Our exclusive interview with TV’S Dr Alice Roberts
Dr Alice Roberts explains how she became one of TV’S best-known science presenters.
FROM her first appearance on TV in Channel 4’s “Time Team”, Dr Alice Roberts has become a regular fixture on our screens, taking a closer look at the past and uncovering the habits of our ancestors.
“I was interested in a whole range of subjects when I was young, but the one that really grabbed me from a very early age was biology and, in particular, human biology. I was really fascinated with how the human body worked and I still am; that’s something that has stayed with me.”
Alice still remembers the book that first drew her in.
“I had a fantastic pop-up book by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham, which was given to me when I was about eight or nine. I’ve still got that book on my bookshelf and it still excites me when I open it today!”
Pursuing a career in medicine, Alice went to Cardiff University, expecting to head into surgery.
“Then I got very interested in old bones, and started a PHD, so I ended up as an academic rather than a practising doctor.
“I think it’s important to follow your passions, but also to throw yourself into whatever you’re doing in the here and now, and to be open to opportunities that arise along the way, even if they’re a little unexpected. A good education gives you the ability to be flexible.”
Alice’s “interest in old bones”, or paleopathology, looks at ancient diseases. It’s a fairly young science – only since World War II has it been used to tell us more about human history.
“I was intrigued by the possibility of diagnosing disease in ancient bones – and understanding more about how diseases affected people in the past, as well as how the diseases themselves have changed over time.”
This specialist interest took her career in a new direction.
“I was interested in public engagement (even though we didn’t call it that, back then) as soon as I started my academic career. I was interested in visiting schools to talk about my subject and help to raise aspirations and stimulate interest in biology, and in anatomy in particular.
“I fell into the television work rather by accident, after being asked to prepare some reports on archaeological human remains for the Channel 4 archaeology series, ‘Time Team’.
“They then asked me to be an expert contributor on their digs – as a human bones expert and an extra pair of hands down in the trenches!
“Somehow that led to other opportunities with the BBC, where I’ve had the huge privilege of working on a number of solo landmark series as well as programmes like ‘Horizon’.”
And now Alice feels at home in front of the camera – although she’s her own strongest critic.
“I’ve been making television for sixteen years, so it feels pretty normal and natural! But I think there’s always room for improvement, though, so I appreciate working with directors who can help me hone my craft, and I also watch my programmes quite critically.
“I think that approach – being a ‘reflective practitioner’ – helps you to improve whatever it is you’re doing!”
For many of us, Alice is one of a number of television experts who play a vital role in exciting people about science. Folk like Professor Brian Cox, Liz Bonnin and Alice have made factual programming gripping for a whole new generation of viewers.
In fact, Alice now has a role at Birmingham University that’s dedicated to better connecting scientists and people, as the grand-sounding Professor of Public Engagement!
“I work on ways of helping all of our researchers at Birmingham to engage with the wider public. Essentially it’s about communication – in the true sense of the word – trying to establish a two-way dialogue between researchers and the general public.
“It’s certainly easier for some areas of research compared with others. Anything with an obvious human element – like medicine, social sciences, history – has a ready-made advantage. There can be more of a barrier to engagement with physical sciences, but it’s often about finding an interesting hook – something to get people interested in the first place.
“The passion and enthusiasm of individual researchers is absolutely key – they know why a subject is fascinating.”
Research for TV and in her own academic career has inspired Alice to write books, too, and her latest, “Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World”, is a product of this.
“I’ve been interested in human origins for ages, and I love how you can bring lots of separate strands of evidence in and weave them together. There are clues from fossils, from archaeology, the material culture of the past, from written history, and now from genetics as well. In fact, genetics is transforming our understanding of how humans evolved.
“I started to get interested in tracing the origin of other species, too, and I’d read that apples originated from orchards in Kazakhstan.
When I started to research that a bit more, I uncovered a wonderful story – of the origin of apples from large fruit on the flanks of the Tien Shan mountains, of the spread of apples along the early Silk Roads, of the invention of grafting and the arrival of apples in Britain with the Romans.
“I started to cast the net wider and research lots of other species that seem really familiar to us today, which we’ve domesticated, to find out where they came from – and how we tamed them.
“There were so many surprises – I loved researching and writing this book!”
One of the most interesting stories is about the spread of the lactosetolerant gene, which happened when we domesticated cattle.
It took a historic mutation in this gene to allow us to drink milk throughout our whole lifespan – not just in childhood – and this mutation began to spread through Europe from around 4,000 years ago.
Now we’re at a point where around 90% of the population of north-west Europe can tolerate milk, whereas the gene didn’t spread east – under 10% of the East Asian population can drink it!
Alice’s enthusiasm for the subject demonstrates her point perfectly – that the passion of the presenter is what viewers can connect with, and it’s clearly what has made her such a hit on TV. n
Presenting at this year’s BAFTAS.