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“One thing that used to, and still does, make my blood boil, was the comment that you’re ‘just the weather girl’.” (Article first appeared in Graduates' Review Spring 2007)

Leicester’s pioneering Geographical Information Systems (GIS) programme, part of the Department of Geography, is internationally acclaimed. Many Leicester GIS graduates occupy some of the highest profile posts in their field. Below, Sky news presenter Lukwesa Burak tells how her Leicester MSc in GIS, 1998 led to a career where she is recognised around the world and prepared her for the rigorous skills her job demands.

Leicester GIS graduate Lukwesa Burak was a popular weather and news presenter on BBC television and radio for nearly 5 years before moving to Sky Television in 2006.

At Sky she works on the world shift, broadcasting to Africa and Asia during the period when Britain is asleep, hunting out major news stories, arranging interviews and keeping up with breaking news around the world. Her ‘day’ starts at 7pm, when she leaves her Leicestershire home for London, and she is on air from midnight until 6am.

She got her first job at the BBC almost by chance. After graduating from Leicester in 1998 with an MSc in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) she had joined a Manchester-based GIS consultancy, working with London Transport in the capital city, before moving back to her home town and working at Area Traffic Control air quality projects at Leicester City Council.

She actually got her first taste for broadcasting, when someone from Leicester-based MATV (Midlands Asian TV) approached her whilst walking around Leicester on her lunch break, and asked her if she would like to do some presenting work for a couple of weeks. She took up the offer, and laughs when she thinks back to her time dashing out at lunchtime to put on her make-up, record the lunch and evening news bulletins, then rushing back to her desk at the Council. Lukwesa thought she’d got away with it, until it was announced on her last day at work, that the heavily applied make-up kind of gave the game away – that and the fact that half of Leicester, including her colleagues, had been watching her daily.

While at Leicester City Council, she was involved in hosting a European conference, when a chance query about British weather from a Spanish colleague sent her to the BBC weather website. There, she saw a job advertisement, forgot all else, applied and got the post.

“The job was as a broadcast assistant at the BBC Television Centre in the Weather Department,” she said. “My degree had armed me with all the things I needed for the post and I thought, why not?”

Whether Lukwesa realised it at the time or not, her MSc in GIS had come from a Department with an enviable track record in teaching GIS. The Leicester Department of Geography is one of only a few in the country to have maintained a chair in Geographical Information Systems and has been at the cutting edge of the development and application of GIS technology for more than 20 years.

With its focus on innovative taught postgraduate teaching and its track record in learning and teaching developments it has trained more than 280 students since 1989, many of whom have since taken up leading positions in public and private GIS organisations. One indication of its reputation is that the Leicester GIS department is currently the lead institution in one of the government’s highly prized Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), with funding of £3.9m.

Zambian-born Lukwesa, a member of the royal tribal family of the same name, completed her first degree in Geography and European Studies from the University of Sussex and spent a year in Switzerland (Neuchatel) on an ERASMUS exchange course. It was in Switzerland that she ‘got the GIS bug’ and started searching round for a good place to take a Masters degree.

Leicester won on two counts, as one of the best courses she came across and a chance to go back home. There was only one problem – she couldn’t afford it, but, taking advice from the Head of Department at the time, she won an EU scholarship to pay for the course.

“My time at Leicester was great,” she said. “In my career I’ve used absolutely everything we did on that course. It wasn’t just theoretical, it was very relevant. It was a hard course. There was so much to fit in during one year – lots of theory and practical skills like writing code. People who weren’t that way inclined struggled a bit, but we all pulled together and helped each other.

“One of the best things was the people I met from all over the world. I made some great friends. There were crazy nights when three or four of us would be working in the labs at 3am. Someone would be tearing their hair out because their code wasn’t working and we’d all come together and try to sort it out. The support was great. I felt quite privileged.”

Although her role with Sky is in the Newsroom, she feels that working in the Weather Department has been an excellent training ground, right from her early days at the BBC. “The BBC trained you for broadcasting, not just to stay in the background. At every shift you were expected to go out there and shadow presenters. I shadowed Michael Fish and Isobel Lang, and all the main national presenters worked with us.

