Finding purpose in prose…and science communication  

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Sophie Pavelle

I never knew what I wanted to be – except that any career for me had to have three conditions: it must involve an above-average dose of the outdoors, I would like to be in charge of the agenda, and some sort of animal (any will do!) needs to be in close proximity at all times. No doubt the aspirations of most people, right?

I had a linear route into science communication, albeit with several detours in-between. Studying Zoology at the University of Bristol straight after school, I appreciated the programmes breadth in not funnelling me in a niche direction. Like anyone in their late teens/early twenties, my mind was a meandering muddle. In a bid to find some sort of path to address the dreaded ‘what’s next?!’ question from parents and family, I dipped my toes into many pools – applying for work experience and short internships in physiotherapy, veterinary medicine, law, magazine publishing, copy editing, countryside management, the military and teaching. Although quite relentless, it became a helpful ‘tick-box exercise’ allowing me to cross off those areas which I didn’t enjoy (vital), and keep close those I found interesting.

Eventually, I found focus in the middle of all of these careers and interests. That is – in science communication – a dynamic and exciting vocation where you act as the mediator between scientific research, and the public. A crucial role, amid such a noisy, turbulent world. Despite this being only six years ago, science communication was something I had never heard of at the time. Safe to say, after seeing the MSc in Science Communication offered at UWE Bristol, and how varied it was, I was officially intrigued.  And that was before I’d even had a chance to explore the careers that alumni had pursued after graduating.

During my masters at UWE in 2016-17, the world felt like it was changing. Social media reared its head and became the giant it is today. We saw the power of how we can use those platforms to communicate environmental truths, and rally public support for positive change; namely with the release of Blue Planet 2 and the battle to eliminate single use plastics. The realities of climate change and biodiversity loss rushed into conversation, creating urgent pressure to find solutions. Personally, all of these events over the past six or so years have shifted my own communication priorities. I’m not only trying to engage the public with the joy of nature on a fundamental level, but also trying to spur real, lasting action for its future. It’s more of a ‘the faster we act, the less we lose,’ sort of situation.

After I graduated in 2018, I tried my hand at going freelance. The notion appealed to me (if we just revisit my eclectic career conditions above…) and I was grateful to be in a position where I could still live at home in Devon, earn money with two retail jobs, and experiment with science communication on the side. It was an immense balancing act, and at times very stressful and disheartening. Repeated rejection for jobs, ideas and offers of work sure makes you resilient! But the hope of finding a seat at the table really did keep me going.

I fostered and maintained links with wildlife charities and NGOs, offering volunteer hours with The Wildlife Trusts, fundraising for them and others and being a bit of a prolific networker whist trying to find my voice. Later, I got the brilliant opportunity to be part of the RSPB steering group for the 2019 State of Nature Report, and contribute to the forward. A spin-off article I was asked to write reflecting on the report’s implications was picked up by a major publisher, who asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book. Of course I hadn’t. I was convinced they thought I was somebody else (imposter syndrome, hello!). After all, isn’t writing a book something you do when you’ve accomplished something? Something you might strive to do in your wildest dreams of your later years?

But it’s only looking back that I’ve realised I’ve been writing my whole life. Without realising, I have always sought comfort in words, stories and narratives. Many of us do. Not a voracious reader by any means, but I have kept extensive diaries, written letters, postcards, poems and short stories. Whilst all my friends at school talked about the bands and music they were into, I kept quiet, for all I ever listened to were story tapes, and later, audiobooks.

I loved English at school and didn’t realise how much being able to write, and enjoy it, helped me through both my BSc and MSc, where many of the exams and coursework were written. Writing this blog has made me reflect on how much the variety of modules, teaching and assessments offered by the Science Communication Unit at UWE was invaluable preparation for my current work, not least in battling with imposter syndrome in writing my book. Despite what social media might portray, I’m shy, and introverted. Painfully so, when I was younger. But the MSc was a game changer for me. Smaller cohorts allowed better integration and interaction between staff and students, which boosted my confidence to contribute in class. The staff encouraged us to explore our individual creative and research interests, to push boundaries and take risks.

