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Super Senses: Patrick Aryee (BSc 2007)

Kat O'Dwyer

1 December 2014

In 2014, Patrick presented his first BBC wildlife documentary, Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals. We spoke to him about his journey into presenting, and what it was like to film in some of the world’s most remote locations.

My passion for science started in primary school. I vividly remember an experiment to extract DNA from onions during after-school science club, and I was totally hooked on Tomorrow’s World – it was one of the few TV programmes my parents wouldn’t chastise me for watching. I always thought I’d become a lab technician; I wanted to make groundbreaking discoveries.

When it came to choosing a degree, I thought about medicine, but was more excited by cellular and molecular biology. Bristol’s Cancer Biology course looked incredible, and one of my friends from school had recommended the University to me. Bristol’s a great city too; it’s a real mixing pot of different cultures.

I love interacting with people, and university is a great place for learning not only social skills, but life skills too. I guess I was an average student: I wanted to have fun, and was excited to be in a different city, but I also wanted to progress in my career at the same time. I certainly got stuck in as much as I could. I particularly loved choreographing the FUZE dance show. Rehearsing over the winter was perfect for getting through the miserable weather; some of the guys I danced with are among my closest friends today.

Academically, I just loved learning about science. One of the lectures that sticks with me was by Dr Keith Brown. He talked about how some cancers are caused by viruses – in particular, cervical cancer (HPV) – and how it was possible to develop vaccines to combat these viruses. I was inspired to learn how scientists have such an impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Just a few years later, the HPV vaccination programme was rolled out nationally – and I’d heard about it in my lectures first!

At the end of my third year, I started to panic. I no longer wanted to work in a lab, and needed to find something else I loved doing. At Bristol, I realised that the key to science is how you communicate research to the public. I wanted to help people unlock a door they previously thought was locked, so decided to try science writing and ultimately, TV presenting instead.

My first couple of jobs in London gave me great experience, but I didn’t feel like I was making much of a difference. I applied for a technical job at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, and was selected from more than 300 candidates. For five years, I worked as part of a team who made amazing programmes, including Springwatch, Frozen Planet and Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild

In my spare time, I put myself forward for any opportunity to present. I even submitted a video to host the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards in Europe, and made it as far as the final three. At the BBC, during my lunch hour, I recorded Zoo La La for the BBC YouTube channel, Earth Unplugged. People began to realise how much I wanted to be in front of the camera, and what I could offer.

I loved every minute of Super Senses, and feel incredibly privileged to be adding my own chapter to the body of work created by Sir David Attenborough (Hon LLD 1977) and countless others. The series featured animals that people may have thought they were already familiar with – birds of prey, cheetahs and bees – but, by including an extra level of science, we were able to present them in a fresh light.

I have two driving forces: taking the laboratory into the wild, and making people at home feel the same exciting emotions I experience. After a hard day’s work, I want to transport people to a remote location (whether that’s the Welsh Highlands or the jungles of Borneo) through stunning visuals and captivating science.

I had goosebumps all over my arms when we were filming rattlesnakes in Colorado – on a hot day, they move like lightening through the grass. And though I thought I had the skunk under control when I picked it up by its tail and turned its scent glands away from me, I couldn’t believe it when it whipped its behind around towards my face – the pungent musk went all over my forehead, straight up my nose and into my mouth. Imagine a combination of really strong garlic and burning rubber – for about two weeks!

Filming can be stressful. You have to be able to step back – when you’re relaxed, you’ll be more creative and that will come across on screen. Having a good team makes all the difference. In Super Senses, we felt like one big family. I’m so proud of the final result.

I’m always thinking about new concepts, and now I’m in a position where I can develop my own ideas. It’s been a long hard slog to get here, and I have had to make sacrifices, but the experience has been incredible – I’ve had so many breathtaking moments.

I’ve recently been talking to PhD students and academics at Bristol University – they’re working on some really cool stuff. When I find exciting stories I believe in, I want to share them with audiences at home. I’ve a few ideas I want to push. Let’s just say watch this space.

Patrick is currently filming Cats: The Amazing Animal Family, a programme about the evolutionary history of felines that will air on Sky One next year. He will also appear on the BBC’s The One Show in the New Year. For more information on Patrick, pictures and videos, visit the BBC website.