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From Max P winner to award-winning journalist

by Guest Author on 20 Jun 2019

Kirstin Leslie, MRC PhD student at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, won our 2017 Max Perutz Science Writing Award for her article “Can big data mend a broken heart?”. More recently, she was crowned the Association of British Science Writers Student Science Journalist of the Year. We caught up with Kirstin, who tells us how taking part in our competition sparked her science writing success.

Kirstin being awarded the Association of British Science Writers Student Science Journalist of the Year Award 2019. Image credit: Trevor Aston Photograph

Kirstin being awarded the Association of British Science Writers Student Science Journalist of the Year Award 2019. Image credit: Trevor Aston Photography

Winning the Max Perutz prize at the beginning of my PhD research ignited a passion for writing that’s been going strong ever since. I’ve written multiple articles for theGIST (The Glasgow Insight into Science and Technology – a local student science magazine) about events like Pint of Science, Glasgow Skeptics, and Glasgow Science Festival, and topics ranging from competition in academia to contraception.

Last month, the Association of British Science Writers awarded me the prize for Student Science Journalist of the Year – something I don’t think I could have achieved without that first gentle nudge toward writing about science.

Cutting out jargon

It’s true that writing about your research for a public audience can be hard. Especially with a topic that you‘re living-and-breathing every day, it’s difficult to separate the science that you think about constantly from what’s common knowledge. Once, when I was writing an article about open data, my editor pulled me up for referring to ‘data cleaning’ without explaining it. After having spent the better part of a year tediously tidying up large datasets, I’d completely forgotten that this isn’t a concept everyone would be familiar with – how I long for a time when I didn’t know what it was either!

But if you can separate yourself from the jargon that fills your day-to-day, it can be easier to write about your work. It’s something you know inside out – you can’t successfully break a topic down into simple ideas unless you thoroughly understand it first.

To improve your writing, it helps to read articles from a broad range of outlets. You get a sense of different tones and styles compared to the technical language we deal with in journals. Gaining some editing experience can also be hugely beneficial. It’s much easier to see what works and what doesn’t when it isn’t your own article.

Why does your research matter?

While I may spend more time than I should writing, editing, and managing submissions for theGIST, I wouldn’t have it any other way. A PhD is about developing as a researcher and a great opportunity to train and cultivate other skill sets as well. At least, that’s how I spin it to myself when I want to justify taking a few hours off from analysis for science communication.

I’d recommend taking part in the Max Perutz competition to any MRC-funded PhD student, and not just for the prize money. Taking time out from your everyday work to contemplate ‘why does my research matter’ is a great way to reassure yourself that it does – especially when you’re starting to get bogged-down in methods, study design, and chapter writing.

If you are an MRC-supported PhD student with an interest in communicating your science to a wider audience, then the Max Perutz Science Writing Award is for you. We want you to tell us why your research matters.

Entries must be submitted by 17:00 on Wednesday 26 June.

The winner will receive a prize of £1,500. All shortlisted entrants will receive an award and are invited to a science writing masterclass and awards ceremony in central London.

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