The PhD student aiming to become next natural history star of the Bee-Bee-C

Life Sciences PhD student Gigi Hennessy is bidding to become the next David Attenborough.

A University of Sussex PhD student is bidding to become the new David Attenborough.

Gigi Henessy has entered the BBC Earth Presenter Search 2018, which the corporation has launched to find a fresh new presenter who offers a different perspective on all things natural history and science.

The 24-year-old filmed a 60-second clip as an audition video in her local supermarket, on the University of Sussex campus and among the wildflowers of Brighton’s Preston Park to explain why bees are so amazing and why we might not know them as well as we think we do.

If successful, Gigi will get the opportunity to front a four-part YouTube series and potentially start a new career as a natural history presenter for the BBC.

Gigi, who is studying bee behaviour and conservation in the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex, said: “It would obviously be fantastic if I won but it would not be the end of the world if I never became a TV presenter because I love what I’m doing right now with my research. But it’s always important to keep your options open and try new challenges.”

The winner of the BBC competition will be given the opportunity to do filming with whales in the Artic but, for her audition video, Gigi chose to film in the slightly less exotic surroundings of her local supermarket.

She said: “I was filming with my boyfriend in the Sainsbury’s in Lewes Road and there were lots of people about. My first attempts didn’t really work because I was too quiet because I didn’t want anybody to hear me, but in the end I didn’t really care because I just wanted to get a good take done.

"People think they know a lot about bees but then they can be really surprised when you tell them all about the different species that there are in the UK and all their different behaviours.”

At 24, Gigi would be two years younger than Sir David was when he recorded his first programme for the BBC – a ten-minute documentary on the rediscovery of a deep-sea fish called the coelacanth which, until the mid-20th century, had been thought to have died out with the dinosaurs.

Gigi said: “When I did my undergraduate zoology course, I think almost everyone on the course was inspired to be there because of Sir David Attenborough in some shape or another. I watched all his shows growing up.

The episode that I really remembered was a piece on the shingleback skink in 'Life in Cold Blood'. The lizard has a tail like its head, the females give birth to young about a third of their own bodyweight - which sounds excruciating - and they mate for life, which can be up to 30 years. I still really remember the show even now.”

Gigi would love to get into TV to share her passion for science and research to as wide an audience as possible. She already shares her knowledge far beyond the green limits of the University of Sussex campus, regularly giving up her weekends to attend outreach events across the county.

In just the past few months she has

  • at Soapbox Science on Brighton seafront, explained how bees cope with high winds;
  • at the South of England Show, described how some bees don’t have a hive mind but live very solitary lives;
  • shone the light on the mysteries of the waggle dance to visitors to the Sussex Community Festival;
  • and taught school pupils how pollinating different plants affects the taste of honey at an event at Wakehurst Place.

She said: “It’s really important that scientists don’t just hide away in our labs or offices. Even when we publish our research in a journal, it’s only likely to be read by a few scientists working in a similar field. You can’t just wait for change to happen. Look at the impact of 'Planet Earth II' on the issue of plastic in our oceans. It was backed up by research but, because television has such a huge reach, it has been able to bring about significant change in a very short amount of time.”

With experts under attack and even in politics and the media and with universally acknowledge scientific truths such as the shape of the earth seemingly still up for debate in some corners of the web, Gigi believes it’s vital for science communicators to really know their subject.

She said: “I think it’s really important for science presenters to have that science and research background so you can really understand what you are talking about to camera, to have experience about how the science works and to explain that to a wider audience. I sometimes listen to science stories on the radio and there’s people putting forward arguments based on emotion and I just want them to stop and just talk about the facts.

"I think it’s dangerous to go down that path where we’re saying we no longer need experts, because we do need them probably now more than ever.”

Watch Gigi’s audition video

By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Monday, 6 August 2018