Broadcaster and Biologist Ben Garrod

Creative Lives With Biologist & Broadcaster Ben Garrod

Broadcaster and Biologist Ben Garrod

Welcome to Creative Lives, a feature where I shine the spotlight on the talented guys and gals who are creative pioneers in their respective industries.

This month, I’m speaking to Ben Garrod, biologist, broadcaster and star of his very own educational theatre show for kids, So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs: an interactive, fun-filled show designed show kids how wacky and wild dinosaurs really were! Launching on a nationwide tour from Feb 3, this is not to be missed and I can’t wait to take my own two sons, Oliver and Xander.

Ben started his journey into the marvels of all things prehistoric back at university, garnering a BSc in animal behaviour from Anglia Ruskin University; an MSC in Wild Animal Biology from the Royal Veterinary College and also a PHD. His broadcasting career began with his 2014 award winning BBC Four series Secrets of Bones. He then went on to present Attenborough and the Great Dinosaur with the legend that is Sir David Attenborough, on BBC One.

Over to Ben…

How did you pursue and achieve your dream job/life?

I honestly just went with what made me happy. I wanted to be a doctor when I was growing up, took all the right A-levels and even got work experience in a hospital but one day I went home and I’d lost the drive for it. My mum sat me down and asked what it was that I wanted to do. I remember saying I don’t know, I’d lost my plan. She said what’s your passion and I said ‘medicine’. She replied that that was my career option – and asked again what my passion was. When I replied that it was wildlife and the natural world, she told me to find a career in that field (so to speak) that I was so passionate about that most mornings, I would be excited for the day ahead. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

There wasn’t a grand plan – I just followed what made me happy – and it’s led me to living in an African forest and working with wild chimpanzees for Jane Goodall for several years, to the Arctic to work with polar bears and walruses and even to Argentina to help dig up the world’s biggest dinosaur. 

Along the way, I’ve done my degree, Masters and PhD in order to move on and achieve the next thing that would make me happy and get me smiling in the morning. Sometimes, it’s good to have a loose plan rather than something set in stone, there are a lot more adventures that way.

What are the advantages to working in the field you do?

Quite simply, it makes me happy. Obviously, there are other advantages too and they’re all very important. I’m a Teaching Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and love the opportunity to teach and engage with students. I think it’s so important to be able to help the next generation of scientists and naturalists come through.

My work also has the benefit of having a massive outreach – Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (a BBC1 documentary I helped present alongside Sir David) was seen by over 10 million people – who knows how many kids that could have helped inspire and set on a course for the future. Finally, my work has more practical effects, too. My conservation work has obviously led to the protection and safety of rare and angered species around the world and in my role as a broadcaster, I have worked to help make science both more mainstream and more accessible to more people.

There are a fair few disadvantages too – I’ve been chased and bitten and stung by more species than I can recall: from boa constrictors in Madagascar and scorpions in Uganda to a particularly hungry polar bear in the Arctic. I’ve broken bones, contracted diseases and has some very close calls all in my work as a biologist. But wouldn’t change a thing. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as a creative?

The big challenge is making something either very complicated or very niche as interesting and appealing as possible to an audience as broad as possible. Taking about the structural integrity of bone at a cellular level is fine but if you apply 2 tones of stress to a bone in a lab and watch it explode in slow motion, then the whole thing becomes more appealing to the audience. Making content accessible is the challenge but it’s one that most of us love to tackle, as it is great to make what we do fun and engaging.

How do you deal with the inevitable ups and downs of leading a creative life?

I don’t think it’s constrained to being a ‘creative’ – it’s the same when I’m wearing my scientist hat and for my lecturing hat. We all face ups and downs and the important thing is to remember that it’s all part of the adventure and to equip yourself with the means to cope with both extremes. I’ve gone from playing with baby orphaned chimps to cutting wire traps off an adult’s hand in a matter of hours in my role as a conservationist and it all affects you. Perspective is important and having people you care about and around you to talk to is (I think) essential. 

Can you share tips for building confidence?

Be you. No-one else. Just you. Don’t aspire to be the next David Beckham or Jane Goodall or Richard Branson or Adele. Instead, aim to be the first Jess Hansen or the first James Morley. Just be you. You’ll find that as soon as you stop worrying about trying to live up to an expectation (even your own) your confidence will rocket.

Also, accept who you are – I’m a massive geek, always have been, always will be. Some people hate that term as it has negative connotations … in my mind, accept who and what you are and turn it into a positive. 

What are your career highlights?

Working with both Jane Goodall (as a conservationist protecting wild chimps in Uganda) and David Attenborough (as we searched for the biggest dinosaurs in history) were career highlights. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever even meet them yet alone work with them.

Saving a chimp’s life was also a career highlight for me – saving a little nine year old caught in a trap. Her name was Kiiza and we had to dart her and operate in the middle of a jungle, with her family all screaming around us. She went on to make a full recovery – it was a good day.  

Who inspires you?

Apart from my obvious answers here (Jane and David), it’s people closer to home. My grandad was a huge inspiration to me as a kid. We would spend hours walking on the beach, looking for things washed up by the tide. He was an old mole catcher (what a job, hey) and when I was three, gave me a little maple paw to keep in a match box – and told me not to tell mum. She found it a few days letter when the smell set in!!!

My mum is actually my biggest inspiration – we talk every day on the phone. She’s been through so much (from cancer to a brain hemorrhage) but she’s still so happy and optimistic and strong. I know that I wouldn’t be half of what I am now without her influence and love her for that. Even now, if I’m writing a Guardian article for example, I’ll run it by her first to see what she thinks and will discuss anything and everything for her. When I head home to visit her and dad, I’ll often take her to our local city for the day. I’ll grab her arm and we walk about arm in arm – something she now worries about as she ‘doesn’t want people thinking that bloke off the tele is with that old gal’. 

We are in a world where we are bombarded with ‘inspiring celebrities’ but I think that inspiration can often be found much closer to home.

What is the greatest advice you’ve even been given?

‘It’s okay, you’ve got another one’ … this was the mantra in our house when my brother and I were growing up. Any time we’d bang our foot or cut a finger, that phrase would ring out. It may seem harsh now but it made us tougher and pretty sanguine kids.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?

I’d like a dog.

Define success

Living a happy life, not at the expense of others. I hate the thought of getting to 87 and thinking ‘bugger, I wish I’d done that’ … so my personal success also includes not missing out on things when I have the chance to grab them now.

To keep up with Ben’s adventures and for more information on his theatre shows follow him on Twitter.

Ben Garrod

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