2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition – winner announced!

Posted on

The winner of the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition has been announced. The competition, now in its 21st year, was open to all PhD students funded by the MRC and entrants were tasked with writing about their own research, explaining to non-scientists why their research matters in just 800 words. Since the competition started in 1998, more than 1,000 researchers have submitted entries and taken their first steps into science communication.

Natasha Clarke winner of the 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing competition

This year’s winner is Natasha Clarke of St George’s, University of London with her article: ‘How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease’. Briet Bjarkadottir, of the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford was the runner up with her article: ‘Stopping the conveyor belt – cancer and fertility’. Fraser Shearer, of the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh, was commended for his article ‘Keep calm and carry to term’.

Andy Ridgway, a Senior Lecturer within the Science Communication Unit, was among this year’s judges that also included the MRC’s Executive Chair, Professor Fiona Watt, Dr Claire Ainsworth, freelance journalist and science writer; Stephen Curry, journalist and science writer; Dr Roger Highfield, MRC Council member and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group and Jennifer Rohn, journalist, novelist and scientist at University College London.

 

Andy said: “What really shone though in the shortlisted entries was the power of telling a relatable, human story when explaining the importance of medical research. By showing how a disease or condition impacts an individual and how this new treatment will change their lives, it conveys the impact of the research in a powerful, engaging way.

“It was a pleasure to read all the shortlisted entries and there are some gifted writers in the field.”

The awards were announced at a ceremony at the Royal Institution on 25 October by the MRC’s Executive Chair and Chair of the judging panel Professor Fiona Watt, alongside Professor Robin Perutz, son of the late Max Perutz.

Fiona said: “It has been a great pleasure to chair the judging panel of this year’s Max Perutz Award.

“The competition is a great way to highlight to early-career scientists the importance of science communication and to showcase their work.  This year we received a record number of entries, from about 10% of MRC-funded PhD students.

“The topics of the winning articles are artificial intelligence and Alzheimer’s disease; cancer and fertility; mental health, depression and stress. I’d like to thank everyone who entered the competition – the judges had a tough time making the selection. Our PhD students do a brilliant job at bringing their research to life – using everyday language, rhetorical devices and personal anecdotes.”

All of the short-listed articles, including Natasha’s winning entry, are now published.

 

Guest Blog – Creating stories with porpoise: top tips for getting the most out of your journalism

Posted on

When it comes to food, music and fashion, the interesting stuff often emerges at the interfaces between styles and cultures. When sounds, flavours and cultures collide, the results can be fresh and thought-provoking. Science is no different.

From my experience, it’s often the spaces where academic research blends with politics and culture that provide the most interesting stories. As journalists, we should always be on the lookout for these stories, as they can be the gift that keeps on giving.

One area that undoubtedly falls into this category is the transition to low-carbon energy technologies. Or to put it a more human way: the quest for sources of energy that let us live fulfilling lives without destroying the planet in the process. These stories are multi-faceted, so I would advise you to collaborate with others, then think beyond the single piece of content. If the story has lots of angles, you can share it in many ways in many places.

I’ll give you an example.

I’m a multimedia journalist working for Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics (IOP). At the start of 2018, we decided to launch a new film series that explores how science and technology can help us to tackle global environmental challenges. I was on the hunt for stories.

For one of the films, our environmental editor, Liz Kalaugher , pointed me towards an interesting academic paper published in one of IOP’s academic journals, Environmental Research Letters. The paper documented an interesting ecology case involving a North Sea wind farm built off the Dutch coast.

Scientists, led by Meike Scheidat from Wageningen University, had observed that the local population of harbour porpoise appeared to have grown since the wind park was built – a surprising result given so much infrastructure had just been plonked in a natural marine habitat.

So far, so straightforward. But I had also learned that since the wind farm was installed, fishing vessels had been banned in this patch of sea 10–18 km from the coastal town of Egmond aan Zee. So was it simply that the porpoises had more food now because of the absence of fishing, while those same ships were depriving porpoises of their dinner elsewhere? Another theory suggested that the base of the wind turbines had created an artificial reef environment, attracting more fish thus creating more foraging opportunities for the porpoises.

However, some unrelated studies of other offshore wind farms in the North Sea had found the opposite result – a decline in harbour porpoise in the vicinity of new offshore wind farms. So we cannot generalise and say all offshore windfarms are positive for porpoises. Was there something unique with the ecosystem by the Egmond aan Zee windfarm? Meanwhile, we had also learned that some in the fishing community were said to be unhappy with the shipping ban, especially the lack of meaningful consultation over a decision that affects their livelihoods.

So we had conflicting science on a timely issue, given the recent boom in offshore wind projects in the North Sea. We also had a human conflict. It was quickly shaping into a great story.

