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Behind the research papers

Alistair MacLullich poses by a glass bus stop to 'create reflections suggesting disconnected minds'

Alistair MacLullich poses by a glass bus stop to ‘create reflections suggesting disconnected minds’

What’s the difference between reading a research paper and meeting the scientist behind it? Quite a lot, says MRC Science Writer Sarah Harrop, who profiled MRC scientists in their natural habitats for our Annual Review 2011/12, published today.

As a self-confessed hoarder — even when it comes to words — my self-editing skills sometimes need a little work. So the hardest thing about writing a review of our scientists’ achievements from the past year was deciding what to leave out.

Earlier this year I spent many eyeball-burning hours sifting through information that our scientists had submitted to MRC Researchfish to pick out just 60 of the most interesting and important discoveries. From brain-repairing proteins to prototype flu vaccines, a memory stick-sized DNA sequencer to a wound-healing gel containing maggot enzymes, I was spoiled for choice. And that was just the science. Meeting six of the scientists and hearing their stories unleashed yet more editing dilemmas.

I could have written about the time Navy doctor and MRC asthma researcher Dr Chris Grainge spent on an icebreaker inAntarctica. He enthralled us with tales of diving research, how best to escape from a broken-down submarine, and how to photograph a penguin (apparently it’s not difficult; they just patter up to the camera).

None of that was strictly relevant to the MRC-funded research. But meeting the scientists behind discoveries can tell you much more about their motivations than you’d get from a research paper, and makes the case for research more convincingly than any statistic or research finding.

In his room on the acute stroke ward at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Professor Alasdair MacLullich spoke compellingly about terrified patients with delirium, a condition which carries an eight-fold risk of subsequently getting dementia. Some patients, he said, were convinced that there were phantom bag-pipers around their beds, or that they had shrunk to Lilliputian dimensions. With MRC funding, Alasdair has designed a device to detect the condition.

I’m always impressed by the generosity of our scientists in giving up their time to talk about their research and have their photograph taken, but I had to wonder what Chris was thinking when our photographer lay down in a busy hospital corridor to get an interesting angle. Or what Alasdair thought when asked to pose by a glass bus stop to create reflections suggesting the disconnected minds of the dementia patients he cares for.

There’s wonder too. At first glance, labs look much the same. But the fascination is often in the detail, such as seeing a tiny sheet of protein upon which stem cells can be seeded and then placed into the eye to restore vision. Or a machine that can determine who has adrenal cancer and who doesn’t from a minuscule urine sample, without having to reach for a scalpel or syringe.

It’s always a pleasure to write about MRC research and get a glimpse into our scientists’ worlds. I even managed to keep to the word limit.

Sarah Harrop

Download the MRC Annual Review 2011/12: Advancing medicine, changing lives in PDF format or e-book format.

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