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 (left), and the whole research team
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. Read more
The University of Newcastle’s Doug Turnbull is part of a team (with Professors Mary Herbert and Alison Murdoch) that is developing a technique to prevent inherited genetic conditions called mitochondrial diseases. ‘Mitochondrial transfer’ replaces a woman’s faulty mitochondria with those of a healthy donor, and combining the technique with IVF could mean affected women no longer pass on these diseases.
As the public consultation on whether to change the law to allow mitochondrial transfer draws to a close, Katherine Nightingale talks to Doug about the technique, why it’s needed and what it’s like to be working in a potentially legislation-changing field.
Will we have heard of any of these mitochondrial diseases?
The diseases affect the mitochondria — the ‘batteries’ of the cell that produce the energy cells need to function properly. You might not have heard of them; some, such as Leigh’s syndrome, have been known for many years among doctors and researchers but the collective term of mitochondrial diseases isn’t well known among the public, even though around 1 in 6,000 children is born with some kind of mitochondrial disease. The diseases most affect the parts of the body that use the most energy: the brain and nervous system, muscles and other major organs such as the heart and liver.
The intriguing thing about mitochondria is that they have their own DNA, separate to the DNA in a cell’s nucleus. The affected genes in mitochondrial diseases are in this mitochondrial DNA, meaning they are inherited differently to other genetic diseases — only mothers pass them on to their children through their eggs. Read more
Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)
Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was formerly Director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Famously, he led the research group that first cloned a mammal from an adult body cell — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Sarah Harrop spoke to him about how far regenerative medicine has come and what the future might hold.
What are some of the different approaches to regenerative medicine currently being undertaken by scientists?
Very broadly, there are two main approaches at the moment. We’re using stem cells to understand the mechanisms that cause some degenerative diseases so that it’s possible then to identify drugs that are able to prevent the development of symptoms. The second strategy is to produce cells that can replace those that have died or ceased to function normally in degenerative diseases.
What benefits and insights might the first approach offer?
To identify the molecular mechanisms that lead to disease it’s important to be able to study cells that are affected by the disease in the lab. A key innovation that makes this possible is our ability to treat skin cells so that they are changed and become very similar to embryo stem cells. These cells — induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — are able to form all of the different cell types and grow in culture for very long periods. This makes it possible to produce the large number of cells required for research. Read more