The simple option would have been for me to rock up in the Netherlands with my camera, interview a couple of scientists from the study, publish the film and then put my feet up. However, that would have undersold an intriguing and complex story. Instead, I did the following:

  • Identified a Dutch-based science filmmaker Saskia Madlener , who could help shape the story with her expertise and local knowledge.
  • To approach the issue from different angles we interviewed Meike (the scientist behind the original study), Henk Kouwenhoven an engineer involved in the wind farm design, and Rems Cramer a member of the local fishing community.
  • Having shot the film over a couple of days, I wrote a blog article about the trip on my way home. In horrible business speak, publishing that article helped improved the return-on-investment. More importantly, it helped me to highlight the issues and to shape the narrative of the film.
  • Once the film was published, we included it alongside a range of other videos and articles in a new collection called Sustainable Futures . I also spoke about it on the Physics World Weekly podcast.
  • Over the past few months, I have been sharing the film across our social media pages and email newswires, taking every opportunity to plug it.
  • Recently, I have arranged for the films to be shared at American Geophysical Union Fall in December, one of the most important annual global events for geoscientists.

Of course, in writing this blog I realise I am plugging the film yet again! So my four takeaway messages are:

  1. Think about how the science interacts with society, then consider all the different angles and stakeholders for your story.
  2. Think about the different platforms and formats you present your story, and the ways you can adjust it to suit the site (A video? an article? Share a photo of the film shoot on Instagram?).
  3. Don’t be afraid to shout about your stories. The internet is a big place, your story is very unlikely to clog up people’s newsfeeds.
  4. Involve people who know what they’re talking. Interview people involved with the research but also those affected by it.

If you have any ideas for stories, whether its video, audio or good old-fashioned written words, then please get in touch. Email pwld@iop.org or drop me a message on Twitter @jamesdacey.

James Dacey, Multimedia Projects Editor, Physics World

Science Journalism Summer School 2017

Posted on

Every two years, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) hosts its one-day Science Journalism Summer School. The 2017 event took place on 5 July at the Wellcome Trust in London, and I went along as a budding freelance science writer to learn a few tricks of the trade.absw-logo

I was joined by 135 other delegates on the airy and light sixth floor of the Trust’s superb glass-fronted Euston Road building on one of the hottest days of the year. With me were undergraduates, PhD students, freelancers of many kinds, and established science journalists working for a range of organisations. Oh – and a colleague (Clare Gee) from my Masters course in Science Communication here at UWE! Billed as a 12-hour working day, I indeed arrived for coffee at 9am, and did not depart until 8.30pm after the superb networking session with commissioning editors from a number of science publications, such as New Scientist.

BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh opened the proceedings, and the format for the rest of the day followed short talks with panel discussion and audience Q&A. We learned about new media trends, particularly around digital news consumption, in the context of the question ‘Where have all the science correspondents/journalists gone?’. ITV’s Science Correspondent Alok Jha extolled the virtues of critical science journalism in the fake news world, asserting the need to communicate conflicts between scientific researchers and cast more light on the imperfections and uncertainties of the scientific endeavour. That doesn’t sit so easily with being a proponent of science, which most of us are.

A session on pitching skills was most revealing, with commissioning editors suggesting that they aren’t receiving enough news pitches (short 250-word pieces) alongside the veritable flood of feature pitches. They were keen to point out that background was largely irrelevant; if the story was good and the source reliable, they’ll take it. And one particularly good tip to remember is that editors often prefer to receive a ‘phonecall, with e-mail used as the follow-up.

The session on investigative reporting left a sense of how good for society the best journalism can be, despite the challenges around funding this type of work in today’s climate. Given the potential risks, freelancers were generally advised to steer clear of investigative reporting!

Cycling science logoPerhaps the highlight for me was the final session on “successful freelancing”. There were personal testimonies of the struggle to get going, to find sources of work, to carve out a niche area of specialisation. Max Glaskin, the successful, award-winning author of the magazine Cycling Science, offered a tremendous insight laced with some dark humour along the way. His successful writing career has allowed him to diversify his sources of income through giving talks, chairing panel discussions and undertaking specialist scientific consultancy.

All-in-all, a long but rewarding day, worth every penny. If you want to meet several commissioning editors in one place at one time and establish relationships, then this biennial Summer School is a good investment of your time and money.

You can read my blog, Sykes on Science, at: www.sykesonscience.wordpress.com

Ben Sykes, MSc Science Communication student, UWE

Steven Pinker’s brilliant book teaches some useful lessons in science writing

Posted on

Writing is easy until you learn how to do it.

I still remember my first weeks as a trainee journalist on a local newspaper in Weston-super-Mare. Filled with confidence, I’d sit there in my tartan trousers (I’d spent that last year studying in Glasgow) thinking I’d got it cracked. After all, I could write – I’d been on a journalism course after all.

The thing is, more often than not, my finely crafted prose came back covered in red pen from a sub editor who didn’t like what I’d written and wanted A LOT of changes. A little hurt, I would make the changes. Surely it was them who was wrong?

