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Careering off course: Amanda Kear (BBC TV)

Note: this article featured on the previous Palaeontological Association website but was not part of the Careering off Course! Newsletter series; however it is now included within the series for consistency.

Dr. Amanda Kear's first career was as a research zoologist, doing a PhD on cephalopod molluscs, then a postdoc on fossil formation (taphonomy). Since 1994 she has worked for the BBC Natural History Unit in various capacities - in Information & Archives, in online (e.g. and as a programme maker. As well as being an archive specialist. She also used to tutor biology and earth science students for the Open University.


What do you do on a day to day basis?

My official job title is 'Researcher' and I work for the Natural History Unit, which is part of the Factual & Learning division, BBC. Typically I'll be assigned to a particular production and work for one or several producers and assistant producers on that production. The actual ins and outs of the job vary depending on what type of programmes are being made archive-based or specially shot (or a mixture of the two). The Natural History Unit makes a lot of archive based programmes for the American market (Discovery, Animal Planet, etc.) and BBC Worldwide. A researcher's job on these productions is finding the footage that the producer needs to edit into a finished programme, firstly by physically locating the necessary shots in the archive database and obtaining the tapes, and secondly by checking the copyright information to see if the material is clearable and how much it will cost to use if it is not BBC copyright. There might be a little information research for these programmes, but most of what I do on them is the tedious daily grind of spooling through hours of video, running about Bristol's many edit suites looking for missing tapes, and lots of paperwork to keep track of everything.

Specially-shot programmes work slightly differently. They tend to start with a development period where my job is to research the subject in depth, obtain articles and books, and talk to scientists working in that field. The objectives are to obtain the information that will provide (a) the story backbone for the programme, (b) the detail for the narration, and (c) a list of likely places to film and/or people to interview. Once the production is in full swing, there may or may not be the chance to go out on film shoots, depending on things like budget, researcher experience and skills, particular types of programme/shoots, health and safety issues, etc. For instance, I don't drive and don't have any particular desire to spend 3 months in a South American swamp, but I have had great fun building models of cephalopod mouthparts and filming them in a studio. Once lots of shooting has been done, the routine becomes much more like that of an archive programme, logging the shots, looking for the odd filler shot that is needed, keeping track of tapes for the edit and doing the paperwork.

How I got there.

I sort of ended up in television by accident never had any intention of pursuing a career in the media. I was obsessed by palaeo since I was a sprog, started a geology degree at the University of Aberdeen and then defected to the Zoology Dept because there I could do evolutionary biology without having to do mineralogy too! However, I kept the palaeo options open as both my Honours thesis and Ph.D. (also at Aberdeen) included some work on fossil cephalopods. That led to a three-year postdoc in experimental taphonomy at the Geology Dept, University of Bristol. Then the money ran out After a year of still doing the experiments and writing up the papers but failing to get another postdoc or another grant, I applied for a 6 month job in the BBC Natural History Unit's film library, mainly because it required a biology degree and was ten minute's walk from the Geology Dept, intending to keep on applying for grants whilst working there. Badly paid and tedious although it was, the film library work continued, whereas the grants never materialised. Meanwhile, I was getting a handle on how production worked, starting to submit ideas to programme brainstorming sessions, and going for internally advertised researcher posts. About three and a half years after joining the BBC I got a six-month researcher job, and have been on rolling contracts ever since.

A more obvious route for a researcher is to go straight from first degree or M.Sc. into TV, usually after doing work experience for as many companies as possible. The Natural History Unit (and I suspect the Science Dept) take on more people with Ph.D.s than other parts of the BBC do. They also take on hardly anyone with Media Studies degrees - they are after scientific expertise, not television or film expertise, as you are expected to learn that on the job.

What was your area of research and why?

My PhD was on feeding and diet in cephalopods, which was a continuation of work I had done in my BSc thesis. It was a nice combination of traditional morphological studies, some basic biomechanical analysis in live tissues, and utilising some new techniques in antibody analysis of gut contents. The former two were pure science, the latter had fisheries applications (krill in the diet of Southern Ocean squid). Plus cephalopods are such cool animals!

There was a slight shift for my postdoc - taphonomy of exceptionally preserved invertebrates. Again lots of fun morphology stuff (if somewhat smellier and slimier than normal) and bucket chemistry to establish the baseline conditions for fossilisation of soft tissue in the lab. And I got to do more work on squid, including lovely specimens from Christian Malford (Jurassic).

If you were to start over, what would you identify as THE area in which to undertake research?

To work for the Natural History Unit (NHU), someone with a PhD in vertebrate behavioural ecology probably has a slight edge over other fields (e.g. physiology) and other disciplines (e.g. botany, palaeontology). People with field skills rather than lab skills are perceived as more useful. Those that work on the furry and feathery end of the vertebrates will find more programmes made about their species.

That being said, any area of expertise can stand you in good stead because ideas and contacts are the lifeblood of television. Being the world expert on black footed ferret mating behaviour is useful in the short term, but knowing that Dr X on the floor above you was an expert on lichens, or that Prof Y you met at a conference is pioneering new techniques in extracting ancient biomolecules is what keeps you useful in the media. Knowing how to talk science to scientists, being able to pull information from papers in disciplines as diverse as physics and anthropology, and spotting a good programme or sequence idea in the scientific literature are skills that all researchers need.

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