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Science reading

Max Perutz Award logoThe MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award for early-career researchers is now in its 15th year. As we announce the shortlist for the 2012 competition, one shortlister reflects on the process.

A few weeks ago, I briefly swapped my job as a science writer to become a science reader, reading all 119 entries for the Max Perutz Award, which this year asked the entrants to answer the question ‘Why does my research matter?

For 10 days I carried a bundle of articles around with me, delving into them on park benches, at my desk, over coffee and on the bus.

Some entrants, those that have made it on to the shortlist that we’re announcing today, made their research leap off the page, combining arguments about the necessity of their research with lively prose and a great use of imagery. As my buses trundled through London, I imagined proteins whizzing around cells, viruses coursing around bodies, the tragic slide of minds and bodies into disease. Some people focused solely on their research, while others brought themselves into the stories, describing their thoughts and feelings about their work.

My main criticism was that some entrants went a little overboard on detail. They outlined the issue they are tackling — a deadly disease or a question about the workings of a particular type of cell — brilliantly, explaining exactly why their research matters. But when they got to describing their research, they would ‘zoom in’ a little too close, forget that proteins described by acronyms are not in common parlance, that in the real world we tend to ‘find out’ rather than ‘elucidate’, and that expression tends to be about feelings rather than the production of proteins.

But I can forgive a few lapses like this. Researchers spend their time immersed in this kind of language and I can imagine that if you use a term every day, it can be hard to figure out where the line into ‘everyday’ speech lies. And as for zooming in, focusing for a little longer than is strictly necessary on the intricacies of how a protein binds with its receptor, you could take that as encouraging. Being fascinated with those intricacies demonstrates the kind of passion for research that drives the day-to-day toil of science on which discoveries depend.

I learnt an awful lot about the breadth of the science that we fund from these articles. From research into the biology of dementia to encouraging people to think differently about their depression, they provide a snapshot of just how diverse medical research is. And they showed that scientists really can communicate. Frankly I’m worried for my job.

Katherine Nightingale

The twelve exceptional writers that have made it onto this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award shortlist are:

Andrew Bastawrous, LondonSchool of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Studying blindness – There’s an App for that…

Rodrigo Braga, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre
Eliza and The Great Spaghetti Monster

Hannah Buggey, The University of Manchester
The inflamed brain: why my research matters

Sarah Caddy, Imperial College London
Curing the ‘two-bucket’ disease

Holly Barbara Callaghan, Imperial College London
The Road to Cancer: As Simple as ATG…

James Fuller, University  of Southampton
Fighting Alzheimer’s disease? Get the Immune System On Board

Nicola Hodson, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research
Cell City

Ben Martynoga, MRC National Institute for Medical Research
The transcription factor: a key to brain repair?

Ketan Shah, Gray Institute for Radiation, Oncology and Biology – University ofOxford
I am the drug

Sarah Smith, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Knowing Fl[you]

Greg Weir, MRC Functional Genomics Unit
Migraine; Stemming the tide of pain

Vicky Jane Young, MRC Centre for Reproductive Health
Something’s Got To Give

The shortlisted and longlisted entrants will be invited to an awards ceremony in September where the winner, runner-up and three commended writers will be announced.

 

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