Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Out of my comfort zone

By Claire Sand, PhD student at King's College London

Note: Claire Sand was highly commended for her entry this year. She was a joint second-place winner in Access to Understanding 2013 competition. Check back tomorrow to read her entry.

After my fantastic experience at Access to Understanding 2013, I was very keen to be involved again this year. My first entry had inspired me to think about pursuing science writing as a potential career path, and since such a job would require me to write about a wide range of subjects, I was keen to test my ability to write about a topic of which I had no prior experience – namely cancer. This allowed me to learn something about a field entirely different from my own area of research (cardiovascular science), and I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand a new subject well enough to be able to explain it clearly to other non-experts.  

Access to Understanding 2013: Claire Sand won joint 2nd prize. Pictured here with BHF representative Henry French.

I picked the Cancer Research paper for two reasons: firstly, because I saw it had come from the Institute of Cancer Research in London. As a naïve and slightly misguided undergraduate, I had actually applied for a PhD at the ICR in 2010 (despite having taken no modules in cancer biology), because I was sure it would be an interesting disease to investigate. My ignorance on the subject became embarrassingly apparent at my interview session, and I was not offered the post (a rejection for which I have always been grateful, as I have since discovered that cardiovascular science is my true passion). I had been deeply impressed by this very serious and prestigious institution, however, so I was curious to see what kind of research they were pursuing.

The second reason that I was drawn to this paper was that I could immediately appreciate its clinical significance. As someone who struggled to choose between medicine and science careers, I have always been inspired by research with a strong disease focus, and the relevance of this study to human pathology was very evident. I know from my own field that a considerable proportion of studies carried out in animals later turn out to have limited application in humans, so I was excited to see that the scientists’ findings in lab mice were recapitulated in human samples.

As I have never really followed the cancer literature, I had to spend some time reading around the subject, in order to understand how this research built on current concepts of cancer therapy; particularly how it might help to overcome the disadvantages of using indiscriminate VEGF-blocking drugs. The substantial achievement of these scientists was impressed upon me, the more I read, and I was left feeling hopeful that these studies could truly lead to meaningful advances for cancer sufferers. I was also encouraged to find that I was able to obtain a basic understanding of a field previously unfamiliar to me, and an appreciation of the significance of a piece of research, without excessive time commitments. The publication of lay abstracts and clinical impact assessments with each new research paper, however, would undoubtedly facilitate faster dissemination of new findings to a wider audience (and help scientists keep abreast of progress in areas outside their expertise!).

I was delighted to be short-listed again this year, and really enjoyed the awards ceremony, which was very well run, with enormously interesting guest speakers. I was fortunate to be able to meet one of the authors of my chosen research paper; we had a fascinating conversation, in which he updated me on the progress of his research. I was especially pleased to have been selected once I read the contributions of the other short-listed candidates; the standard of writing this year was exceptionally high, with some truly brilliant phraseology. The winning entry, in particular, stood out immediately, and as a lay reader in the field of neuroscience, I found it immensely gratifying to read such a fluid and lucid description of a physiological process I had previously never had occasion to question.

Access to Understanding 2014: Claire Sand pictured looking through competition booklet before the ceremony.

I will definitely continue to participate in Access to Understanding, not only because I find it personally rewarding, but also because I think the remit of the competition – to increase public awareness of science, by encouraging scientists to share their work – is enormously important for the future of scientific research and medical advancement. In this endeavour, I believe Europe PMC has already been successful: the fact that there were thousands of votes for the People’s Choice Award suggests that there is an appetite for information amongst the public, and that people are curious about these studies that for centuries have been carried out behind the closed doors of limited access and impenetrable jargon. Public engagement ventures are opening those doors, and can only serve to improve the quality of our research efforts, by making scientists more accountable, and by inspiring people to become involved in or donate funds to worthwhile and potentially life-changing research. 

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