Rachael Funnell is a London-based Social Editor and Staff Writer for IFLScience with a nose for novelty animal stories. Having studied Zoology at the University of Southampton, UK, she is well versed in discussing the wonders of the natural world – from Mesozoic-era Ichthyosaurs with eyes the size of dinner plates to the bizarre mating rituals of Papua New Guinea's birds of paradise. Science communication was something Rachael always had her sights set on, but as she explains, the road to success is paved with unexpected detours.
What do you do?
I am Social Editor and Staff Writer for IFLScience, which is made up of a delightful team of knowledgeable nerds whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for just over a year. I mainly head up the Plants & Animals section covering breaking wildlife news and discoveries, which involves talking to researchers from across the globe, many of which are experts in their field. Sometimes I dip my toe into other areas of science, so having a team of writers and editors with a wide range of academic backgrounds is a great resource to lean on. I also run our Evolution Facebook page and lend a hand in editing posts and scripts for our social media platforms.
How did you get here?
I was always one of those children who’d appear panting at your feet with a grubby face and lots of questions about frogs, and I guess the curiosity never left me. I had a fleeting pre-life crisis at college when I became convinced I needed to embark on a “serious career”, so chose law. Luckily, a pivotal college trip to observe Crown Court proceedings quickly convinced me I would completely hate it. Instead, I made the sensible decision to embrace my love of frogs and do a degree in Zoology at the University of Southampton, UK.
The course was a dream, with lectures on campus and at Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre studying paleontology, marine biology, animal behavior, human origins, and much more. We got to go to Andalucía in Spain where we were set loose to identify anything we could get our hands on which included funnel-web spiders, scorpions, and one of the biggest, angriest centipedes I’ve ever seen. I was also fortunate enough to do my dissertation on primates in the Amazon rainforest with Operation Wallacea, which remains one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I raised funds for the trip by doing talks at schools and colleges on careers in science (in exchange for a donation) and hassling PRs who kindly sent me products to use as raffle prizes. Though the experience was a great one, it taught me that I wasn’t cut out for life in the field spending months away from my friends and family. I was also a terrible lab worker (I can barely follow recipes) so I looked for a career in science without so much science and landed on journalism.
Trying to make it as a writer in London (or probably anywhere) is hard, and so the journey to my dream career was pretty random as a result. I took the first paid (albeit poorly) internship that would accept me, and over four years worked my way through titles covering beauty, gardening, interiors, and art until finding my way to IFLScience. I put a lot of effort into my freelance career so that even though my 9-5 wasn’t sciencey, I still had one foot stubbornly planted in the door. It meant a lot of weeknights and weekends sending pitches that never got a reply, and trading the pub for staying up late to write a piece on Partula snails, but it was one hundred percent worth it to finally work my way into science writing.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
Some days start with a telephone call to someone who’s overseeing the identification of a “very large blob” that washed ashore in Wales. Other days I get to cover world-first discoveries about absurd animals, like electric eels who hunt in packs or the fact that slugs can travel like spiders now. I get paid to read articles about the natural world that I wanted to read anyway, and writing ridiculous headlines like “Woman Receives Bear Bite To The Bare Behind In Alaskan Outhouse Nightmare” earns me praise instead of punishment.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
Hard to say but maybe that after reading so many studies the novelty eventually wears off? It’s been over a year and I can assure you it doesn’t. Just this morning during our daily editorial meeting our Senior Copy Editor Katy told us about a study on why people self-medicate with Kambô, a slime from Amazonian Giant Maki frogs, where 40 percent of people surveyed said they felt a spiritual connection to the frog and I almost fell off my chair. I will never tire of this.
Funniest moment on the job?
One of my earliest editorial jobs was in beauty – something I know nothing about – and during London Fashion Week I got press passes for the shows so I could go backstage and interview the makeup artists. I was waiting for a show at Somerset House when I joined what I thought was a queue for journalists. I remember thinking some of the organizers were being surprisingly rude considering we were press, but when a new friend I’d made started talking about her 17th birthday I realized that I – a then-24-year-old writer – had joined a queue of student volunteers.
I explained my slip up much to the horror of the staff, who in their haste put me in the right place left me alone in a room where instead of speaking to the makeup artist I found myself sat opposite the lead designer. I didn’t know what their name was or even which brand they came from and had to improvise the entire interview as if I had the slightest clue what was going on.
Hairiest moment on the job?
I joined IFLScience at the dawn of a pandemic, so beyond adopting the posture of a cave troll there’s been little opportunity for peril. In my pursuit of this career, I expect it would have to be the time I and some researchers tried to cross an underwater log bridge in the Amazon. The walkway was to stop you from falling into the full depth of the water which was home to caimans and anacondas – not so easy to navigate while carrying expensive cameras and soft, edible bodies.
At probably the most precarious moment of the crossing, some unidentified creature started thrashing about all around us like in that trash compactor scene in Star Wars. Just as I was about to sacrifice my camera and swim away, an enormous caiman lizard – a perfectly harmless reptile – burst onto the bank. I know you’re not supposed to anthropomorphize animals, but I still think it was messing with us on purpose.
What do you never leave the house without?
I know it’s such a writer cliché, but I have a tattered green notebook which I take with me absolutely everywhere. I got my first one a long time ago when I wasn’t very happy, and for three years it carried the burden of all my To-Do Lists, holiday plans, (highly inaccurate) budgets, successes, and many failures. By the time I’d scrawled on the last ragged empty page, I found myself in a much better place, so I bought another and the tradition has carried on.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Sometimes the shortest distance between you and your dream job isn’t a straight line. If you have to step off-piste from time to time to get the experience that will make you stand out in the next application, it’s a detour worth taking. I always wanted to write funny articles about science, but I knew I wasn’t going to get that job fresh out of Uni. Instead, I saw every job as the next rung on the ladder to where I was going. Jobs I never wanted saw me covering everything from the Chelsea Flower Show to London Fashion Week and a boat race across the Atlantic, all the while feeling about as out of place as Hugh Grant in that Notting Hill Horse & Hound interview scene. It wasn't the route I wanted to take but I learned a hell of a lot along the way.