No challenge is too big for TV presenter Professor Alice Roberts as David Johns discovers how she is spreading her love of science in Birmingham and beyond
Alice Roberts is the kind of academic I really, really wish had taught me science at school. Brimming with excitement, enthusiasm and passion, Professor Roberts makes me realise that science isn’t dull and boring after all. It’s actually rather wicked. She doesn’t talk about theories and hypotheses, but instead champions accessibility and understanding, opening up the wonders of the world to as many of us ‘ordinary’ folk as possible. And do you know the really wicked thing about all of this? She’s doing it right here in Birmingham. Alice is best known to millions presenting top-rated TV shows including Time Team, Coast and Ice Age Giants. She’s also a prolific author, speaker and campaigner. “There’s a wonderful, exciting world out there to explore and discover,” she says. “My mission is to involve as many people as possible in all things science.”
That’s just what she’s doing as professor of public engagement at the University of Birmingham. It’s a rather grand-sounding title that means as well as teaching and research work, Alice is involved in encouraging and promoting dialogue between the university’s researchers and the public. It’s been her job (or should that be vocation?) since arriving on campus just over two years ago. “The university was very strong in this area before I arrived but in the last couple of years I think it’s fair to say that we have gone from strength to strength. There is more interaction and involvement with the public, the schools and across the university. Science in general is becoming more accessible, exciting and popular – thanks in no small part to being opened up by TV.” Such is the reputation of the university as a centre of excellence that it’s been chosen to host the British Science Festival in September, part of Birmingham Year of Science showcasing the city’s successes in the fields of science, technology and learning. Alice, together with other leading academics at the university, will be playing a leading role – indeed, she officially launched the Festival recently at the Library of Birmingham. “The university is a truly wonderful place and presents incredible opportunities and facilities for the public. For a start, it’s Britain’s current University of the Year, but it also has unrivalled attractions which are all open to the public. Attractions like the Lapworth Museum of Geology, which blew me away when I first came here. It’s filled with 250,000 wonderful fossils, rocks and minerals.
“There’s also the Barbour Institute of Fine Arts which is an absolute jewel of an art gallery containing paintings by the likes of Monet, Gainsborough, Picasso and Van Gogh. And the university’s incredible library and archive has more than 120,000 books and three million manuscripts. Imagine that!” Alice’s career is split 50:50 between her academic work and being an author and TV presenter. “They actually complement each other nicely,” she says. She’s also a mum to a year-old son and four-year-old daughter. “They tend to get dragged around to things with me like festivals and filming but it all does all somehow work. I have an amazing husband who does all the things that I just don’t have time for these days.” Alice has a zillion demands on her time. She’s an avid tweeter with more than 60,000 followers and gets into some interesting and heated debates on creationism among other topics. Her new, fifth book – The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being – which centres on evolution is likely to stoke the digital discussion still further when it’s published this September. She came to Birmingham two years ago after leaving her home university in Bristol after more than 10 years. “When I came there and saw the place, I just thought ‘Wow!’ I was incredibly impressed by all the people working here. They are just so good and all really enthusiastic about engaging with the public and across the university too. “I haven’t experienced any barriers at all here as a result of my TV work. I think anyone who took such a view would be very old-fashioned. I have experienced issues with it in the past elsewhere, but not at Birmingham. They are brilliant about it. Academics have to think about TV being becoming such an important way for getting their information out to people. “The real challenge to all of us is how we can find ways to communicate sciences to an audience which doesn’t seek you out. We are all working very hard to reach these people and get them involved in science. Here at Birmingham we realise that as well as things continually being opened up on the campus we have to go out, reach out to the community as well. Things like the festival we had looking at the science of food. It was something enjoyable and informative that people could all relate to. And of course, it was free which helps.”
As we spoke, Alice was working on presenting an exciting hour-long BBC2 special, The New Longitude Prize, in which the public were being asked to select a challenge which scientists would then attempt to solve with a multi-million prize as their reward. Alice is in no doubt herself about one of the greatest challenges being faced by the scientific community – and it tracks back to her first love of medicine. “My original career was in medicine and was going to take me into pediatric surgery, but that all changed along the way. My interest in medicine is driven by wanting to improve the quality of people’s lives. The area of regenerative medicine is incredibly exciting – we are on the cusp now of making some amazing discoveries. The potential for producing and replacing tissue means we could soon repair and replace defective muscle in the heart and fuse back together nerves in the spinal cord.” As the fresh, young face of science reaching millions of viewers in their homes, Alice could well be described as a trailblazer for raising the profile of women in academia. But she says: “The real heroes are all the women who over the years have forged careers in science often against odds which seemed insurmountable.” As for her own TV hero? “It has to be David Attenborough. He has been engaging with a huge audience over a lifetime. He’s just remarkable.”