Bloomsbury commissioned me to write a non-fiction narrative about endangered native species and climate change in spring 2020 – on the same day that I got offered a communications job with Beaver Trust, and just as the UK went into lockdown. A rather overwhelming time to say the least…! The pandemic brought many books and creative content to fruition, but for me, that was never the plan for Forget Me Not. Covid-19 became a natural part of the narrative, and made elements of the low-carbon travel immensely challenging and stressful. Over the course of the 18 months of travelling and writing, I was prepared to have writers block and want to give up. Many people told me to expect this. But weirdly, that never happened. As I write this we are finalising the text, before I escape to a studio and record the audiobook. It’s a bizarre experience in a way. I often dream about certain paragraphs, and can place words and sentences exactly in the text, remembering where I was when I wrote it, what music I may have been listening to. Even what I was wearing!

Writing a book has by far been the hardest and most exhausting marathon of my life, but I adored every second. With just one month to go until publication day (9th June!) I’m still pinching myself at this surreal opportunity. I had no idea ‘science communication’ could look like this.

Sophie Pavelle is a writer and science communicator. Sharing stories about British wide audiences, she puts a contemporary twist on the natural history genre. Sophie works for Beaver Trust and presented their award-winning documentary Beavers Without Borders. She is also an Ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts and sits on the RSPB England Advisory Committee. Her writing has appeared in The Metro, BBC Countryfile, BBC Wildlife and Coast magazines. Her first book ‘Forget Me Not: finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain’ is published on June 9th by Bloomsbury. You can pre-order it here: https://linktr.ee/forgetmenotbook

Graduating and working during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Finishing our MSc in Science Communication and graduating during a pandemic and national lockdowns was not how any of us expected it to go. But despite that I managed to get a job a few months after submitting my thesis. Not only that, but what I learnt, the work I did and the experiences I had on the MSc helped me to get the role along with my previous experience working in NHS roles.

I am working as content coordinator for NHS Blood and Transplant, the organisation which is responsible for the supply of blood, organs, tissues and stem cells. Most of my role is about developing and producing content for The Donor, a newsletter which is sent to everyone who is registered as a blood donor four times per year. We share donor stories, recipient stories, updates about the donation process, information about different blood types and types of donations, how important blood and organ donations are etc. Whilst not every article is super sciency, the aim is to engage the readers and keep the donors donating to meet the constant demand for blood products.

My writing improved so much during the masters and I think that has definitely helped me get the role as I had to write an article as part of the interview process. It has also helped in my day-to-day work. I go back to the news structure we learnt in the Writing Science module again and again when writing articles at work. It’s currently on a sticky note stuck on the wall above my desk.

Starting a new job whilst working from home in lockdown wasn’t without its challenges but in the past year and a bit I have:

  • Contributed to five editions of The Donor
  • Learnt the editorial process and house style of writing; spoken to/interviewed donors, recipients and internal/external stakeholders
  • Built confidence and developed my personal style
  • Learnt about blood donation, blood components and treatments
  • Chosen supporting images, designed articles and uploaded them onto the content management system

Researched and written a new regular scientific feature called functions of blood. Each article focuses on a different key role of our blood: transport, immunity and clotting. Did you know that the body has 60,000 miles of blood vessels? This is long enough to circle the globe more than twice.

I’ve also donated blood three times so far and counting!

By Morwenna Bugg

Morwenna was a student on the MSc in Science Communication at UWE Bristol in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Meet Me in Another STEM Career

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In science communication, we often talk about science capital: the concept of feeling like science is “for me” as a result of sum of all the experiences and resources we’ve encountered that build up an interest in science. Everything from having parents in science, being taken to science-related events and having just one excellent teacher can change our lives to one where we pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths).

It’s sometimes difficult to work out exactly what might have pushed us into ambitions within science as a child, especially as we don’t know what we would have ended up doing if it wasn’t for that one teacher we had, or we had been ill the day the school trip went to the science centre. But what if we did have the opportunity to live our lives over and over again? We’d be able to work out exactly what it is that leads to the career paths we take. This is exactly what happens in Catriona Silvey’s “Meet Me in Another Life”, a soft sci-fi novel coming out on 8th July 2021. The novel follows two protagonists, Thora and Santi, who share the same preoccupation with science, the stars, and astronomy. They live their lives over and over, with each chapter painting them in a different relationship (e.g. friends, parent/child, teacher/student, colleagues, lovers, doctor/patient, etc.). In each life, they’re the same people, but due to different circumstances and relationships they don’t always end up following the same careers. Their careers are usually science-related, but not always, and it’s interesting to think about where they end up in their lives through the lens of science capital.

