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Women in Science 2019: Dr Becky Smethurst - Part 2

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Having talked yesterday about Becky's research, today we're finding out more about her successful YouTube channel, Dr Becky!


Dr Becky SmethurstELEANOR: How did you first get in to science communication and using YouTube as a way of explaining science to people?

BECKY: Well I loved explaining stuff to family and friends when they asked me – I always find that people are fascinated by space, and they always want to know more. And people had told me that I was good at it, so I thought that it was something I should do more of! And Chris [Lintott, her PhD supervisor and presenter of BBC Sky at Night] obviously knows how good it is to do science communication, so he was very supportive of that having a role in my PhD.

In research you get so focused on the tiniest of things that you forget the big picture sometimes. And it’s really helpful to go out and talk to people about what you do, because they might actually ask you a question that throws you a little bit, and you think ‘I’ve never thought about it that way’, or you might answer a question they’ve asked, in a way that makes you think ‘actually that would help with what I’m currently doing’.

I entered a competition to find the next best scientific communicator, called Fame Lab, and I won the video heat, so I got to go to the national final, where I was a runner up in the final and the audience winner. And then my first role out of my PhD was a really cool position at the University of Nottingham that was also funded by the Ogden Trust, which is a charitable foundation that tries to encourage more kids to do Physics at university, and it was a research position but they also wanted you to make YouTube videos for a channel that they’d set up. And this channel had like 800,000 subscribers, which is huge!

As part of the application you had to make a two-minute video explaining something in Physics. So I got the job and I was thrilled, and I got to start making videos on stuff that I found cool. When I came here I thought that I still wanted to make videos for YouTube, because I think there’s a connection between the people watching it and the people making the content that you don’t really get with traditional media. So I set up my own channel and just started filming stuff that I wanted to chat about, and picking it all up. But I think it’s getting there, and I’m really enjoying doing it!


ELEANOR: So how has your channel changed since you started it?

BECKY: Well if you go back to old videos it’s literally just me in front of a blank wall with terrible audio and grainy footage, because it was just me, in a house that we had just moved into. I didn’t know that empty rooms are echoey when you record, or that you need a microphone and lighting. So I started off like that, and now I have lights and mics and furniture! So you can see from that first perspective comparing side by side that they are noticeably improved in that production sense.

In terms of content, I guess I’ve been doing more exploratory stuff. I thought I would do more things like ‘this is what’s in the news now, and this is what we’re just finding out’, but I’ve really started to explore the things that I don’t know that I think people would find interesting. So I’ve been doing a series on unsolved mysteries – and there are a lot of unsolved mysteries in Physics! And trying to explain what we don’t understand has been really cool, I didn’t think I’d try to take that on.

I’ve also been doing a couple of vlogs, which I’ve never done before. So we had a big stargazing open day at the Physics department where we opened our doors to the public and had about a thousand people through the door, and I vlogged the day, just handheld, phone footage. But it was great, and people seemed to have really liked that. And I did a vlog on what I’m doing right now in my research as well, so that was cool – you have to break down every step. I don’t want to get stale, so I’m just trying to do lots of different things and see what people want to hear about. I think people like the unsolved mysteries best though!


ELEANOR: What are your favourite things about producing YouTube videos?

BECKY: I think it’s the engaging. I mean, that’s why I do it – it’s to get people to think of things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And seeing that response, when people are like, ‘wow, I never even considered that before’, I think is great. And I do get excited about prepping the content and I do get excited when I have ideas, but the reason I get excited is for the response at the end.

I hope that by being on YouTube, which is the platform that is most frequented by the younger generation, that it can have some impact on the way that people view not just science and the subject itself, but also who does that subject, and what a person who does that subject is like. I hate that stereotype – the white lab coat, crazy hair, the old white man ‘Einstein’ stereotype – because it’s ok to like nail polish and be a scientist, it’s ok that I love Taylor Swift and also Physics. I don’t want anyone to think that anything is mutually exclusive in Physics. And that’s what I love about Astronomy as well – you can do Astronomy wherever you are, because you just need to look up. There are no restrictions and it’s a global pursuit, so I think it’s really important to reach that global audience.


A thumbnail from one of Becky's videosELEANOR: What opportunities has your YouTube channel given you?

BECKY: I got invited to give a prestigious lecture in the Netherlands, which was quite cool. It was the Henrik de Waard foundation lecture – and that came about because the students that organised the lecture had seen the YouTube channel that I was making videos for in Nottingham and it had inspired them to do Physics at undergrad, and then they’d invited me along, which was fantastic. But I was also very aware that I was only the second woman in about forty years who had given that talk.

The first woman was Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is at Oxford and discovered pulsars, so that’s pretty big shoes to fill! But it was pretty cool that that came from YouTube. There are also a few publishers that contact you to ask if you’d like to write a book, and I’d never even contemplated writing a book before. But since I’ve started making YouTube videos I’ve found I have so many stories that actually just writing them down on paper has been quite easy because I’ve told them before and the words are already there.


ELEANOR: What have you got coming up?

BECKY: I’m really excited about a project that I’ve got in the works at the minute that is a bit different from what I’ve done on my YouTube channel previously. The outreach head of MPLS in Oxford, Michaela Livingstone-Banks, has a PhD in Biomedicine, with a background in areas like DNA and cancer treatment. And people who knew both of us were like, how have you guys not met? Because we both love science, and we both love nail art! And we were like, we should do something with this!

So we came up with Nailing Science, where basically we have a scientist as a guest, and interview them about their science but also each paint the nails on one hand, with the nail art reflecting their science. And I’m really excited about it, because I think it’s just really good fun! Nail art is fun, science is fun, and I just love the fact that we painted nails at the Physics department in Oxford and recorded it to put on YouTube. I feel like the people who subscribe to my channel at the minute might not be expecting that, but if you keep giving people what they expect then it’s a bit boring.


Follow Becky on Twitter @drbecky_ and find her on YouTube at