Our ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with TV’S Dr Alice Roberts

Dr Alice Roberts ex­plains how she be­came one of TV’S best-known science pre­sen­ters.

The People's Friend - - This Week -

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.

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