A love affair with science writing: The Max Perutz Award

20171019_234000.jpgNobel Prize winning molecular biologist Dr. Max Perutz believed science makes “the impossible, possible”. He lived by this policy when he began his research on haemoglobin, which required a computer. At the time, the computer didn’t exist. Prof. Robin Perutz, his son, narrated this to us in a room at the Royal Institution in London, lined from ceiling to floor with grand hardbound academic journals, decades in the making. It was the 20th Max Perutz Science Writing Award ceremony and I was a shortlister.

Dr. Max Perutz wanted science to be accessible and both entertain and inform wider audiences, whose lives were improved by research, without being riddled by jargon. This is called science communication, seen across formats such as TV, radio, and of course, writing. Be it press releases, magazines, books or even blogs, writing is instrumental in keeping everyone informed on why research is important.

That is the onus of the Max Perutz Science Writing Award, open to MRC funded students. In an 800 word compelling essay you have to say what your research is and why it should matter. This year over a hundred essays were submitted and narrowed down to fourteen by a judging panel rife with high ranking science journalists. On an ordinary September morning I became one of those fourteen.

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When your mom urges you to speak to the son of the namesake of the award

I chanced upon this award on Twitter and in a few hours I was down the rabbit hole, scanning the MRC website, reading essays of 2016 shortlisters and a guide on ‘The secrets of good science writing’. It felt out of my depth.

Still, I wrote about my research, which addresses the problem of culture impacting answers on cognitive tests and how this is used to indicate dementia in ethnic minorities, even though it shouldn’t. I titled it ‘Avoiding gibberish when assessing for dementia’, then forgot about it for weeks, only stumbling upon the document on the final day for submission.

With a flight in a few hours, I rigorously edited my essay while calling it names, spewing enraged type while making my partner read it repeatedly. I was an angry writer and something was missing. He then gave me the best advice: humanise it. Show the humans involved in and impacted by the research, let their voices appear through words. So I wrote in their roles, their stories and quotes, and submitted half asleep.

Considering this essay’s turbulent birth, I was blindsided when it was shortlisted. The implications of this were that my words had been appreciated by those at the height of science writing, that I was going to attend a prestigious masterclass and an award ceremony brimming with scientific minds, and that my essay would be publicised by the MRC. I was on the nerdiest high possible.

Attending the ceremony with my ecstatic mother, I mingled with shortlisted candidates, their guests and supervisors, the judging panel, the organising team and Prof. Robin Perutz and his wife. Conversation in the air discussed genes, prototypes and breakthroughs while I gaped in awe. And when people remembered my essay I was shocked at the impact. They reflected on how eye opening they found the problem of not accounting for culture in dementia assessment, how necessary this research was. My essay had helped them realise something they hadn’t until now.

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When the ceremony began Prof. Robin gave us a history of Dr. Max while pictures appeared on the projector screen, drawing out the similarities between father and son. When they stated our names I was overwhelmed by my fellow shortlisters, from institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, their essays alluringly titled: “Alcohol, weed, sex: the high trinity”, “Big hearts and giant genes: What lies at the end of the yellow brick road?”, “Watering the strawberry fields of the mind”. Essays that proposed sunshine as an antidepressant, promoted the preservation of placenta, explored childhood obesity in South Africa. I proudly represented Manchester but my essay and I were feeling nervous.

20171019_215347.jpgThen, ten names later with mine nowhere in sight, they announced “And now the winners”. My mother squeezed my hand till our knuckles were white. A blur followed. Judges described my essay as “a strong article that balances narrative and fact and draws the reader in right from the start”. It was commended and I was declared a joint runner up, handed my certificate, a prize check and a pristine copy of “A Field Guide for Science Writing”, shaking hands with the Chairman before being whisked away for photographs.

Later, I was interviewed with the winner and other runner ups, being asked about how I felt. I could only say how lucky I’d been to chance upon the contest, how I almost didn’t submit, how I’d been pulling hairs with my submission and thinking it couldn’t be good enough. But worse than submitting would have been not submitting. I also congratulated the winner, Kirstin Leslie, a student from the University of Glasgow who wrote the hard hitting essay “Can Big Data Mend A Broken Heart?”, which was truly deserving in all its beautiful prose. To have my essay come even close to that was a privilege.

But the greater privilege was experiencing any of this at all and the realisation that I’ve rekindled my love affair with writing in the most peculiar and round about manner. Science writing.

*This post is now featured on the University of Manchester Doctoral Academy website!

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