Tuesday, 29 April 2014

“So what exactly do you do?”

By Clare Finlay, a PhD student at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Disease, King's College London

Note: Clare was highly commended for her entry. Check back tomorrow to read her brilliant summary on the blog.

This is a question encountered by many a scientist, as the relevance of the receptor, enzyme or gene they have spent several years characterising is lost on their friends and family, who have never even heard of it let alone know what it does. Traditionally the world of science has been quite insular, with academics mainly explaining their research to other academics, so the automatic response is to give a brief summary using the jargon to which researchers have become accustomed. All too often the person asking the question is left none-the-wiser.

I entered the Europe PMC Access to Understanding science-writing competition because I wanted to have a go at improving my answer to this familiar query. I admit to having previously resorted to the kind of technical spiel that elicits glazed expressions and shrugged shoulders, so I wanted to learn how to adapt the way I explain research in order to make everyone care about scientific developments in the way that I do.

8 of the 10 shortlisted scientists: (from L to R) Aidan Maartens (3rd), Clare Finlay, Elizabeth McAdam (2nd), John Foster, Claire Sand, Christopher Waite, Helle Bogetofte, Elizabeth Kirkham (1st)
Part of explaining science is explaining the process behind it. I was attracted to the paper I summarised, Combination of MEK and SRC inhibition suppresses melanoma cell growth and invasion, because it sought to address an all too familiar problem: the failure of promising drugs in clinical trials. Drug discovery is exceptionally complicated, involving years of preclinical research and many early-stage failures to produce a single new drug ready for testing in clinical trials. Given the complexity and variability of human physiology, many of these drugs will then fail to produce the desired outcome, as happened in the case of the drug investigated in this paper. This kind of result can cause some to lose faith, believing that the time and money dedicated to the research has come to nothing, however it is vital that the public understands that the results of a clinical trial are not the only meaningful chapter in the drug discovery story.

The research and development process leads to valuable new discoveries along the way that increase scientific understanding and inform future experiments, and the results described in the paper I summarised are an example of this. Not only did they suggest a reason why the anti-cancer drug tested may have failed to produce the expected clinical outcome in trials, but also a potential way to restore its benefits by coadministration with another anti-cancer drug. These important findings are often lost to the public because they are published in jargon-heavy articles and hidden away in specialist journals, often behind a pay-wall. If they were reported in clearer language and in a publically accessible location, more people would appreciate the value of research beyond clinical trials and would be more likely to support future studies as a result.

It can be hard to take a step back and think about explaining research in a more general way when you work in a field that values succinctness, and indeed has whole societies dedicated to ensuring everyone uses the same technical language and nomenclature. However I would encourage every scientist to try to remember the words that inspired them to love science when they were back at school, and I guarantee that although the words were simpler, the concepts described were still so fantastical that they made us want to learn more.

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