“We also got more weather training, learning how to put together the charts that go out on air. Once we reached a certain level we were called on to cover all BBC regions if they needed someone. That’s how we got into presenting.”

She laughs now about her nerves the time she was given an assignment with the extremely friendly and supportive BBC Wales, when she had some difficulty pronouncing a certain Welsh word. A couple of months later she came back to the East Midlands, taking up a place at Nottingham (BBC East Midlands Today), mainly with radio at first.

“I’ve always done the early shift,” Lukwesa said. “At Nottingham, it was non-stop, we had 21 radio broadcasts in the morning. I had to be up at 4.30am to start at 6am. First I had to ring the Weather Centre, where the forecasters would give you the science and you had to work out the best way to put the story across to the public. I worked on radio until lunchtime then had to get ready for television, first putting together the weather chart, then down to the make-up room, back to the studio and finish at 2pm. I did that for three years. I was very lucky to have the stability of staying in the East Midlands.”

Returning to work after having her son Theodore, Lukwesa decided she needed a new challenge and began to move into the Newsroom, standing in as a presenter every weekend throughout the summer. “Working six, sometimes seven days a week, was hard with a new baby,” she said, “but I knew there was an end to it and the experience was wonderful. But I have to add, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of working parents, that a lot of my career would never have happened if I didn’t have the wonderful support of my Mum.”

“The key is listening to what people say. A lot of people come into the business thinking they know it all, but you really are at the mercy of the team in the gallery. I worked with a really good team, who helped me along. I went on some great courses, too, for imagery, voice-training, writing, journalism, media law and reading links. It was intense but great fun.”

After the summer, she kept up her skills by doing afternoon news bulletins, then took up a permanent post as the Lunchtime News Anchor for East Midlands Today.

She was there for seven months before moving to Sky. There, she found herself in a completely different world, working with 24-hour rolling news. “There are no rehearsals, no chances to try something out. News is constantly breaking over the wires and having to be checked on the Internet, and you are very much involved with all that, not just reading the auto cue. It’s a very hands-on job and when you come off your shift you are tired.”

For now, the night shift suits Lukwesa very well, giving her time with her young son, but she knows the world she works in is constantly changing and is already looking to her own future plans. “Now I’m still finding my feet at the national level, but in the not too distant future I’d maybe like to do something during daytime – prime time television. That will be the next step.”

Lukwesa smiles, sometimes masking exasperation, when young people seem too glib about careers as television presenters. “There is so much involved. The training is intense. You have to learn how to keep talking when you’ve got the gallery completely falling apart around your ears. You can’t let people at home know everything has gone horribly wrong. Your image is important, too – after all, you’re in people’s living rooms and you have to look your best. Presenting the weather was a great training ground, you have to ad lib the whole thing. Each stage of my career has been a wonderful training ground. It’s taken me five years to get where I am, and everyday I learn something new…great isn’t it!”

“One thing that used to, and still does, make my blood boil, was the comment that you’re ‘just the weather girl’. That’s a terrible insult to the very highly trained scientists who work in meteorology and the work they do supporting people out there whose lives depend on weather. It’s a highly trained scientific job.

People are working for 24 hours to get the information, then you can be told you’ve only got 30 seconds to get the message out. But you still have to do it. Just because weather presenters are on air for matter or minutes sometimes seconds, doesn’t mean they’re any less qualified, and it’s about time people starting getting their facts right.

“The government is always trying to encourage children into science, so why rubbish something like weather reports that go into their homes every day? We need to get more kids involved with science, through the sciences – maths, physics, chemistry, geography, meteorology etc…. My own background was very scientific and although I’ve moved on to news now, I would never rubbish where I’ve come from because it was a marvellous training ground and believe me, you do have to have something between the ears to do it.”

END

Article first appeared in Graduates' Review Spring 2007 and can be found here

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