lent itself to a much wider audience, and I began to write stories for newspapers based on my PhD findings. I really enjoyed telling stories in this way and found myself heading into a career in science media.
What’s your job like?
I work in television, either as a Producer on a show that is in production or as an ideas generator on a show that has yet to be commissioned. It’s a busy, exciting job in which you are learning new things all the time. Every day you learn something new and everyday is different. It’s a job filled with amazing “wow moments” when you are out shooting in places you never even imagined existed and visiting places that you can’t get to as a tourist. You see the world from a different perspective, meeting people who passionately want to share their knowledge with you, and it’s infectious. It’s a job of variety: you can be in the office making calls, reading or brainstorming, writing scripts or editing tapes or you can be out shooting underwater, in an emergency hospital or on top of a volcano. It’s a job for people who have an adventurous streak, are curious about the world around them, and most importantly, love getting out there and seeing it!
What’s a typical day like?
There really isn’t a typical day. On a geology-related shoot, I have been 50 feet underground in a silver mine in the Andes, wrestling with alligators in Colorado, or filming on the River Yangtze in China. We’ll usually shoot all day until the light fades, and the shoots can be anywhere from a few days to a few months long. A day in the office is a little less adrenaline filled but is usually taken up talking with scientists and getting to grips with the latest science, writing scripts and editing. I am based in London when I’m in the office but can be anywhere in the world on a shoot.
Coming up with new ideas is one of my favourite parts of my jobs. Starting with a blank slate and a seed of an idea is an exciting place to be — wondering if one day this will make it on to our television screens. I love building the relationships with all our contributors and getting to know them and their work, I feel like I am learning all the time. And I love being out and about, usually outside in magnificent landscapes. I feel very lucky that we have the opportunity to excite and enthuse our audience about the world and the science around us all and hope we can carry on coming up with the ideas that make it possible to do this!
Juggling is a huge part of my job — juggling stories, ideas, people, crew, locations and generally making sure everyone is happy. But I think the biggest challenge is making sure the science is fairly portrayed. Distilling it down, making it visual and telling a story is really important, but none of it matters if the science behind it isn’t solid. As a geoscientist, I feel very strongly that we have a duty to tell all these exciting earth science stories, and it’s essential that this is done right. Having people in media who have a science background is really important — we just need more!
What’s your advice for students?
If you are interested in working in science media, make sure you have a science background behind you (and even better if it is in geosciences as we are a minority in the media!). Media knowledge can be learned on the job, much more important is your science knowledge and scientific way of thinking. Studying geosciences gives you the perfect opportunity for boundless adventures and the chance to see and understand the beautiful world around us. I had no idea when I set off where geography and geology would take me, but it literally took me to the ends of the planet.