Dr Rob Bell, CSIRO guy and face of Scope.
Jesse Hawley has a Facebook chat with…
Jesse Hawley: Hey Rob, is this okay? I have around 15 questions, when are you free till?
Rob Bell: I’m free until whenever really. I mean I have stuff to do, but no set times.
Great to hear. How did your editing go?
The episode turned out well, but was 34 seconds over, so after a few fix ups we had to find a little time to trim.
It’s always tough trimming stuff. Okay, so the tone of ‘Meet our Peeps’ is casual bbq or dinner party, not formal.
The audience is for Facebook, and our peak audience is 18-34 years old.
I get a surprising number of people in the age range say they used to watch Scope (or maybe still do).
Haha, I’m sure they watch it now too. My partner and I watch it together occasionally. We are both science geeks.
And now it is Saturday mornings, so it will catch even more waking up older people.
Yeah, that’s great. Question number 1: What do you enjoy most about your job (you can incorporate your CSIRO and Ten experience)?
My favorite part of working on Scope, but working for CSIRO, is that I get the best of both worlds. I really like jumping into a different area of science each week, because the shows are all themed (sometimes very specifically, sometimes quite loosely). I have learnt an awful lot researching for the show, some of which I am sure I have now forgotten.
Excellent. Yeah, that’s very neat – exploring niches. Scientists are normally constrained to their own little microcosm.
Too true, and I think that was one of the reasons I didn’t pursue a life of research. Although I do often think about perhaps doing that still. Maybe.
Yeah, I finished honours in bio two years ago and was contemplating the PhD, but the prospect of diving deeper into such a niche is a little off-putting. Communicators do have it good!
Number two. If you were at a casual dinner party, how would you respond if someone asked what you do? AND, what you do for research (whenever you get/got the chance)?
It’s funny I am never quite sure how to describe my job without sounding like I am blowing my own trumpet. I used to say that I was in Science Education, I think because people wouldn’t ask too much more about it, and that is what I did with CSIRO. But these days, now that at least a few more people seem to have heard of the show, I say I work on a kids science show. Overwhelmingly people think it is a great thing to be doing. If they don’t know the show they often assume we are on the ABC.
Cool. It’s very neat to have a science show on a commercial station.
I usually don’t tell people I am on the show, but sometimes they have an “aha” moment when they hear science and TV and realise they have seen me. Nowhere to hide then.
Haha, yeah. Maybe they don’t recognise you without the context of the lab coat.
I understand how Clark Kent did it now.
Exactly. It’s all in the context. Last week I ran into our next door neighbours at the shops and they didn’t recognise me because I wasn’t at home on the stoop.
Cognitive failings aside, question 3: What does your job entail on a week to week basis?
Given that we pretty much make one half hour (well, 24 minute) show each week of the year, the weekly routine has to be pretty much constant. Monday and Tuesday are spent researching and writing all my bits (the stuff in between the stories that links it all together) for the episode we are due to film on Wednesday. Wednesday is filming. Thursdays I have off (kids etc.) and Friday we watch a completed episode (not the Wed. one) and make changes, fix ups etc. then begin to plan for the following week. In between that I help find stories, suggest ideas, themes, trips and read over other people’s story scripts to see how the science sounds. I am currently the only Scope team member with a science background.
Great! That’s a full week indeed!
It’s surprising to know there’s just one scientist on the team…
There has been as many as 5 of us with science backgrounds in the past, but now TV people seem to be predominating. Personally half and half is a good mix I think.
Yeah, I could imagine. FOUR) What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Sorry my boss just dropped by for a quick chat about sets (we just moved studios). I’ll get onto 4, now.
There certainly needs to be a critical number of creative types guiding the science folk.
I think a career highlight in terms of Scope would have been winning the Japan Prize in 2008. Long time gone now I suppose, but it was an international award for educational television, and I was even flown to Japan for the ceremony and met the crown prince and princess. But I have been on many amazing trips with the show, digging dinosaur fossil in nth west qld last year was a great experience.
Oh wow, they’re both big highlights.
I didn’t know there was a crown prince and princess in Japan.
Which fossil deposit were you digging at?
We were about 45 minutes out Winton (2hrs from longreach), the dig was run by Qld Museum and the Age of Dinosaurs (set up after they discovered fossils out there a few years back).
Did you find anything…?
They were working on getting out vertebrae and pelvis of a big sauropod. Very encased in rock, but the real work was back in the fossil lab, they have a backlog of many years there still to clean up and prep. Digging them up is the quick part it seems.
