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Insight blog: Posts tagged with science writing

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease

26 Oct 2018

Congratulations to MRC PhD student Natasha Clarke, from St George’s, University of London, winner of our 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Award. In her award-winning article she describes how teaching machines to detect changes in language could help with early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Award-winner Natasha (centre) with other shortlisted entrants (behind), judge Andy Ridgway
(front row left), MRC Executive Chair Professor Fiona Watt who chaired the judging panel
(front row, second from right) and Professor Robin Perutz, son of Max Perutz (front row right).

I’d like to give you a quick task. How do you make a cup of tea? Describe it out loud. Whilst this could lead to some controversies (milk in first, or last?) it seems fairly simple. But what if I told you that this task could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease? [...]

Continue reading: How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease

Max Perutz Award science writing tips

30 May 2018

Our Max Perutz Science Writing Award is now in its 21st year. To help 2018 entrants, Isabel Harding shares science writing tips from last year’s winner and runners-up, along with comments from the judges on why their articles made the cut. This year’s competition closes on 4 July.

Read around

Kirstin Leslie

Kirstin Leslie

Kirstin Leslie, from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, was our 2017 winner. She recommends reading around to help with your science writing: “I feel like if you do read a lot and absorb a lot of material yourself you’ll be able to learn techniques from other writers.

“And without even releasing it I think you can gain a lot of skills through that. It’s just a really useful exercise to think about your research in a way that is relatable to people and is entertaining to people and I think it’s just a really good thing to do.” [...]

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At the placenta of everything

22 Nov 2017

A runner-up in our 2017 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, PhD student Lara Morley of the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine describes how she’s looking for ways to treat a failing placenta, by increasing the blood supply to the baby in the womb.

With the emergency buzzer still ringing in my ears, I feel my adrenaline subside as I bring a much anticipated new life out into the world and into the arms of its anxious parents. After all, the outcome of a pregnancy has profound implications for the lives of us all; ourselves, partners, sisters and friends. But in all the excitement of welcoming a baby into the world, the vital job of the placenta is often overlooked. [...]

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Avoiding gibberish when assessing for dementia

7 Nov 2017

In her runner-up article for our 2017 Max Perutz Science Writing Award Nadine Mirza, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, explains why changes are needed to a routine test for diagnosing dementia, unbiased by language or culture, to prevent incorrect diagnoses.

Have you heard the saying “No ifs ands or buts”? Associated with grannies and teachers, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t. It’s also a saying used in the ACE, a test implemented across the UK to detect dementia. An individual has to read the saying out loud with correct pronunciation. When directly translated into Urdu it loses meaning and becomes gibberish and reading out gibberish isn’t a smooth task. Even a fluent Urdu speaker might fail. But would we attribute that to dementia? Apparently, yes. [...]

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Can big data mend a broken heart?

20 Oct 2017

Kirstin Leslie, MRC PhD student at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, is the 2017 winner of our Max Perutz Science Writing Award. In her award-winning article she explains how she’s trying to find out why people stop taking drugs prescribed for preventing heart disease, and why this matters.

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all”

That’s actually a quote from the TV show Futurama but it’s also a clear way of explaining why people are not always good at taking their medications. Imagine: you‘re taking a drug to prevent yourself from having a heart attack. But if you don’t feel any different after taking the drug, how can you know it’s even worked? Maybe you weren’t going to have a heart attack anyway? Maybe the drug you’re taking is giving you side-effects and besides, it isn’t worth it because you felt fine before. You don’t want to bother your doctor getting a new prescription and your blood pressure wasn’t that high anyway…So you stop taking your drugs and you hope for the best.

But heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. And it’s preventable. [...]

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Practice – not miracles – makes perfect

19 Jan 2017

Ainslie Johnstone, PhD student at the University of Oxford, studies the amazing ability of the brain to reorganise and adapt after injury. In her commended 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing Award article she describes how enhancing this process could help with brain injury recovery.

On 8 January 2011 Gabrielle Giffords, a US congresswoman, was shot in the head at point-blank range. The bullet struck Giffords’ forehead on the left-hand side and travelled straight through her brain, destroying everything in its path. [...]

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Shedding some real light on lung cancer

11 Jan 2017

Paul Cowling, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, received a commendation prize in our 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing competition. In his article, he explains how fluorescent molecules could help with early, and faster, diagnosis of lung cancer.

It is June, and twilight sets in over the bustling beer garden. I take a drink from my pint before returning my attention to my friend Chris who is ranting about the state of affairs at Newcastle Football Club. He finishes venting his anger over the team’s lacklustre performances and proceeds to light a cigarette. [...]

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Cholangiocarcinoma: The cancer you’ve never heard of

24 Nov 2016

Katie EmberIn her runner-up article for the 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katie Ember, a PhD student at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, explains how she is using light to improve detection of a rare cancer.

It’s just as vital to our survival as our hearts. But the first time I watched a human liver being dissected, I realised how little I knew about this incredible organ.  [...]

Continue reading: Cholangiocarcinoma: The cancer you’ve never heard of

Braking perceptions of traffic pollution

14 Oct 2016

Liza Selley won the Max Perutz writing prize 2016. Liza is a PhD student at Imperial College London studying the negative effects of brake dust emissions on human health and the economy. Here she shares her winning essay explaining why her research matters.maxp-winner

It’s been splashed across the papers – traffic pollution is a menace. Striking 30,000 of us each year with heart disease, respiratory illnesses and lung cancer, vehicle fumes kill four times as many people as car accidents and hospitalise a great many more. [...]

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Max Perutz: science communicator

12 May 2014

Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”

He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.

His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited. [...]

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