Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Why I entered the Access to Understanding competition

By Emma Pewsey, Department of Materials Science, University of Cambridge.

I’m a relative newcomer to biosciences – at school, physics and chemistry were more my thing. However, starting a PhD on the corrosion of metal implants in the human body meant I needed to brush up on my biology. It was time to hit the medical journals.
It was easy enough to find papers. However, it was much harder to determine whether they were relevant. Abstracts seemed to compete with each other in squeezing the most technical terms into one sentence. I was lucky – I had plenty of time to go and learn what they meant. Most people don’t.
Once I’d broken through the jargon, I found many of the papers really interesting. I like interesting facts, and the majority of research papers are full of them. Therefore, it’s a shame that they’re so inaccessible to most people.
So I love the idea behind the Access to Understanding competition. I was surprised to learn at the awards ceremony how many non-scientists nowadays need to access research papers – from patient groups to teachers. My own participation in science outreach events has also shown me how much general interest there is in science. And making research more accessible should be a priority for all researchers – after all, who wouldn’t prefer their work to be read by thousands of people, rather than just a couple?
The competition also gave me an excuse to try some science writing – something I’d been meaning to do for ages.
Looking down the list of articles to choose from, I saw one I had to write about. Cortical thickness mapping to identify focal osteoporosis in patients with hip fracture? Yes please.
You see, I have a guilty not-so-secret. I love bones. They are the most fantastic objects in the universe. In particular, I love how they adapt to the forces which we place on them in our everyday lives to create a framework that supports our bodies that tries to be exactly as strong as it needs to be. But sometimes this goes wrong, and bones break. Thanks to the Access to Understanding competition, I got to read a fascinating piece of research that investigated why this happens in hips. If I hadn’t entered the competition, I wouldn’t have read it. I wouldn’t even have known it existed.
When I sent off my entry, I didn’t expect I’d hear anything back about it. I was just happy that I had a new set of interesting facts about hips to share with anyone looking for an interesting fact. I am delighted that winning has brought attention on the work done by Dr Poole’s group at Cambridge, and the range of work funded by Arthritis Research UK. And of course, I’m thrilled with the trophy that now sits in my living room!
My next writing challenge is completely different: a 60,000 word PhD thesis. I’ll make sure to include a lay summary!
Note: Emma recently won the 2013 Access to Understanding science-writing competition for her entry 'Hip, hip, hooray!' explaining research that investigated the causes of hip fracture in the elderly.

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