Learning from David Attenborough

14 Jan 2019

Learning from David Attenborough

My last blog was about some of the challenges faced while writing, but this wasn’t my only communication challenge. Verbal communication proved tricky too. I don’t mind presenting in front of peers, but talking in front of an academic audience is a frightening prospect.

This challenge came from a once in a lifetime offer. In September, Laura Lincoln, SfAM’s Events and Project Manager asked me to co-host a Q&A event for the SfAM Fellowship Award. The recipient - Sir David Attenborough!

Every part of me screamed, NO, I CAN’T DO THAT, but I gratefully accepted the offer with encouragement.

Supporting cast

It was a relief to find I’d be joined by ECS colleagues; Jennie French, Aled Roberts and Temilola Olanrewaju. My equally nervous mates could provide a safety net if nerves proved overwhelming.

Initially, I thought anxiety would stem from ‘being on stage’ or the fact that it was being recorded. Instead, my mind was consumed by the star of the event. It was an opportunity to meet a hero. Sir David Attenborough is the reason for wanting to study either zoology or marine science at university (I chose the latter).

Attenborough inspired my PhD. I dreamed of being immersed in the animal world and observing their behaviour. Unfortunately, this did not reflect my research experience and I spent much of my time murdering sponges to extract their bacteria.

Next generation

My students at the Northern Regional College helped with preparation by providing several questions. This calmed my nerves further. This challenge wasn’t just about me, it was about representing some amazing young people too.

After a few rehearsals, it was time for the event. Silence fell as Sir David entered the room. So, what was it like to be on stage with Sir David Attenborough? I was so overcome with nerves I didn’t notice him shaking my hand until after I’d sat down.

As it came to my turn to ask a question, it seemed my heart would burst from my chest. I tried to hide it and asked the first question from my students: “Have you ever been attacked by an animal you have worked with?”

Once those words had successfully left my lips, I could relax and enjoy the master of storytelling.

Animal magic

David shared how he’d never been attacked by an animal, which is not my experience. I’ve had hamsters and crayfish dangling from my fingers, and lost a bit of my arm to a Labrador when I was doing a paper round.It seems that even the animals know he’s a legend!

Perhaps wildlife can detect his respect for them and their environment. It’s so evident in his words and gestures.

Attenborough’s kind demeanour helped relieve the anxiety and it was impossible not to be mesmerised by his stories. It’s easier to be oblivious to the audience, co-hosts and cameras when you’re being charmed and entertained.

Kid's play

I was lucky enough to be to escort Dylan (aged 9) and Ben (aged 5) to meet David. It was a delight to see a man of  92 adjust his attention from adults to children. The joy on their faces as they met the legend of the natural world will be a lasting memory.

Joining SfAM’s Early Career Scientist Committee in 2015, I never dreamed that one day I’d represent the society to interview Sir David Attenborough.   

More information on the event is also available from Jennie French’s podcast and blog.

Further reading

Attenborough D. (2018). Life on Earth. 2nd edition. William Collins, London.