Dr Becky Smethurst: “You literally have the entire universe to talk about”

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Dr Becky Smethurst is an Oxford Astrophysicist, star of the Dr Becky YouTube Channel, author and Durham Alumna. Her research focuses on the co- evolution of galaxies with their black holes and on YouTube she talks more generally about physics and being a scientist. Becky spoke with Profile after her appearance on the Christmas special of University challenge where she competed as part of the Durham team.
Speaking to Becky over zoom, it quickly became apparent that she was the most enthusiastic astrophysicist I have ever met (although admittedly there is not a long list). She also displays this enthusiasm in the 120 videos on her channel. Explaining where this comes from, she says, “I was just one of those kids who always wanted space books and telescopes for Christmas. I’ve never got tired of talking about it to anybody that was really interested in it as well. There is so much to talk about. You literally have the entire universe to talk about – there’s so much out there.”

It’s nice to talk about exoplanets for a while

Becky explains how her channel helps her as a researcher, “with research you focus on one very specific thing and you can get very bogged down in that. I study how black holes grow and that’s all I think about all-day everyday, it’s nice to then talk about exoplanets for a while or, to say ‘let’s talk about Saturn or how the universe will end.’ It’s a bit different and fun as well.” Becky first contributed to a YouTube channel whilst working at the University of Nottingham. She enjoyed this so much that she set up her own channel when she moved to Oxford. She describes it as a creative outlet. The peoples’ reactions is what keeps her going, especially when people is what keeps her going, especially when people comment that they have been inspired to pursue scientific study.

She thinks this impact is very important and feels a sense of responsibility to the public as a researcher. “You are funded by taxpayers to do this research, so giving back to taxpayers by explaining what you are doing is obviously so important.” The Dr Becky channel helps her to achieve this openness in science, with a subscribed audience of 191,000 interested in her videos. She makes a real effort to interact with her subscribers; she always tries to be present in her comments sections when videos are uploaded. Becky especially endeavours to answer science questions. She also does live question and answer sessions on Twitter and Instagram and recently did a live book signing on YouTube.

It is also evident that Becky feels the impact that she has on people’s interest in science personally, as the other day she received an email from a fan who had written about her in their UCAS statement. “I remember writing mine, so I thought, how did I end up in someone else’s?”

It’s one thing to have enthusiasm for science and want to communicate it to the wider public, but quite another to film, star in, and edit a video about physics every week. Becky revealed the work that goes into making a video for her channel, saying, “I have to be really careful with my time because obviously my day job is research.” She clarified her process, asserting “It’s coming up with an idea and researching the bits you are not sure on, for example, double checking a fact. I don’t really tend to write a script; I like the way that my videos are quite free formed and it’s clear we are just having a chat. Then obviously it’s the filming.”

She went on, “It’s also the washing my hair and doing my makeup which takes ages!” Becky hates editing, which was a surprise to me as her videos are very well put together; they always include graphics overlaid with images. Becky stated that she mainly dislikes the editing process as she has to do it herself. She also described her YouTube channel as her hobby, saying that depending on how long the video is, it can take her five to ten hours a week to make one.

I have some great memories observing near-earth asteroids with telescopes on the roof of the physics building

YouTube is not the only way that that Becky communicates with the public about science. In September 2019, her book Space: 10 Things You Should Know was published; in this she attempts to explain the fundamentals of the universe accessibly in ten essays. Choosing ten topics to focus on was difficult, but, at the end of the day, she wrote about the things she saw as most interesting adding that “black holes are obviously at the top of that list.” She explained that she chose the things that fascinated her when she was starting out in her education as an astrophysicist. She called these “big burning questions.” For example, whether aliens exist, the size of the universe and what was before the Big Bang.

Becky also gives public talks to a range of different audiences, from schools to astronomy societies to festival goers and was recently awarded the Caroline Hershell Prize for Lectureship in 2020. I asked Becky about what she felt allowed her to connect with such a wide audience. She answered, “From what people tell me, it’s my enthusiasm that shines through the most.”

You will know if you are a Donkey or a Shrek and I am a full on Donkey!

She explained how it’s important to stick your personal style in science communication, saying “You will know if you are a Donkey or a Shrek and I am a full on Donkey! But I have colleagues that are much more of a Shrek who are fantastic, they are much calmer and reserved, people love that too. It’s about who you learn from and their style.”

As a researcher, much of Becky’s job isn’t focussed on science communication but on analysing data and studying black holes. Becky’s favourite video that she has made for her channel is titled ‘A Day in the Life of an Oxford Astrophysicist’, which summarises how she works. In April, she updated this video to show a lockdown ‘day in the life.’ In our interview Becky explained further how Covid-19 has impacted her work, saying “Astrophysicists are really just working with data a lot of the time. Whether this is data taken from telescopes or from simulations that we have run ourselves on our computers, you can carry on at home.” However, she emphasised a fear that there might be a “data dearth” in the future due to closures of observatories and telescopes during 2020 and 2021.

Becky will be working a week of night shifts from home as she is having to do an observing trip to the Issac Newton Telescope in La Palma remotely. Overall though, Becky was optimistic about the use of the archival data and adaptions by the research community, “We are trucking on!”

While lockdown may be having a limiting impact on astrophysics research, there are developments underway that are helping to make it better and more inclusive at the same time. The Women in STEM movement attempts to enable a greater number of women to enter into scientific fields. I asked Becky about her opinions on this movement, as a successful woman in STEM herself. “The Women in STEM movement is fantastic, we can only benefit from evening out gender and racial biases across science, society and in everything. We will all benefit from having more diverse voices in the room.

“As more technology is designed for humanity, you want that to be designed not just for the white man.” Although she has not felt held back by her gender, that doesn’t mean that oppression doesn’t mean that oppression doesn’t exist elsewhere.

We can only benefit from evening out gender and racial biases across science

Becky went on to illustrate why she feels that astrophysics is a welcoming field, describing astronomy as “the science of the sky which is available to everyone in the world. It is often the most affluent areas which are the ones that don’t have a view of the sky because of light pollution. I think it is one of those things that, because it is available to everyone, people approach the field as a collaborative, worldwide kind of thing. I have always felt that it was very welcoming. It is a fantastic field to work in and I am having a great time. I would convince anyone who is considering it to give it a go.”

In University Challenge “the lights are on you, Paxman is staring at you and you forget everything

As a Durham alumna, Becky talked fondly of her time at the University. “I have some great memories observing near-earth asteroids with telescopes on the roof of the physics building and also observing the sun with telescopes that have a special filter where they have built the new physics building now.”

Becky attended St Aidan’s College, which she proudly described as the “King of the Hill”, adding that you get very fit on the stairs and that the bar has the best view in Durham. She was Social Rep for the JCR and organised the summer ball in her third year. She recalled fun times in Klute, Jimmy Allens and on the Prince Bishops boat, as well as eating lots of cake in the cafes in town!

As an alumna, Becky was asked to be on the Christmas Special University Challenge team. She described the experience, saying, “It was pretty scary, the lights are on you, Paxman is staring at you and you forget everything you ever thought you knew. It’s weird, your brain does weird things in the studio. For a lot of the questions, I only heard like the first half of the question and I got so hung up on certain things that I didn’t hear the clue that I might have actually got the answer with! But yes, proudest moment of my life was getting frozen in about 2 seconds.”

In the future, Becky hopes to continue with her research and hopefully to go on to become a professor. She intends to keep making videos on her Youtube channel and could not give comment on future books. If you are interested in accessing Becky’s channel it can be found on YouTube by searching for Dr Becky and her book is currently available in all major book stores or to purchase online.

Photo: Angel Li

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