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Sharing science

Andrew Bastawrous, an eye surgeon at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, won last year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award with an article explaining the importance of his research developing smartphone apps for checking eye health. As we launch this year’s competition, Andrew explains what winning the award did for him, and provides a few tips for budding writers.  

Andrew with his wife Madeleine and son Lucas, and the whole research team

Andrew with his wife Madeleine and son Lucas (left), and the whole research team (Image copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)

Why did you enter the Max Perutz Science Writing Award?

A fellow PhD student at the university sent me the link and suggested I should apply. It made sense to write an article explaining the project in non-scientific terms as I was always being asked by friends and family what it was that I was doing. This was the perfect opportunity to distill my thoughts into a form that could be understood by everyone and that I could direct people to if they were interested. I never expected to end up winning the competition.

How did taking part in the competition and winning the award change your thoughts about science communication?

Having to sit down and write something without jargon made me look at my work in a different light. Trying to see something you are deeply involved in from a more distant and very different perspective can be quite challenging, but very refreshing. The question set to us was, “Why does your research matter?” Getting to the heart of that question meant engaging with the emotion that drives the work in the first place.

The whole process has made me appreciate good writers and their ability to present complex information in an engaging way. It has also encouraged me to write about the everyday scientific work I’m doing in Kenya in a manner that can be understood by friends and family.

Have you done any more science writing since you won and/or are you planning on writing in the future?

I really enjoyed the experience and would certainly like to do more. I’ve been writing scientific papers and a book chapter, but I’ve also been writing a blog with my wife that combines eye care and baking.

What would you say to encourage other MRC-funded researchers to take part?

The competition aside, going through the process of writing an article to explain your own work allows those closest to you to really understand what it is you do all day, as well as helping you think about why you’re doing it. It’s easy to forget about that in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Having been shortlisted we were invited to a science writing masterclass which was really valuable. And the publicity that follows should you win can be helpful in securing future funding and raising the profile of the work you are doing.

Do you have any tips for those planning on entering this year’s competition?

Try to engage the reader on a personal level. Try to tell a story rather than present facts. Link your opening paragraph to your concluding remarks. Avoid any jargon, unnecessarily long words or any terminology that may make the reader feel uncomfortable.

Get a couple of friends and your mum to read it, if they ask “What does that bit mean?” change it until no further explanation is needed. And enjoy it!

How has your research progressed since you won the award?

Since the award I’ve moved to Kenya to set up a project where we compare the smartphone apps I’m developing with normal equipment. Thanks to the publicity that came from my article being printed in Metro we’ve been able to generate more media interest including future BBC coverage. All this has been really for helping to share information about the research and how it’s developing. Ultimately it helps communicate a bigger message: that we can reduce unnecessary blindness.

Andrew will be one of the judges for this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award. He blogs, along with his wife, at Eye Bake – Kenya 

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