It took a while, but slowly I realised what they were doing. With their changes, my stories were livelier, clearer and more succinct. And just generally, well, better.

So, in that few months, I learned what was to become my most important lesson as a writer – to learn from others. As I got better I found that, paradoxically, writing had got more challenging – there was much more to think about if I was going to do it well. My stories were still edited and reworked by others as I learned. And it still hurt.

Steven PinkerNow, 20 years into my writing career, up pops a book that crystallises what has been a lot of hard-won knowledge about writing, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style . Had Pinker written it 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of painful lessons.  I can’t claim to have found it myself – I was introduced to it by Lisa Melton, Senior News Editor at Nature Biotechnology , who teaches on our MSc in Science Communication at UWE.

So, in the spirit of saving a few painful lessons, I have distilled a few – but by no means all – of some of the key points Pinker makes that are likely to help science writers.

  • “Good writing is understood with the mind’s eye” is Pinker’s way of saying that when we write we need to create mental pictures in the minds of our readers. And to me, this not only applies to when we’re actively describing something or someone we’ve seen; it’s also when we get down to the nuts and bolts of science writing – explaining processes and mechanisms and systems. When someone can visualise a mechanism inside a cell organelle or how one subatomic particle interacts with another, they’re more likely to get it.
  • Pinker says good writers “use concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary”. In other words, describe what you’re describing vividly, with specific new, fresh words rather than abstractions.
  • Cut out the “metadiscourse” – the use of descriptions of what you are going to describe; words such as subsection, review and discussion. Pinker puts it far better than I could. “Inexperienced writers often think they’re doing the reader a favour by guiding her through the rest of the text with a detailed preview. In reality, previews that read up link a scrunched-up table of contents are there to help the writer, not the reader.”

Pinker also describes what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge” – the inability for someone to understand what it’s like for someone else to not know what they know. I’ve found as a science writer, it’s not just scientists who can fall victim to this curse (and not all of them do). But writers can too. If you’ve spent days or weeks researching a topic, you become a ‘mini expert’ and may struggle to explain things in a way non-experts would understand. Pinker does come up with some useful tips – such as avoid jargon and technical language. Nothing earth shattering there. And adding brief explanations for technical terms. Again, not rocket science. The big challenge is recognising when to do it.

Andy Ridgway

Writing

The long and winding road to science journalism

Posted on

How do you get your first job in science communication? That’s not a straightforward question to answer – when it comes to science journalism at least. My experience of working in the industry showed me that having some kind of experience – either in the form of a placement or a few articles published – can be invaluable. Just as important as any qualification, in fact. And if you’ve won some form of recognition for your writing – perhaps through a competition – that can have a big impact on your job prospects too. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are as many routes into science writing as there are science writers.

It’s out of this experience that the UWE SCU Science Writing Competition was born. Targeted specifically at those who haven’t had popular science writing published before, it is now in its second year.

Given its target audience of new writers, this year we (the SCU that is) decided to provide writing advice in the form of blogs from the judges and other respected science writers, including one of last year’s winners – Emily Coyte .

There were another couple of important additions too, including a partnership with the Royal Institution – an organisation with a track record for nurturing new talent – and a survey of the competition participants aimed at gaining a fuller picture of the opportunities and barriers they face in breaking in to the science writing industry. The survey makes for interesting reading.

For starters, all of the 49 people who took part in the survey (out of roughly 90 competition entries) said they were interested in a career in science writing in some form – some as full time writers or editors and others envisaged writing as a sideline to a career in research science. Many participants were students and most (almost 90%) had not had any form of science writing training. Of those who hadn’t had training, a fairly high proportion (45%) said they were not aware of any training courses.

However, it’s where the responses to this survey – from those who want to be science writers – are compared with the responses from another survey we conducted – from those who are already science writers – that things get really interesting. But this isn’t the place to go into any detail on that – there will be more on that later. So watch this space…

As for this year’s science writing competition, the shortlist has now been drawn up and the judges will meet in August to decide the winners, who will be announced on 1 September 2016.

Andy Ridgway

Science Writing Competition now open

Posted on

It’s been a busy few weeks in the office getting ready for the UWE Bristol SCU Science Writing Competition 2016. We are looking for 700 words on “the next big thing in science”.

Entrants can be residents anywhere in the world, but must be non-professionals (professional journalists and anyone else who writes for money). All others, including scientists and bloggers, are welcome to apply. There are no residency restrictions, and we have separate categories for under 18s and over 18s. Closing date for applications is 24th June 2016. For full details, please see the SCU website.

We’re excited to have an impressive judging panel on board, who’ve prepared some excellent tips for new science writers. Fascinating stuff for newbies and old-timers alike.

The competition is run by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit (SCU) in partnership with BBC Focus magazine and the Royal Institution.