Personal tastes and relationships have always influenced the career trajectory of Sebastián Grinschpun in unexpected ways. Born in Israel to Argentinean parents, Grinschpun (pictured left) moved to Spain at the age of 5. Both his parents belonged to the scientific world, but that had little influence on his decision to study physics at university. What proved decisive was his love of music. "My physics teacher at high school … was my neighbour and had a huge record collection," says Grinschpun. While cultivating his music knowledge--largely by borrowing his friend and mentor's records--Grinschpun also developed an interest for physics.
At university, Grinschpun and some musician friends ran a weekly 1-hour programme at a local radio station, playing recorded music and inviting bands for interviews. "They didn't pay us, but we were happy," he says. A frequent topic of off-air conversation was how little science makes it into the media. One of his radio friends "always called science 'that mysterious lady' [because] every time he heard something interesting, he always thought, 'I didn’t know anything about it,' " Grinschpun recalls. He was the scientist in the crowd, so his friends asked him questions, such as “Why does the light comes in when you switch on the button?” But "I didn’t really know how the stuff works," he says. The seed was sown. Three years on, Grinschpun, now 29, is subdirector of REDES , a popular science programme broadcast every Sunday night on Spanish national TV.
Tasting the waters
Grinschpun earned a licenciatura (equivalent to an M.Sc.) in physics from the University of Barcelona in 2000. He was initiated into life in a laboratory in the final year of his degree, spending 6 months designing laser ablation experiments to make thin films of superconducting materials. He liked getting his hands dirty. "That was fun because you do it yourself. It was not on paper; it was real," he says.
"Then I met people who were doing their Ph.D.s and advisers, and all gave me a very dark perspective," he says. "What I really wanted was a clear path"--and that, he sensed, was something academia couldn't offer.
So Grinschpun followed the example of a friend who had found an information technology job at a consulting firm. "I began to know how scientists can apply their knowledge in a place other than in a lab," he says. Grinschpun joined the IT department of PriceWaterhouseCoopers that same year, designing large databases of economic and finance data for clients such as British Gas and teaching them how to use the databases in their businesses.
"My IT knowledge back at that time was not very good," he says, but he soon picked up the skills he needed. Importantly, he learned how to work with others. "It is a tough job, but you learn all the time--about technology, how projects are managed, how teams work, what is a business process," he says. But eventually the long hours and pressure took a toll on his enthusiasm. "I really ended up burnt out," he says. He quit in 2004 and spent half a year with his family in Argentina. "Sometimes you have to take some time off and think about what you are doing," he says.
Finding his way to the screen
Grinschpun was a regular viewer of REDES, the Spanish TV show. In search of a new direction, he decided to give broadcasting a go. He extended his radio experience by collaborating with friends on videos for local TV, and he got in touch with REDES. Within a couple of months, they offered him a part-time job. "I was lucky," he says.
The job, which mainly involved scheduling interviews and preparing background information for the interviewer, brought a massive cut in pay and responsibility compared to his consultancy days. But it didn’t matter. "It was a good position to start learning, both about science communication and … how to get things done in this new environment," he says. "That gave me a broad perspective on how the programme works."
After half a year, Grinschpun was asked to work full-time, and another half-year later, he got promoted to his current position of scientific editor and subdirector of the programme. Today, he leads a team of 14 people putting together a new, 1-hour episode every week. He estimates that 10% of his job is making sure that all the science presented in the programme is accurate, that a variety of topics are covered, and that the best scientists are interviewed. Another 10% is about managing the team, co-ordinating their different tasks, and making sure deadlines are met. The other 80% is spent dealing with "issues and problems."
Every couple of weeks, the team gathers for a formal hour-and-a-half brainstorming meeting where they review their current projects and discuss two new programme ideas that Grinschpun usually suggests. "I start the discussion. I motivate them," Grinschpun says. Putting together a new episode of REDES is like "building a puzzle," says Grinschpun, and tasks are allocated to make sure the programme is ready within 4 weeks. The team is always working on several episodes.
If his goal in leaving the corporate world was to escape stress and performance pressures, his career move was a failure. "Every week you are broadcasted, and every week you are praised or despised"--depending on how big the audience the programme drew. Despite the pressures and challenges, he is "really happy" with his job, and he thrives in his new environment. "He is very good," says now-retired REDES film director Juan Antonio Gamero. "He is a very clever guy, very organised, with a good knowledge of his job, and he seems more mature than his real age." Putting out a new programme on a regular basis is no mean feat, and Gamero gives much of the credit to Grinschpun. In addition to being in charge of the script and structure of the whole programme, he has "very good personal qualities to manage a team, [and has] very good relations with everybody," says Gamero.
Tips for would-be science broadcasters
In this kind of work, it helps to be what Grinschpun describes as a "paradigm shifter"--someone who is skilled at identifying topics, such as nanotechnology, that challenge common ways of thinking. And the ability to communicate scientific ideas is, of course, essential. "You have to learn how to write, [to] structure a scenario," Gamero says. Indeed, Grinschpun says science broadcasting is just another form of storytelling. "My main inspiration was reading science books written for everyone," he says. "You see how they make things interesting," how they turn science into a story. Still, television has a language of its own, in which complex ideas must be expressed in "phrases and flashes," Grinschpun says. "It’s difficult even for TV professionals to represent science on TV."
Grinschpun reckons that attending a workshop in TV technologies or reading a book on writing TV scripts might be useful--but there's no substitute for doing it yourself. "Right now, the technology to do that is extremely affordable," he says. Aspiring broadcasters should buy a video camera and use it to "explain things through images. … Put yourself in front of the camera, and see what happens."
Grinschpun says he doesn't know what he'll be doing a few years from now, but uncertainty doesn’t worry him as much as it used to. "You never know where [your passions] will lead, but they give you skills, and sometimes you just use them and they become the main path." Today he dances tango and practices tai chi. "I can’t see how these will help me in my decision," he says with a smile. "But you never know."
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.
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