Catriona Silvey

I recently interviewed for Catriona Silvey for The Cosmic Shed and asked her about science capital. In her answer she lays down barriers resulting from internal, personal struggles, interpersonal relationships, and structural barriers in our society. She said: “I realised that I’d written book about these two very driven, very passionate people who mostly repeatedly fail to achieve their dreams.”

“Barriers can be very different for different people depending on their circumstances. Thora’s problem, especially towards the beginning of the book, is that she feels like she has too many choices. Which is quite a privileged position to be in, but it means she sort of ends up sabotaging herself, because quite often she won’t pick the thing she really wants to do because, fundamentally, she’s scared she’ll fail at it, and there’s nothing worse than failing at the thing you really, really want to do. So that’s very much a personal, internal barrier.”

“Another barrier for her is her parents,” Silvey goes on, “her parents have a very fixed idea of the person she is and what she should focus on, and it’s the humanities. And that, in some of her lives, really strongly influences her.”

“Santi’s problem is kind of the opposite of Thora’s problem in that he has a lack of opportunities. He’s a man and he’s straight, but on every other access he has less privilege than Thora has. His parents are working class, whereas hers are professors. He is not a native English speaker, whereas she is. Thora’s family are usually immigrants by choice, whereas Santi’s family are immigrants through economic necessity. For all these reasons, he often doesn’t have the opportunities he wishes he would have, and so his barriers are a lot more structural.”

While investigating what leads us into our careers certainly isn’t the central point of the book (the most pressing theme is really the need to find out why the protagonists are stuck in a time loop), I think for those working in science communication, Meet Me in Another Life offers an interesting meditation on science capital, giving us an experiment we can’t do in real life and wrapping it up in a vivid, gripping, beautifully-written novel.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

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Words: Andy Ridgway

Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?

While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?

It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project  which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.

A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.

Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.

What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.

What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.

This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.

That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.

This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.

In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:

Thanks to researchers at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copernicus Science Centre, Poland, Vetenskap & Allmanhet, Sweden, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier, Portugal, Sissa Medialab, Italy and the Center for the Promotion of Science in Serbia for their help in translating and distributing the questionnaire.

From MSc in Science Communication to Media Relations Manager…

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I knew Science Communications was for me when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and preferred talking about my dissertation research, rather than being in the lab doing it. After that, I did some research and found the UWE MSc in Science Communication. I applied immediately. 

The module options on the programme at UWE drew me in as there were a variety on offer, and they each offered practical skills to help me step into a job right away. I knew that I wanted to work while completing my MSc, building up my experience in London, so the 3-day blocks worked perfectly for me. I held a number of internships during my time on the programme, and picked up my first part-time job when our lectures finished.

During the programme, as well as the compulsory modules, I studied Writing Science and Hands-On Science Communication. These modules taught me how to tell compelling stories about science that capture people’s imaginations – on page and in person. While the latter might not seem directly related to my role, it taught me a lot about how to explain something complex verbally. Often I’m speaking to journalists over the phone and have to be able to communicate clearly. It also built my confidence in presenting (it’s something you can’t avoid in this career!) and the modules gave me strong foundations by teaching me how to structure a presentation and deliver it with impact. I was also able to build a strong portfolio of work to take into interviews, which is hugely helpful when you’re starting out.

Armed with the academic and work experience I accrued during the MSc, I knew that I wanted to work in communicating science within a charity when I graduated, so I chose to focus my dissertation on how cancer charities communicate online. The project module is very open, so you can choose whatever you’d like to learn about. I picked something I was really interested in, and it also helped show my awareness in the area in job interviews later. 

Straight out of the MSc, I worked a part-time job in general communications for a medical membership organisation, alongside which I later worked another part-time role with a research laboratory, with a couple of freelance jobs on the side too.

Those times were pretty hectic, but I learnt a lot very quickly and had a wealth of experience after a year, including in time management. I then moved to Cancer Research UK working as a Science Press Officer, which was an incredibly busy, fun and meaningful job to me.

Now, as the Media Relations Manager for The Lancet, I manage our media output – deciding which of our many research papers to promote in the media, and how, to help achieve high profile, quality, international media coverage of the journals. I work in a wider communications team, and manage a Press Officer and freelance writers. While my undergraduate degree is key to help me understand the complex health research, my MSc is crucial in helping me recognise how to tell those stories to journalists and the wider public. The Lancet is strongly driven to use our research to benefit people’s lives, and the stories I help to tell focus on changing people’s perception, changing policy, or changing clinical practice.