Hmm, I didn’t imagine that. I’ve heard they have plenty of unidentified species and things in the natural history museum, London, because of that back-log problem too.
What is the most funny/unique/odd situation you have experienced in your time at SCOPE?
There have been a few of those. The show has always been a little quirky, and I have ended up in a few odd spots with my lab coat on. Perhaps the strangest was swimming with dolphins at SeaWorld (which was the good part), but then competing with them for the fish the trainers throw. Quite hard to catch a fish with our shaped mouths it turns out, but I got one once, and I took a while to get that taste out..
Haha, it’s funny out that happens. I had a salmon sandwich for breakfast (I don’t know why), so I know about that inescapable fish taste. And good beakless catching skills!
Were you in your lab coat too?
Yep, in the lab coat, which the dolphins found strange at first, they are used to strangers in wet suits, but not giant white creatures. But they quickly came around.
It’s good to know they have open minds for when we have to welcome our new dolphin overlords.
Next question: What was your first job?
My first paid job was picking strawberries. I grew up on a pineapple farm so had to help out a bit around the place, but they also grew strawberries in the district and during picking season would take all sorts and ages on. Tough on the knees that job. And I don’t like strawberries, but I think that was the case before picking them. I still like pineapple.
Maybe that’s why they hired you. Definitely hire the guy who doesn’t like eating the crop. Perfect.
That’s a very Queenslandery first job
Yeah, I guess I have spent a lot of my life as a walking cliché. Can’t escape it.
Do you wear glasses? Because that would be the icing on the lab coat cake.
No. Good point. I got out of that one at least.
Thank you, parents’ genes. To calibrate the interview – we are exactly half way through the questions, so if you are busy, feel free to let me know.
No, all good.
Aside from berry pickin’, what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I don’t really know what they entail, but I remember liking the idea of being a tech stock analyst at one point or working in an ad agency (even though I dislike most advertising, maybe it isn’t clever enough?).
Clever ads are few and far between. It would be nice to try and aim a bit higher.
What hobbies do you have outside of your work?
I play football (soccer) and have done most of my life. Getting older and slower of course, but I refuse to acknowledge that on the field. I ride my bike a bit, but not enough to own lycra, and I am pretty avid about brewing beer.
Well done with the lycra abstinence.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to follow your career path? Either a scientist, a TV person, or a science communicator (or all of the above).
That is a tough one. I lucked into what I do really. Even getting my job with CSIRO Education without any real Education or communication study or background was probably a bit fortunate. From there, I was in the right place at the right time, as Totally Wild used to come and film segments, and I was the new guy. Getting into TV presenting is hard I think, there seems to be not really a very defined path. But Science, follow the area that interests you the most, and if it is all of them, get into Science Communications (I didn’t know such a thing existed when I left Uni). We have had several ex-ANU Science Comms/Science Circus people work on Scope.
That’s great. ‘Go with the flow, and steer occasionally’ is your advice, then?
Yes, absolutely. My wife is often frustrated by my floating attitude, but then in hindsight it seems to have been a theme in my life. But yes, remember to steer occasionally at least.
You’ve been on a fortunate course, then!
If you were at a dinner party, how much would science influence your conversation? This is an interview question. Not my own curiosity. (That too).
I guess it depend upon the topics, but invariably something comes up to which i can inject some level of “did you know”, or a gross fact or even just clarify (politely) someone’s misconception. Often the science comes in because people have been storing up questions to ask me though. I do wonder why they just don’t google, but hey, happy to try and help.
Cool. Having an eloquent and informed explanation will always trump Googs.
If you had infinite resources, is there a special topic or field that you’d like to base an episode on?
I’d love to get to Antarctica, and I’d love to go over to America and check out NASA’s Jet propulsion labs. Actually anything and everything they do over there, many episode could be done on them.
Definitely NASA! We’re in a relatively good position for Antarctica, though.
Penultimate question: Which song or band best captures your job and why?
They Might Be Giants. A band I grew up and listened to before my life in science. Now my kids like some of their songs too. But they are geeks who write the occasional science tune amongst all the others.
And finally – Did you have anything you wanted to add about working with CSIRO or Scope?
Oh, and what did you research before you got full-time into TV?
Nothing really to add. I really enjoy working for CSIRO. It is an organisation that so many Australians seem to respect, and they have always been so helpful and flexible with me off playing in TV land. Network Ten doesn’t always enjoy the same kudos.
Before TV, was CSIRO Education, and before that was my PhD and traveling the world for a year. But my PhD was in the area of ceramic fuel cells. So materials science was my thing I guess.
Great. Well thank you so much for your time. I got some fantastic material. Nice to meet you.