Monday, 18 November 2019

The Ocean Institute’s Charlotte Birkmanis will hone her science communication skills with some of the best in the world, after winning an internship with BBC’s The Naked Scientists.

A marine biologist and PhD candidate with a special interest in marine predator behaviour, Charlotte will spend eight weeks living and working at The University of Cambridge as part of the opportunity, offered by the popular Naked Scientist himself –  Dr Chris Smith.

“Alongside learning how to write articles and conduct interviews with leading scientists around the world, I'll edit and produce my own podcast, which will then be broadcast on The Naked Scientist,” Charlotte explains.

Spreading science to the masses

Created and launched in 2001 by Chris Smith, The Naked Scientists was one of the first ever podcasts and is now one of the world's most popular science shows, achieving over 50 million programme downloads in the last five years.

The interactive show strips science down to its base essentials and features interviews with renowned researchers from across the globe, who also answer questions from the public.

Working with broadcasters including the BBC, the ABC, Primedia in South Africa, Talk Radio Europe and Radio New Zealand, content from The Naked Scientists team is syndicated globally to audiences exceeding a million people each week.

Charlotte was selected after an interview with Chris, alongside feedback from judges and science communication professionals after a recent (UWA) Three Minute Thesis Presentation where she won Best Overall Performer.

“I’m incredibly grateful to be going and also to UWA for covering costs associated with the internship,” says the shark scientist who is actively engaged in researching and communicating conservation of marine predators and their ecosystems.

Deputy Director of the OI and one of Charlotte’s PhD supervisors, Associate Professor Julian Partridge says the need for marine scientists to communicate effectively with people outside academia is increasingly urgent as the ocean environment and marine species, including iconic animals such as sharks, face an uncertain future.

“If science is to have impact and play a part in managing and improving our world, we need scientists who can talk to non-specialists, and in particular to policy and decision makers. In short, science needs great communicators,” Assoc Prof Partridge says.

“Charlotte has always been passionate about communicating science and her talent is being recognised with this award.  I’m sure she will greatly enjoy learning from the internationally renowned Naked Scientist team in Cambridge.”

A lifelong interest in oceans

Growing up in Brisbane and on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast saw Charlotte develop an early interest in the ocean and its many inhabitants.

It’s a passion that has only grown over time says the middle of three children, who now lives with her husband James and pooch Norman in Perth.

“I was always fossicking in rock pools and snorkelling and I got my dive certificate as soon as I was old enough,” she grins. “In fact my mum did it with me because she was worried I was too young, even though she now tells me it made her feel seasick.”

After spending time in the UK and Italy, Charlotte moved back to Queensland, completing a BAppSc majoring in Ecology (Distinction), a BA in International and Global Studies, majoring in Mandarin, and a BSc (Honours first class) in shark and ray vertebral biomechanics.

In simple terms, Charlotte’s PhD research is focused on where sharks are, why they are there and whether enough is being done to protect them. She is also doing a little bit of time-travel – across the entire 21st century in fact – to see if where sharks are occurring is changing over time.

“To do this I use statistical models to determine where sharks were in the past, where they are now and where they are likely to be in the future with climate change,” she says.

Unlocking why sharks are portrayed a certain way

With a keen research interest in the ecological impacts of predator removal, and how the media portrays sharks and other predators, Charlotte has travelled extensively (40+ countries and counting!) and has lived on three continents.

Having lived, studied and taught in China, she also speaks Mandarin Chinese and uses her many skills to regularly give talks both in person and online to interested groups.

“I’m more of a people person than a numbers person,” she laughs. “I analyse big data that tells me where the sharks are and why they are there, giving me the results I need in my research, which I can then share with others.”

“I’m passionate about protecting our oceans and also getting people to rethink the role of predators, and sharks specifically, because we’re wiping them out at an alarming rate and we’re only now starting to see the impacts of that.”

“We need sharks to regulate our oceans and if we destroy them, we destroy ourselves. It’s going to be exciting to be able to use my opportunity with The Naked Scientists team to learn more about mass media science communication and how to spread these important messages.”

In her free time Charlotte has been known to produce mosaics, and enjoys hiking, scuba diving and cycling. If she’s not doing any of those, she's probably reading a (travel) book and planning her next adventure…which for now is the UK and Europe.

“A healthy planet needs a healthy ocean and a healthy ocean needs sharks. We have over 500 species of sharks, but most people only think of the big toothy ones (and they don’t think fondly of them),” she says.

“I want to help the public to learn more about these different species of sharks, to see beyond their teeth and appreciate the part they play in regulating our oceans. To do this we need to get our scientific literature out to the public in a digestible form, and I’ll fine-tune my skills to do that with the Naked Scientists.

"Stay tuned!”

Media references

Liz McGrath (Oceans Institute)       +61 8 433 795 509


International — Science
Great Southern — Oceans Institute — School of Biological Sciences — School of Earth Sciences