"There is no better training in Australia" — Dr Niraj Lal on the ABC Top 5 Program

27 May 2020

The magic of the ABC Top 5 Program isn’t in the celebrity spotting you get to do at ABC HQ — Annabel Crabb bustling to get a coffee, Benjamin Law laconic in the lobby, Todd Sampson arriving for Gruen.

It isn’t in the cachet of getting to call yourself one of Australia’s Top 5 young researchers for the year — though in honesty, this can feel pretty damn glamorous.

No, like much of life, the magic is best found in the human connections you get to make. At the ABC these connections are with our nation’s foremost experts in the craft of storytelling; the country’s masters of communicating with clarity and intrigue and intimacy.

From the doyens of communication – in science Robyn Williams, Dr Karl, Natasha Mitchell, Bernie Hobbs to the stars of tomorrow (even more so than they are today): Jonathan Webb, Olivia Willis, Carl Smith, Genelle Weule.

Being around these guys is like witnessing bi-carb fizz with creaming soda and absorbing some of the sparkle through osmosis.

Dr Niraj Lal recording songs for ABC Education

Dr Niraj Lal recording songs for ABC Education

For me, the residency was a freaking blast — two weeks on the ABC’s A-List in the heart of Sydney with fellow Top5-ers (many of which I’m still mates with today) — but the outcomes have been bloody useful too.

Any post-doc knows the struggle of obtaining tenure: less than 0.5% of all PhD graduates in the UK become a professor, and in Australia the numbers aren’t too different. The competition for research grants is ridiculously fierce and will become even more so in a post-COVID world.

Any gong that sets you apart and any skill that helps you communicate your research can work wonders.

It sure did for me — being guided in the art of crafting science news helped my journal publication on butterfly-inspired nanophotonic structures receive worldwide attention; across China Daily and Physics World, at home on TV News and national print media, and widespread on socials.

This all somehow later resulted in an invitation from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to apply for commercialisation funding. Beyond amplification, simply being awarded the gig helped me win research funding and university kudos; the lessons of communicating via spoken word and written word are still serving me nearly every moment of my day job.

If communicating more broadly is your schtick, there is no better training in Australia — and no better place to be given opportunities to go ballistic.

During the Top5 Residency I recorded kids science songs on guitar for ABC Education, produced a research piece for RN on the Dangers of Electronic Voting, was interviewed for ABC Life Matters on my life-story (?!), broadcast a letter to honours students considering a PhD, wrote an ABC Online news piece on solar cells which is still being referenced today, filmed videos for Facebook which made my extended family think I was cool, and got to broadcast my children’s story “Henry the Flying Emu” aloud on the Science Show.

Dr Niraj Lai speaking at TEDxSydney

Dr Niraj Lal speaking at the TEDxSydney Sustainability Salon

All this later led to me being a guest physicist for Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line series for ABC TV, an expert scientist for Dr Karl’s Outrageous Acts of Science on the Discovery Channel, and a guest on Foxtel’s Aussie Inventions that Changed the World.

These appearances got me invites to speak for TEDxSydney, Splendour in the Grass and the Singularity Summit, and landed me a bunch of lead roles in the media — recording 17 episodes for the ABC Sciencey program on iView, filming a TV special for Catalyst (!!!) on ‘Building Greener Cities’ that aired on ABC1 last week, and most recently becoming the host of the wonderful children’s podcast ‘Imagine This’ for ABC Kids Listen.

I can’t speak more highly of the program. It’s just the best. Any postdoc in Australia reading this should apply right now. If you’ve already applied and were unsuccessful, apply again – I did and it worked (likely due to a sympathy vote, but I’ll take it..!).

Stop reading the internets now and click this link — you’d be a goose not to.

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/top5/

Entries close 1 June 2020.

The 2020 Top 5 Program is a partnership of the ANU and the ABC, with science communication expertise from the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS)

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Dr Niraj Lal is a Visiting Fellow ANU Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems, and was in the ABC Top5 Scientist program in 2016.