News blog

Updates from Europe PMC, a global database of life sciences literature

Europe PMC team

 | 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.

Post a comment

I agree to the limited use of my personal data as described in the Europe PMC advanced user services privacy policy.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Subscribe to the Europe PMC News blog to receive the latest updates

This website requires cookies, and the limited processing of your personal data in order to function. By using the site you are agreeing to this as outlined in our privacy notice and cookie policy.

Partnerships & funding

Europe PMC is a service of the Europe PMC Funders' Group, in partnership with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI); and in cooperation with the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NCBI/NLM) . It includes content provided to the PubMed Central (NLM/PMC) archive by participating publishers.