Talitha Smith, Communications Officer
Talitha has been with DPAG since late October 2018, and her primary responsibility is to support the department's staff and students in communicating their work and achievements to a variety of audiences. Prior to this, she worked briefly in the University's Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach office after coming to Communications from an eight year career in Broadcast Television. Interview on Tuesday 28 May 2019.
How did you come to work in Communications?
After University I took a Broadcast Journalism Diploma. I've always been interested in telling people's stories and my thought process was that being a news journalist was the best way to do this professionally. I ended up enjoying longer form media content and decided to pursue a television career, falling into a Production Assistant job at the BBC. I then worked as a Researcher and later an Assistant Producer on all kinds of Factual TV shows, from BBC Three documentary “Bangkok Airport”, to daytime staples like “Escape to the Country”, to art competition series “Landscape Artist of the Year.” It was a lot of fun, but ultimately the freelance lifestyle wasn’t going to suit me forever. After brainstorming with friends, it didn’t take long to figure out that working in Communications gave me another great way to tell stories and impart important information to people, but would likely offer more stability. Ironically, the first thing I did was get a short-term Communications contract, but luckily, it was in the Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach team at Oxford University which isn’t a bad place to get your foot in the door!
How did you come to work at DPAG?
I particularly enjoyed the digital communication aspect of my job at UAO, namely reviewing and updating the website to reflect the University's key admissions messages, so I hoped I could find a longer-term role at the University to expand on that. When I saw the DPAG advert I remember thinking it was such a shame I never got to work on a science show as a television Assistant Producer, but perhaps this is my chance to tell science stories as a Communications Officer. The advert also indicated a great deal of digital work, which really appealed to me. My interview went well and luckily I was offered the job.
What were your first impressions of the department?
Initially I noticed it has a very different atmosphere to UAO, where I worked in a large open plan office full of interconnected teams with a lot of hustle and bustle. Despite the fact DPAG is a large department, it seemed comparatively quiet, even peaceful, when I first started. However, it took hardly any time to realise that’s not the case at all! It’s a really dynamic department with a great deal of events and seminars, no sooner have you started promoting one then you hear about five more coming up, there is so much going on! It can be daunting when you start somewhere new, but everyone was so helpful and friendly, and I particularly appreciated being invited along to a weekly Thursday coffee morning from day one, which really helped me settle in.
What does a Communications Officer do day to day?
It can vary hugely depending on what projects are on, so I’m usually multi-tasking a variety of things. I’m ultimately responsible for sharing information with the department primarily in the form of a weekly newsletter, noticeboard posters and a newly re-launched intranet. I'm also on the Athena Swan committee and part of the newly formed Departmental Culture Working Group, and as part of that I'll be helping to come up with ideas for building our community and improving staff and student experiences here. I’m also responsible for maintaining our external website, showcasing the news and achievements of DPAG members, and of course advertising the events we put on. Because I have plenty of filming experience from my time in television, I am also gradually introducing more video opportunities, such as filming short interviews with researchers to add extra colour to a story about, for example, an exciting new publication, which I hope to build upon. Each day, I’ll have a list of ongoing tasks, such as building a new section of the website, creating a brochure or pitching one of our stories to the central press office, which will be interspersed with responding to requests to, for example, advertise a new seminar, create a new staff web profile or highlight a newly secured award in the news. I’m basically your first port of call if you’ve got something you want the department or University to know about!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy the opportunity to learn about a huge variety of science and getting to tell so many important research stories. I love the fact that one day I might be writing about a publication that demonstrates striking new evidence into the cause of a particular cardiac or neurological disease and the next I could be writing about an outreach event where researchers use virtual reality to showcase an area of development and cell biology to the public. It’s even better when I get the opportunity to make a short video to further showcase a great research story, so fingers crossed more and more researchers will approach me when they’ve got a publication they’re particularly proud of.
I also really enjoy meeting and interviewing professional support staff across a whole spectrum of roles for these profiles - it's been fascinating to see behind the scenes of the Facilities, HR and IT Services teams, and also life as a research team's PA - people often don't realise just how interesting they are! I've decided I need to put the shoe on the other foot and actually do one of these myself, hopefully this will encourage others to come forward in future!
What's been your highlight so far?
For International Women’s Day this year, we put together a multimedia celebration of the women in our department on the Sherrington reception video wall. The Digital Media Manager, Peter Belk, created a beautiful slideshow montage of faces, and I filmed and edited four video profiles with some fantastic volunteers designed to raise the visibility of women working across a variety of roles. It went down really well and the opportunity to get to know new people and showcase their scientific journeys to the department was really rewarding. At the first Athena Swan Departmental Culture meeting we discussed ideas to mark International Men's Day and I'm really looking forward to getting my teeth into that.
What's the most challenging part of your job?
When you’re the Communications Officer for a large department there are inherent challenges. You need to make sure everyone is informed of important updates, but with so many people across a wide range of groups it’s hard to know whether people are getting the message. The weekly newsletter is the main source of information, but not everyone has time to read it, so you have to work out what should also go on the intranet or may require a specific email, or is there another way I haven't yet thought of? It’s a tough one, so when the next Athena Swan survey is carried out, the plan is to include a few communications questions to further address this.
A second challenge is representation. In an ideal world, anyone across all levels in the department who has achieved something, be it an award, fellowship, major publication, outreach event, any kind of personal success, you name it, has their achievement highlighted on our website and newsletter. However, I’m reliant on others to tell me about these things, so I’m always conscious there may be interesting stories being missed. Highlighting a diverse range of stories demonstrates the significant contribution all DPAG members make in a myriad of ways and it’s important to capture them.
Is there anything you wish people understood about your job?
I think it boils down to making sure people know what I can do for them. For instance, some people may not be aware that they should come to me to advertise their seminars (and save them a job!) Or, if a research group website needs updating, some people may not realise I can help not only update the text but redesign the entire layout and add interesting features. There are limits to a departmental Communications Officer’s capacity, which can be frustrating when you’d love to do more, but generally in simple terms I want people to know that if there is a website, intranet, noticeboard, newsletter or video query, they should come to me and if I can’t help I can point in the direction of who can.
What do you do outside of work?
I love travel and exploring new places: I took myself off to India and Sri Lanka alone a couple of years ago. I’m also pretty outdoorsy and love to get out hiking whenever I can. I love the challenge of doing a challenging multi-day hike across mountains and valleys as it gives you the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy nature. On the other end of the leisure spectrum, I like holding board game nights with friends and recently discovered a rather unexpected affinity for Dungeons and Dragons, which turns out to be another great way to get involved in storytelling!
Is there anything that would surprise people to know about you?
I was born in Saudi Arabia and often get strange looks at passport control when travelling! I also got a black belt in karate at 13 years old, which sadly I haven’t continued, although I did dabble in kick boxing recently. Finally, I was born with a congenital heart condition called Fallot’s Tetralogy, so I take a particular interest if I promote a publication dealing with related conditions. I really enjoyed meeting with Dr Duncan Sparrow and hearing about his group’s research because looking into the cause of congenital heart defects in babies is of personal significance to me!