Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2016

I remember, a couple of years ago, seeing an advert by the Medical Research Council (MRC) for a science writing competition and subsequently being bitterly disappointed when I found out it was only for PhD students. Luckily, it’s an annual competition and even more fortunately, The Francis Crick Institute is partly funded by the MRC so that I was eligible to enter.

Now – spoiler alert – before this post ends with an absolute anti-climax, I’ll tell you straight away that I didn’t win. However, I enjoyed answering the question why my research matters in the 800-word essayNot all cancer cells are equal“. The judges used three main criteria to evaluate the essays: 1) Does the essay convincingly explain why the research matters? 2) Is it easy to understand for a public audience? 3) Is the essay well written?

Although I didn’t win, I was shortlisted together with thirteen other entrants and got to attend a science writing masterclass led by Jon Copley, the co-founder of SciConnect, a company that provides science communication training to scientists. The News and Features producer at the MRC was live-tweeting from this course – how cool is that?

The class was really helpful. For instance, I learnt that when writing short to medium length articles (up to 1000 words maximum) the most common structure is the “inverted triangle”. The most important information goes first, i.e. my research matters because it may lead to the development of new anti-cancer drugs. This is different from a research article because there the discussion and conclusion are arguably the most important and come last. I think most essays, including mine, had introductions that were too long. Another handy tip was to think about when/at what age I last shared a class with my target audience. For these essays we could probably assume that interested readers would have had a science education until GCSE level – so we were supposed to write in a way that a fifteen year old might understand.


Inverted triangle essay structure for short to medium length articles – copied directly from Wikipedia

When I looked around the room during the writing class – and you might notice it in the photo – I realised that everyone else was probably British and definitely white. At first I was a little bit confused by this since, surely, there is no correlation between skin colour and English writing skills; of last year’s six Man Booker Prize nominees only two were white. But it all made sense when I looked up the MRC’s PhD student funding policy: students need to be eligible to reside in the UK without restrictions and therefore this skews the demographic. [Why higher education in the UK is not more widely accessed is a whole different kettle of fish.]


The fourteen shortlisters together with two of the judges, Chris van Tulleken and Donald Brydon, and Robin Perutz, the son of Max Perutz – image copied directly from the MRC website

To round off the day we were all invited to the ceremony at the Royal Institution that evening. In addition to the actual prize-giving, both Donald Drydon, chairman of the MRC, and Robin Perutz, Max Perutz’s son, gave good speeches. The former emphasised that science communication with the public is more important than ever for securing support and funding, since Brexit probably means there will be less money from the government.

Your ability to explain your science allows us, as a country, to carry on being curious. – Donald Brydon

Robin Perutz told a story, also very topical, about how his father and mother met due to an organisation called the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL, founded in 1933), which had the mandate of supporting refugee scientists in the UK. Among others, the SPSL helped sixteen future Nobel Prize winners, among which were Max Perutz, Max Born and Hans Krebs. Other prominent academics included Nikolaus Pevsner and Karl Popper. Robin Perutz, currently a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of York, explained that his lab is taking/has taken in a scientist from Syria who is being funded by the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara). And it turns out that Cara is none other than SPSL under a new name.

Lastly, we received a copy of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Who can say no to a book. Overall, from the actual essay writing to the writing class and the ceremony this was an enjoyable experience, which I would highly recommend. Thanks to all the judges and the MRC staff who organised the award. Congratulations to the winners and other almost winners!


Now that I think about it, I’ve actually already written a few things relating to Max Perutz, including about his biography, his optimism in research and a symposium in honour of his 100th birthday. It seems I’m quite the fan.


A Short (Literary) Digression

Instead of bombarding you with too much text I thought I would share this YouTube channel with you, which is run by the journal Cell and features the authors of some of the papers published there as they explain their own research in a few minutes. Admittedly, some videos are more accessible than others, but browsing through is certainly a valid form of procrastination.

On the more literary front, I received a complimentary copy of this book in the post last week:


In fourteen chapters it outlines various career paths that biomedical scientists might take after doing a PhD and post-doc positions, ranging from science policy and patent law to science writing and publishing. Probably the three main take-home messages are that a) it is important to network (whatever that really means), b) one has to be somewhat daring in who one is willing to contact about potential jobs, and c) serendipity is usually involved in the process somewhere.

Moving from scientific self-help book to non-fiction/biography: I finally managed to finish Georgina Ferry’s biography of Max Perutz:


Perutz was a crystallographer and molecular biologist. Originally from Vienna, he went to Cambridge to do his PhD, where, apart from being deported to Canada during World War II as an “enemy alien”, he stayed until his death. Together with John Kendrew he won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1962 for “studies of the structures of globular proteins”. Undoubtedly a great researcher, and possibly an even greater mentor who founded and guided the prestigious Laboratory of Molecular Biology, he was certainly also a slightly difficult person to deal with. His constant psychosomatic illnesses, although certainly real ailments, drove some people up the wall. I wonder whether “great” and famous people become difficult as a result of their greatness and fame, or whether they have to be difficult in the first place to achieve greatness? If it’s the former then I’m not sure I want to become a great researcher, and if it’s the latter then by being quite “normal” (as I would like to believe) it seems unlikely that I ever will be a great researcher.

Although this is now moving from non-fiction to fiction, Candide by Voltaire is still in the realm of philosophy. If you are feeling strong and robust then I recommend this short 18th century novel for a rainy afternoon. But be prepared to be faced with the (irrefutable?) truth that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, even if, like in this picture, it sometimes might seem that we do.

image1If, on the other hand, you are not feeling up to Voltaire, then why not go see Interstellar? It was valuable in that it taught me some poetry by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.