Tuesday, 2 April 2013

My reflections on the Access to Understanding competition

By Claire Sand, Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, King's College London

The Access to Understanding competition had instant appeal for me because it seemed to combine my two greatest interests – science and writing. I have always been fascinated with the human body (particularly in disease), and am currently working on my PhD in cardiovascular research, but having been an avid reader all my life, I have an equally strong interest in language and semantics. I’ve often thought of medical journalism as a potential future career option, but never had the opportunity to test my skills and gain feedback from readers outside of academic science. Placing in the top three has provided me with validation that this is a viable path to take, and I feel encouraged and inspired to pursue this type of writing further.

Coming from a family of non-scientists I have always been keen to share exciting discoveries (whether my own or others’) in terms that won’t be off-putting. In addition to the personal satisfaction that can be gained from sparking scientific interest in non-experts, I also believe that this type of public engagement is essential on a number of other levels. I have often found non-scientists to be refractory to hearing about research because they have preconceived notions that they won’t understand, or that they are being patronised. Science as a profession (and especially animal research) seems to be shrouded in mystery, and is generally viewed at best with disinterest, and at worst with suspicion.

When people ask me what I do for a living, my reply of “I work in medical science” is often met with “Oh right” and a rapid change of subject – people don’t seem to have a concept of what this job actually involves, and are usually not particularly keen to find out, or don’t know what questions to ask. At first this reaction surprised me: medical breakthroughs always elicit great public excitement (and praise of doctors), but I am becoming increasingly aware of an information ‘black hole’ in medical progress; many people are entirely unaware of the years of lab work that go into understanding a disease and developing new drugs to target it. This is, more than anything, the result of poor communication by scientists. In a time where money for research is more and more difficult to come by, we as scientists should be trying to get people excited about our research. Raising awareness of the origin of medicines, and engaging with both the public and policy makers is the only way to ensure the future of scientific funding. I am hopeful that down the line the efforts of public engagement schemes like Access to Understanding will demystify the process of medical research and will open more doors into the extraordinary and awe-inspiring world of science.

Note: Claire was one of the winners (awarded joint second place) of the 2013 Access to Understanding science-writing competition for her entry 'Blood vessels from skin: the new frontier in tissue engineering', which describes research published in the article 'Direct reprogramming of fibroblasts into endothelial cells capable of angiogenesis and reendothelialization in tissue-engineered vessels'.

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