No, it wasn’t the first time. A few years ago I did some work regarding legal highs and Capital Radio contacted me. They’d also been collecting some of the drugs available and wanted me to do an analysis of the ones they had versus the ones I’d been studying. That was the first thing I ever did for the media and after that, I did get a few more requests but to be honest, I didn't really have the confidence to do it at the time.
What gave you that confidence this time?
After the legal highs work, my university press office had got in touch with me because some things had come up about nitrous oxide, but I told them I had a face for radio and that I didn't want to do it. I said, ‘if you give me training, I'll do it’, thinking that they never would, but that backfired on me a bit because they called my bluff!
An external journalist called Neil McNeil came in to the university and trained four of us to do radio and TV interviews and it was brilliant.
So I did the training and then the nerve agent story came up. A friend was called for an interview with BBC Radio Newcastle – he was talking about the espionage side of things – and they asked him about the toxicology and he said ‘I can put you in touch with somebody’, and it just went from there.
How did you feel about that first interview?
It was quite exciting because you know the chemistry but you have to work out how to explain it to people who don’t necessarily have a scientific background, while still getting across exactly what you want to say – it was interesting. By the time I'd come back from doing the BBC phone call, people had contacted the university and wanted to do TV interviews and so that was essentially the whole day. It was International Women's Day – which I thought was quite apt. It was a good day to be a woman in science. Obviously it was sad in a way because these people are really ill, but I was given the opportunity to be the expert that was talking about the toxicology. The more I did it, the more confident I became about it.
I ended up doing interviews for a lot of different outlets: radio, TV, print news. I even did an over the phone interview in French – that was a good day. They started talking to me in English and then I said ‘oh, I can speak some French’ and then that was it! That really gave my confidence a boost.
That’s fantastic! Where did you learn to speak French?
After my Masters in forensic science, I moved to Paris to work in the toxicology department of the criminal research institute for the National Gendarmerie – one of the national police forces in France.
I could speak a bit of French before but it was useless to me. It was things like 'where's the Notre Dame' or 'I'd like to order chicken and chips please'. It didn't set me up for being able to discuss chemistry in French. At that point, the internet wasn't really a big thing and the websites you could access were limited because it was a military organisation. The hardest part was reading manuals for an LC-MS in French and trying to figure out what the English equivalent for the French was. I would also point at a vial or a cap, and I would ask in French 'what is this in French?' That was funny – challenging but funny. I still have collaborations with the people that I worked with so I’m able to keep the language up.