A recent example of this is the so-called ‘planetary health diet’ – a huge report which was originally published in The Lancet and gave the first scientific targets for a healthy diet that was environmentally sustainable too. Working with the research funders’ media teams, we devised a comprehensive media strategy to ensure that the story hit the news globally, opening people’s eyes to the impact of food production on the climate and what we can each do to reduce this. The report made a huge public impact, making the ‘planetary health diet’ a globally recognised term, and changing food policy in some countries already. 

Media briefing for ‘planetary health diet’.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had the training I had at UWE, and I must mention the teaching staff on the MSc, who were always exceptional and give up a lot of time to support us and train us so well. Throughout my MSc, they gave me detailed, honest advice on what to expect from various careers, and linked me up to people working in that area when possible so that I could get on-the-ground insights too. They were very nurturing and their advice on those career paths is absolutely accurate. If you’re looking for an MSc in Science Communications, you’re in the right place and their training will be a vital cornerstone that you reflect on frequently in your career. 

Emily Head, MSc Science Communication student at UWE, Bristol

From MSc in Science Communication to Science Writer…

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When deciding where to study a Master’s degree, employability was a huge factor for me. I was keen to study somewhere that would teach me how to get stuck straight into the world of Science Communication. From day one in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, we were treated like professionals and encouraged to present ourselves as so to the rest of the sci-comm community.

Since graduating, I have taken on regular freelance writing projects which have been a great way to practice the skills I learned at UWE Bristol. I have also recently started a full time job as a Science Writer for a small company in mid Wales who specialise in Cellular Pathology. My day job now includes writing articles for pathologists about new research and developing ideas to create multimedia content for our website.

I was already interested in Science Writing when I started the course so was grateful to learn a lot about this topic whilst studying and to meet several industry professionals. One of the key skills I am now using on a daily basis is learning how to filter through academic papers- as a communicator you may need to sort through huge quantities of research to fully understand an issue. I’ve also learned how to write more concisely. This really helps with sticking to word counts. My interview skills also developed very quickly on the course, something I’d never done before. I now use these skills to interview customers, researchers and colleagues both face to face and over the phone. Unsurprisingly, one of my favourite modules on the course was Writing Science and I still have the “Top Tips” we were given during the course and refer to them regularly for a refresher.

As much as I loved gaining the practical writing skills I now use in my full time job, I am also really glad I had the opportunity to learn more about the theory and history of the field as well. It has definitely broadened my horizons about more types of communication and how different media can be used to encourage science communication in a format accessible to everyone. Some of the other practical skills I gained through the course served to be valuable life lessons in team work, compromise and self-confidence. For example, I can proudly say I was part of a team to record an “as-live” radio show at the BBC- that’s a pretty memorable experience!

Finally, the teaching staff and my course mates from UWE Bristol have become invaluable sources of professional advice and encouragement as we all continue to support each other and celebrate our successes. Amongst my course mates we have shared a whole range of achievements including further study, international travel for fieldwork, BBC credits, conference attending and journal publication.

To find out more about the MSc Science Communication please visit our Postgraduate taught courses page.

Siobhan Fairgreaves, UWE Bristol MSc Science Communication student 2016/17

How to write a research synthesis report (or how I conquered my batteries mountain!)

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The words on the screen are drifting in and out of focus… lithium-ion and sodium-ion, redox flow and redox couples… and, errrrrm, what does ‘roundtrip efficiency’ mean?

It’s April 2018.  I have just returned to work after a sleepless year on maternity leave and been tasked with writing a report on battery technologies and their environmental impacts.

It’s an honour to write about such an important topic – batteries are critical to renewable energy systems and e-mobility – and I am excited about the job ahead.

However, faced with this seemingly insurmountable, not to mention impenetrable, pile of scientific papers upon which to base the report, it’s also easy to feel a little daunted.

I pull myself together. I know that I can do this because I’ve been here before, having successfully delivered reports on a diverse set of topics, from green finance to fish farming – as baffling as some of these topics may have seemed at first.

And sure enough, six months later, Towards the Battery of the Future (as the finished report is now titled) is being handed out to warm approval at high-level international conferences and EU meetings, deemed worthy of attention by top-tier policymakers and captains of industry.

