MRC celebrates science communication and 25 years of impact

Maz Perutz award winners standing and smiling

In the 25th year of its annual writing competition, the Medical Research Council (MRC) celebrates this year’s winner and the impact of the award.

After 2 years of virtual ceremonies, on the evening of 20 October 2022, we held our MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award ceremony in-person at the Royal College of Physicians.

At the event, we recognised the science-writing efforts of 10 MRC PhD students shortlisted for the 2022 award and celebrated the award’s 25th anniversary.

The award aims to encourage and recognise outstanding written communication by MRC PhD students. Run as an annual science writing competition, it challenges students to explain why their research matters in 1,100 words for a non-scientific audience.

And the 2022 award goes to

Congratulations to Emily Cornish, an MRC Clinical Research Training Fellow at University College London for taking home the 2022 winning prize of £1,500.

Emily’s article, ‘Hope after Grace: tackling recurrent pregnancy loss’, is about research into a rare placental disorder that causes pregnancy loss and can only be diagnosed after the birth.

Emily’s article brought one of our judges to tears. Our judging panel described it as:

powerful writing from a scientist with a genuine empathy for their patients. It’s a beautifully structured piece that is engaging throughout. The story unfolds in front of the reader as we learn more about the progress of their PhD research into a rare placenta disorder that can tragically cause pregnancy loss.

Inspirational prize

On winning the award, Emily said:

I am so thrilled to have won this inspirational prize.

It has given me a brilliant opportunity to raise the profile of a neglected and devastating disease. And to highlight the courage of the women who have suffered recurrent pregnancy loss because of it.

They deserve to have their story told and I’m really grateful to the judges for this chance.

Finding amazing science writers

For the third year in a row, our media partners, The Observer, published the winning article.

On our continued partnership, Science and Technology Editor of The Observer, Ian Tucker said:

The Observer partners with MRC because it’s fantastic to give a platform to all the incredible research MRC funds.

It’s great to show that work to a general readership and along the way we might find a young amazing new science writer.

Runner-up and commended

Well done to Anastasia Theodosiou, an MRC Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Southampton for taking home the runner-up prize of £750.

In her article, ‘Star-struck: exploring the secret universe of bacteria’, Anastasia describes how the microbiome develops in newborn babies and its relationship to the mother’s bacteria.

And also, congratulations to Rebecca Williams from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, for receiving the commended prize of £400.

Rebecca’s article, ‘Apathy research: why should we bother?’ focuses on understanding the brain circuits that cause apathy and its association with a rare form of dementia, which affects her grandfather.

A lasting legacy and 25 years of impact

The award is named after the eminent scientist and Nobel Laureate Dr Max Perutz, who was a passionate advocate for communicating science and engaging people with research. Dr Perutz was a molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962.

Over the last 25 years, thousands of MRC PhD students have entered the competition to communicate their research to the public.

At the ceremony we showed a video looking at the impact of the award on the research and careers of previous winners and finalists. They credit the award with giving them a confidence boost to continue with their research and helping them to secure support for new research ideas.

Others have gone on to do TV science presenting, like Dr Chris van Tulleken who presents CBBC’s Operation Ouch! Or be finalists in the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) Awards, like Vicky Bennett and Katrina Wesencraft.

Credit: MRC
On-screen captions available on YouTube.

Bringing ideas to life

One of those previous MRC students in the video is Professor Andrew Bastawrous.

Professor Bastawrous is the CEO of Peek Vision and Professor in Global Eye Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He was the recipient of the 2012 award and gave an inspiring talk about how entering the award gave him the opportunity to explain his work in an engaging way.

It helped him bring his ideas to life and secure support for launching his social enterprise called Peek Vision.

This brings better vision and eye health for the millions of people worldwide who need it in low- and middle-income countries.

Fruitful and rewarding experience

Speaking of what he gained from entering the award, Professor Bastawrous said:

The MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award was an opportunity for me to step back in the midst of setting up my MRC-funded PhD and answer the question posed, ‘why my research matters?’.

Taking the time to clarify the why and be able to succinctly articulate it for a lay audience was a fruitful and rewarding experience.

On why he thinks others should enter, he said:

Taking a moment to pause and ask ‘why’ is vital.

The act of stopping and writing forces us to be clear on the purpose of what we are doing and to make it accessible to wider audiences.

Prestigious judging panel

For the second year in a row the award ceremony was hosted by award-winning science journalist, broadcaster and producer, Sue Nelson. Joining Sue on the evening was the chair of our prestigious judging panel, Dr Jennifer Anderson, MRC Head of Training and Careers.

The 2022 judging panel included:

  • Samira Ahmed, Journalist and Broadcaster
  • Dr Roger Highfield, MRC Council Member and Science Director of the Science Museum Group
  • Zara Hussan, Student and ABSW Young Science Writer of the Year
  • Andy Ridgway, Journalist and Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England, Bristol
  • Ian Tucker, Science and Technology Editor of The Observer

Forging public dialogue

Dr Anderson said:

Meeting our research students is one of the best parts of my job. The award is one of several initiatives we run to encourage and support our scientists to communicate their research to the public.

This fulfils an important part of MRC’s mission of forging public dialogue around medical research.

Speaking about the importance of science communication, Dr Highfield said:

I think it’s so important that communication is taken seriously as a core skill of any great researcher.

Look at Max Perutz himself, he’s the living embodiment of someone who won a Nobel Prize and yet was an absolutely supreme communicator.

Hope and inspiration

Reflecting on the award, Samira Ahmed added:

It gave me real hope and inspiration for the next future of scientists and medics, who are going into the world with such compassion and ethical awareness, as well as these really interesting ground-breaking areas of research.

The evening also included a talk from special guest speaker, Professor Robin Perutz, son of the late Max Perutz. In his presentation, Robin shared Max’s and MRC’s decades long history of research in the structures of DNA, proteins and viruses.

He spoke about Max’s passion for communicating science to the public, the importance of stopping the spread of misinformation, and encouraged the students to keep writing.

A masterful afternoon and a science writing membership

In the afternoon before the ceremony, the shortlisted students had the chance to attend a science writing masterclass led by Dr Claire Ainsworth from SciConnect.

In addition, all 10 shortlisted students received a year free membership from the ABSW.

Top image:  Credit: Joel Knight

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