Dr Chris Smith

Public engagement with science is top of Dr Chris Smith's agenda. His trailblazing approach to making scientific issues interesting, interactive and informative to the general public has gained recognition within the University of Cambridge and beyond.

Life is not a rehearsal.

Dr Chris Smith

Public engagement with science is top of Dr Chris Smith’s agenda. His trailblazing approach to making scientific issues interesting, interactive and informative to the general public has gained recognition within the University of Cambridge and beyond.

Juggling his full-time role as a clinical virologist based in the University’s Department of Pathology, Dr Smith is the founder of The Naked Scientists(www.thenakedscientists.com), a media-savvy group of physicians and researchers from the University who use radio, live lectures and the internet to strip science down to its bare essentials, and promote it to the general public. Their award-winning BBC weekly radio programme reaches a potential audience of six million listeners across the east of England, and also has an international following on the web. In addition to the radio show, the group has organised Naked Science at Borders, a public lecture series enabling the community to attend informative presentations given by some of the UK’s most celebrated scientists.

As a recent winner of the Biosciences Federation Science Communication Award, Dr Smith’s vision ‘is to help people enjoy science as much as we do and, at the same time, to have fun.’

Dr Smith’s work with The Naked Scientists is well supported by the research sponsors, including a £400K grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for public engagement.

It’s said you always remember a good teacher. Who helped to set you on your academic career path?

When I was at school I had a fantastic chemistry teacher, Mr Pockley, and biology teacher, Mr Lawrence. There you go – I can immediately remember the two people who really set me in the direction of science. They were brilliant because they were encouraging, positive and enthusiastic. Most importantly, when you asked hard questions they didn’t say ‘You don’t need to know that’, they gave you the answer. I think that’s the key because if you’re a curious kid and you get used to having your appetite assuaged then you continue to build on the desire to have more knowledge.

What would others be surprised to learn about you?

Despite appearing very confident on the outside, I am wracked with insecurity all the time. What I mean by that is I’m a worrier. I actually think it’s very useful to be a worrier because you can anticipate what might go wrong and how to get around problems before they arise. It means you can steer a path through obstacles but it does make for a few sleepless nights!

Who or what inspires you?

Brilliant scientists who work really hard, make amazing discoveries and have a good sense of humour at the same time inspire me. The best lectures and talks I have attended are those given by speakers who are not only engaging but also funny. The ability to capture an audience’s attention and hold them in the palm of your hand is inspiring. This is a quality I’ve always striven to emulate – I don’t think I’m quite there yet. A sign that someone really knows their subject is if they can have fun with it at the same time as educating and entertaining people.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

A very good friend of mine said to me ‘You’re only on this planet once. Life is not a rehearsal.’ Up until then I’d been a ‘try-and-do-everything’ kind of person. I realised that life is too short and that you have to pick and choose a bit. I was finding that decision quite hard to embrace but this advice made me realise that you have to think of yourself rather than what others want you to do, say or believe all the time. That’s when I began to really branch out and do things to make myself and the people I care about happy rather than do what everyone expected me to.

If you could wake up tomorrow with a new skill, what would it be?

To clone myself so there would be enough of me to do all the things that I’d like to achieve. If I could clone myself, I’d also probably win a Nobel Prize, which has its benefits too!

What motivates you to go to work each day?

Quite simply, I love what I do. I’m happy to stay here all night if I have to. I’m very creative and I love making something tangible and real – something to show for what I’ve done. When our radio programme comes together, I know that I’ve done the best job I can, and the number of downloads show that people enjoy it – that’s what does it for me.

What will the future look like in 2050?

I think we’ve probably enjoyed a golden age up until now. We had almost limitless energy in terms of fuels and been relatively free from the terror threat that is looming today. I also think the population has been smaller so the Earth’s had a few more resources to go around. But by 2050 we will have probably reached crunch point and I think the world will be a very restricted place. People will think they are free but in actual fact, we’ll be tied up in bureaucracy, everyone will have an ID tag and people will probably be exterminated for living too long! I think the world is better now than it will be then – I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.


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