With a glow of satisfaction, I pat myself on the back for having mastered a topic that, initially, I knew very little about. I’m also chuffed to have played a role in sharing the science with wider society.

Research syntheses

Towards the Battery of the Future is one of a number of reports I have worked on for Science for Environment Policy over the past 8 years. It is an example of a research synthesis – a publication which weaves together research, often from multiple disciplines, to support or influence policy.

In Science for Environment Policy’s case, we distill research to help policymakers protect and enhance our environment.

I can tell you from my time on these reports that producing a research synthesis is a tricky business. I am just starting work on a new report which explores the wonders of pollinators, and it feels a good time to reflect upon how best to go about a research synthesis.

An increasing body of scholarly work is assessing the role and impact of research syntheses, and various techniques for creating them1. This has yielded some interesting principles and frameworks, which provide valuable food for thought and guidelines for action.

This blog post is my nuts-and-bolts contribution to the discussion and, below, we have a handful of pointers, drawn from personal experience. These helped me take the batteries report, and those before it, on the journey from a mystifying blur of pixels to a bona fide publication, and one which may just make the world a better place.

1. Talk to real people

A chat with a well-selected expert can clarify more about a topic than days of scouring through research papers (and certainly more than could ever be gleaned from Wikipedia).

Work on the batteries report really got going after some enlightening conversations with the commissioning policy officer in Brussels and my trusty scientific advisor in Germany. Both helped define what we really need to focus on.

Where does the weight of evidence sit? What are the big debates and unknowns? And, seriously, what does roundtrip efficiency actually mean?

Thanks these chats, the words on my screen start to snap into focus, and, armed with a list of useful keywords, I feel ready to take on the research databases and build this report.

(And, turns out roundtrip efficiency is really a very simple concept. Need to know: you don’t want your batteries to leak too much energy when recharging).

2. And talk to lots of different types of people

I lost count of how many people contributed to and reviewed the batteries report. These helpful souls not only offered useful details, but also balance with their diverse backgrounds, from transport to chemicals.

And it’s not just scientists and policymakers who can help. Businesses, consultants and community groups, for example, are all a treasure trove of information and perspective.

I have been transported from my desk in a grey suburb of Bristol to tropical forests of Central America and windswept fish farms of the Baltic Sea, courtesy of telephone conversations with astonishingly obliging contributors.

With my tabula rasa outset for each report, I do often feel a little ignorant during these chats.  I’ve not quite forgiven the guy who actually shouted at me for asking the wrong questions (owing to my ignorance on the particular topic of the report at the time), but I did come out of that conversation much more knowledgeable than when I went in.

A caveat: the more people involved in a report, the longer it takes – and the risk of missing publication in time for key policy events increases, diminishing the report’s potential impact. In practice, synthesis writers are often faced with the challenge of finding the best way to produce robust content within short timeframes (see also: limited budgets).

3. Your reference manager is your best friend

I’ve seen many a writer get in a twist attempting to manually manage the reams of references that make up a report. Problems often arise as a report continually shifts in form throughout its development; citations get lost, bibliographies get muddled.

I’ve adopted Mendeley to overcome these issues, and do all the awkward formatting for me. It’s not perfect, and I’m always keen to know how others deal with their references, but it sure makes life a lot easier.

4. Keep on truckin’

It is the research that goes into developing a report, and not the actual writing, that drains the most time and energy. A day spent filtering and reading papers can amount to just two or three short paragraphs of text. Producing a research synthesis report is, at times, frustratingly arduous.

However, as Towards the Battery of the Future gradually morphed into a rounded product, I was reminded of why I went into science communication in the first place: it’s the perfect excuse to learn new things. The process of translating between the languages of science and the ‘lay person’ is also something I find undeniably satisfying.

Indeed, as I submit the final draft, I’m wishing I could make my own efficient roundtrip – to go back and do it all again.

Michelle Kilfoyle, Science Writer, Science for Environment Policy

  1. Some recent examples:

The Royal Society & the Academy of Medical Sciences (2018) Evidence synthesis for policy: a statement of principles. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/evidence-synthesis/evidence-synthesis-statement-principles.pdf

Wyborn et al. (2018) Understanding the Impacts of Research Synthesis. Environmental Science & Policy. 86: 72–84. DOI:10.1016/J.ENVSCI.2018.04.013

2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition – winner announced!

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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

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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

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