Alice Roberts: Natural communicator

Professor Alice Roberts

She’s an anatomist, author, academic and broadcaster, and yet somehow Professor Alice Roberts still finds time to sit on the BHF Council. Katherine Bletcher talks to her about why science is vital to us all.

It’s not often that I feel nervous about interviewing someone. However, I’d like to think that even the most hard-nosed hacks would feel a flutter when faced with a CV like that of Professor Alice Roberts.

After studying medicine, Professor Roberts worked as a junior doctor in South Wales, and then taught anatomy at Bristol University while working towards a PhD in palaeopathology (the study of disease in ancient human remains).

Her interest in human bones landed her a role on Channel 4’s Time Team, where her obvious passion and expertise for science, medicine and anthropology blossomed into a television career that has included Coast, Don’t Die Young, Wild Swimming and Horizon. As if that wasn’t enough, she has written several popular science books, is an accomplished artist and holds several academic and advisory posts, including Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham.

So you can imagine that it was with some trepidation that I sat on a misty seafront near Bristol, waiting for her to arrive. Would she refuse to be interviewed because I didn’t know the difference between palaeopathology and palaeontology? Would she laugh at me because I thought the Pleistocene was something you moulded animals out of (it’s the Ice Age, by the way)?

I think that there’s a moral obligation on scientists to talk about their research and to communicate with the public

Needless to say, she does neither of these things, nor could she be more different from how I imagined. She pulls up in a VW camper van, questions her own parking, and jumps down to join us in berating the unpredictability of the British weather.

She is warm and funny and it is immediately clear why she has been so successful at making science accessible to the masses. As we walk down to the beach to start the photo shoot, I ask what made her want to take it out of the classroom and laboratory and into our living rooms.

“I’ve always been interested in talking to the public. Throughout my career I’ve done talks for schools and general audiences and, more recently, television, which is a fantastic way of reaching out to lots of people. I think that there’s a moral obligation on scientists to talk about their research and to communicate with the public.

"An awful lot of science in this country is publicly funded, whether that’s through government agencies or charities like the BHF – it’s people’s money being spent. The public needs to be more involved in determining the direction that science is going in because, at the end of the day, science is so important to our society.

"It’s not just health but everything – energy choices, how we’re tackling climate change, all these really big issues we’re facing. The solution’s undoubtedly going to come largely from science and technology, so it’s essential that we’re all involved in that process and that decision making.”

Bringing science to life

Professor Alice RobertsWhile talking, we’ve been clambering over rocks taking photos – Professor Roberts making easy work of them in her impressive outdoor boots. The horizon is foggy and iron-grey, and it’s impossible to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins.

But, despite the inclement weather and a heavy cold, Professor Roberts poses for photos like a pro, and manages at the same time to distract us from the chill with tales of her trip to the La Brea tar pits in LA to look at animal bones, Neanderthals with red hair, and the woolly mammoths that once roamed Britain. Engaging people  with science obviously comes naturally to her, but what about her fellow academics?

“I think there needs to be a culture change because the idea’s still floating around that it’s not necessarily part of an academic’s job to engage with a wider public.

"It’s seen as an add-on rather than part of their core job, and we need to tackle that. There are plenty of academics who feel it is part of their job but they’re not necessarily supported by their institutions, and part of my role at Birmingham University is to develop initiatives to change this. It’s still quite common to find institutional resistance to this. Some people feel that it’s somehow frivolous, that it shouldn’t be part of what it is to be an academic. They think you’ve got to seal yourself away and get on with your ‘proper’ work. This is proper work! There has to be room for getting this dialogue going with the public.”

How Alice keeps healthy

I love being outside, particularly walking on the coast. There’s something fantastic about the sea roaring beside you as you stroll. I refuse to use labour-saving devices like lifts. If everyone did that I think it would have a really big impact on our lives.

I love cycling, not just for the health benefits but also because you’re reducing emissions by not using a car.

Changing lives through science

It’s science that is actually changing people’s lives and has reduced the amount of people dying from heart disease

It was this passion for making science more inclusive that led her to take up her position on the BHF Council. It’s the Council’s job to keep abreast of the projects we fund, and it guides us so that we spend your money wisely. It also helps us think of innovative ways that we could be working to reduce the risk of heart disease and to support people once they’ve got it.

“I was delighted to be asked to be a part of this fantastic charity,” Professor Roberts enthuses, “because the research projects we fund are so exciting. They’re at the cutting edge. We spend more than £100 million a year on research, which is quite amazing and, if you look back on projects we’ve funded in the past, you can see that they’ve had a real effect. It’s science that is actually changing people’s lives and has reduced the amount of people getting – and dying from – heart disease, which is obviously what the BHF is all about.”

Professor Alice RobertsNot surprisingly, some of the research that Professor Roberts is particularly excited about is the regenerative research that is being funded through our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal.

“The potential of using stem cells so the heart can heal itself offers us this immense hope that we’ll be able to do something we’ve never done before. At the moment, if the heart is damaged that’s it, so this really is an incredible area of medicine that holds a lot of promise.

“However, we’re still quite a long way off. It’s different from the way it’s reported in the media. People might expect from what they’ve heard that we’ll be able to mend organs in the next few years but we’re not that close. We need to know a lot more about the basics of how the heart works and its development. Rushing in and using stem cells as therapy before we really understand what we’re getting ourselves into would be a huge mistake. So we need to put a lot of energy, time and money into this research.

The potential of using stem cells so the heart can heal itself offers us this immense hope

“But we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. There’s a tendency to be quite fatalistic about heart disease, but there’s an awful lot we can do to reduce our risk of getting it and add years to our lives. It’s very important for us to tackle it in all sorts of ways, and it’s up to the Council to make sure that the BHF’s doing that. We want all that donated money to be spent on the whole spectrum of support.”

As she speeds off in her van to teach a postgraduate anatomy class, I can’t help thinking that your money’s in very safe hands.

Find out more at alice-roberts.co.uk

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