This week, I covered how to interview a scientist for my science communication course at LSU. We talked about how to prepare for an interview, and what kinds of questions you can ask during an interview to pull out interesting details about the scientist’s life and work. My students will get to practice what they learned on Monday, when LSU researchers will be visiting our classroom for “mock” interviews. And naturally, we will be recording these interviews and sharing them with our interviewees and online!
So how does one interview a scientist? I’ve collected a variety of resources here, including feedback I received via Twitter after I asked science writers to describe their favorite questions to ask scientists during an interview.
The Origin Story
- What are the discoveries that have lead up to your current work? (Ian Street)
- The origin story: How did you come up with this hypothesis & what got you interested? (Shelly Fan)
- What spurred this study or this question?
- Why is your research important? What are the possible real world applications? (My Sciencey Life)
- What kind of response have you gotten to your research / findings? (Christina Scott)
- What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work? (Matt Shipman)
- And after they've explained their work, I often ask (as nicely as possible): "So what?" or "Why is that important?" (Matt Shipman)
- So the big picture: “What's your assessment of the current state of …? I usually read up on media reporting and ask their opinion. (Shelly Fan)
- Why is your area of scientific discovery important (or relevant) for the ordinary citizen of this country? (Christina Scott)
- What happens next in the process of discovery? (Christina Scott)
- (Especially for technical fields): Do you have an analogy to help me understand your work? (Ian Street)
Questions that liven up the interview
- Describe the day / what you felt when you discovered that … (finding from the research paper, etc.) (Christina Scott)
- What is your favorite aspect of your research?
- What is the coolest thing about your work/research?
- What is a problem that you solved during your most recent project? (@strangeattractor)
- What legislation would you change to improve how science in your field is done? (@strangeattractor)
- What do you want to achieve with your research? (Ragnhild Larsson)
- Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a scientist? (Ragnhild Larsson)
- How did you end up here? Why did you become a scientist? What drew you to this field? What makes you get up in the morning? (Ragnhild Larsson)
Questions to ask about science research studies (from How to Talk to a Scientist, by Sally Lehrman)
- What has been / was your most important scientific finding? Your most surprising finding?
- Are your methods generally accepted? Are they unusual or new?
- How do your results compare with others in the area? How much consistency is there generally in this area?
- How accurate is your data? What's the level of uncertainty?
- How sure are you of your conclusions and interpretation? What else could explain your data? Is there anyone who interprets the problem differently?
- Is there controversy in this area? Other schools of thought?
- Are there ways you might profit from your ideas, research or results?
- What are the negatives I should know? Who disagrees with your conclusions?
- Do you have pet peeves about the way this area is covered?
- What's next?
- Briefly, what excites you about your work? (Christina Scott)
- Tell me what you like to do when you aren't working on research.
- “I like to tease out what they think is most interesting or coolest about the work, whether that’s how they made the discovery, a surprising setback or a quirky characteristic, say about a new species or fossil organism.” - Jeanna Bryner, managing editor of LiveScience, via Matt Shipman
- “I ask for stories, if they ever had an outcome that was not expected, views on public policy, path taken to now, inspiration.” (Jane-on-TWR)
Those hard-hitting questions
- Can I see your latest institutional COI (conflict of interest) disclosure? (David Kroll)
- “Spend time, meet people on their own turf i.e. in the lab/field, be as prepared as you can, listen.” (Veronika Meduna)
- Define your purpose - Be specific. Both parties should have a clear understanding of the purpose of the interview and who the audience is.
- Set a date and time. I find it best to interview via Skype or Google hangout – the audio quality is better for recording. Set and confirm the time (and time zones!) at least once after making the appointment. If in person – meet in the lab or field, or other space where research is done!
- Ask for images. Once you set up a time for the interview, it’s a good time to ask for potential images for your story: images of the scientist, images of his/her research, etc. Make sure the scientist has copyright permission to use the image. (Christina Scott)
- Do your research. Search or ask the scientist in advance for links/PDFs of scientific papers they have written, or news clips about their research or their area of research.
- If you are reporting on a study, READ IT first, take notes, and ask questions based on your notes during the interview.
- Be as specific as you can about what you want to know. (Chad Orzel)
- Master the art of active listening. Be in tune with where the interview is going, what you’ve got so far and what other information you need. Listen actively.
- Record. Recording the interview (on 2 devices – have a back-up) can help you connect with the interviewee better than if you have to stare down and write the whole time. Ask for permission to record.
- Embrace Silence. Keeping quiet after the scientist asks a question can help them carry on talking and give you more detail. Don’t rush to fill silence.
- Connect. Smile, and look the interviewee in the eyes without staring (e.g. blink and actively engage!)
- Be flexible. Don’t let a set list of questions deter you for going on side-tracks – sometimes those side-tracks give you the best quotes / context. As Deborah Blum says, “some of the best interview moments are completely spontaneous. So I’ll do research and I’ll write down questions, but I also think a good interview is akin to good conversation and if you're too rigid in your prep work, too obsessive about your written questions, you lose those moments where the story may open up into something more.”
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Say it back. When the scientist explains his or her research or a scientific concept to you, explain in back in your own words to see if you understand it. The scientist WILL correct you if you don’t!
- Run your paraphrases back by the researcher: “So, what you’re saying is…?” or “Would it be fair to say that…?” (Chad Orzel)
After the Interview
- Thank the researcher for their time!
- Ask the researcher if he/she has anything more to add.
- Ask/tell the researcher you might follow up with questions, to make sure you got the science right.
- Don’t stop listening too soon – sometimes the best quotes / material come as the interview is wrapping up, when the scientist relaxes.
On-camera Interviews (Christina Scott)
- The interviewee should be looking at you, not the camera.
- If the interviewee starts talking with too much jargon, stop & restart and work with them to translate what they are saying.
- Know your questions in advance. If possible, do a pre-interview off-camera. Talk the scientist through what you plan to ask.
- Make eye-to-eye contact with the scientist the whole time.
- Re-word the answer if you don’t understand it: “In other words, the issue is…”
- Avoid disrupting sounds.
Preparing For an Interview, Part One: Reporters, by Matt Shipman
Online course in Science Journalism: The Interview, by Christina Scott
How to talk to a scientist (online tipsheet)
For scientists: Thirteen Tips for Great Media Interviews, by Patricia Thomas
Talk to me! Top tips for conducting interviews with scientists, by Chrissie Giles