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By Roger Highfield on

Winners show how good writing helps science to thrive

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, announces the winners of the Medical Research Council’s annual Max Perutz Science Writing Award.

‘True science thrives best in glass houses where everyone can look in. When the windows are blacked out, as in war, the weeds take over; when secrecy muffles criticism, charlatans and cranks flourish’

– Dr Max Perutz (1914-2002)

The spirit of the great Max Perutz lives on in the Medical Research Council’s annual science writing award, which this year has been won by MRC-funded doctoral researcher Natasha Clarke, of St George’s, University of London.

Winner Natasha Clarke and Professor Fiona Watt

In her winning essay, Natasha described her efforts to use machine learning to detect changes in language could help with early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and remarked that she was ‘excited and absolutely chuffed’ to win the prize because she enjoys ‘trying to make things more easily understandable’.

Max Perutz was himself a brilliant writer, who contributed regularly to the New York Review of Books, and was a distinguished scientist who in 1962 shared the Nobel Prize for using X-rays to reveal the atomic structures of the proteins haemoglobin and myoglobin.

I was privileged to have dealt with Max Perutz over several decades as a journalist, from his campaigning against the decline in British science, when Lady Thatcher was prime minister, to his death in cancer, aged 87, after he had written farewell letters to friends, colleagues, the Queen, the Pope and Lady Thatcher, whom he came to respect after they met in 1989.

That is why it was such an honour to help judge the prize this year, along with Claire Ainsworth, freelance journalist and science writer; Stephen Curry, journalist and science writer; Andy Ridgway, journalist and Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England in Bristol; Jennifer Rohn, journalist, novelist and scientist at University College London, along with the MRC’s Executive Chair and Chair of the judging panel Professor Fiona Watt.

Professor Fiona Watt speaking at the MRC Max Perutz Award ceremony

‘This year we received a record number of entries, from about 10% of MRC-funded PhD students,’ said Professor Watt, also Director, Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine, King’s College London. ‘Our PhD students do a brilliant job at bringing their research to life – using everyday language, rhetorical devices and personal anecdotes.’

Natasha Clarke is now £1,500 better off after she won this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award. Additional prizes of £750 went to the runner-up Briet Bjarkadottir, of the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford, for her article: ‘Stopping the conveyor belt – cancer and fertility’, and £400 to Fraser Shearer, of the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh, whose article: ‘Keep calm and carry to term’ was commended.

The awards were announced in a ceremony last week held at the Royal Institution by Professor Watt with Professor Robin Perutz, his son, who remarked: ‘Max would be really pleased the competition is still going. He was very keen that people engage with science and he enjoyed putting the message across.’

Robin Perutz speaking at the MRC Max Perutz Award ceremony

The Max Perutz Award is now in its 21st year and encourages MRC-funded PhD students to communicate their work to a wider audience, explaining why their research matters in just 800 words. Since the competition started in 1998, more than 1,000 researchers have entered.

Congratulations to the other entries who made the shortlist this year:

Sonja Klingberg, MRC Epidemiology Unit and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research: ‘Obesity prevention: learning to do no harm’

Nuzhat Banu Ashra, University of Leicester: ‘Pregnant women: urine good hands’

Helen Parker, University of Edinburgh: ‘Coughs and sneezes spread drug-resistant diseases’

Stephanie Louise Cumberworth, MRC University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research: ‘The Zika virus and the ‘brain in a dish’’

Kevin O’Gallagher, King’s College London: ‘Heart-Beets’

Emily Granger, The University of Manchester: ‘Confounded by medical data: can we trust what researchers say?’

Gesa Albers, National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London: ‘Immune cell diet, cure for asthma?’

Award-winner Natasha (centre) with other shortlisted entrants (behind), judge Andy Ridgway (front row left), MRC Executive Chair Professor Fiona Watt who chaired the judging panel (front row, second from right) and Professor Robin Perutz, son of Max Perutz (front row right)

While the prize celebrates his skills as a communicator, Max Perutz’s scientific legacy lives on in the form of Britain’s most successful laboratory, the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, which he himself founded and today is seen as a ‘Nobel Prize factory’: in all 12 laureates have worked there.

Many important innovations arose in the LMB: from a technique for producing unlimited numbers of individual, or monoclonal, antibodies, now in widespread use for diagnosis and treatment; ‘humanised’ antibodies, which would earn around £900 million for the MRC over 25 years, and their developer Sir Greg Winter a share of one of the latest crop of Nobel Prizes; and the development of a method to read genetic code by Dr Fred Sanger, who won two Nobel Prizes, one for the feat of finding an efficient way to sequence DNA and the second for unlocking the structure of the protein insulin.

Much work at the lab continues Max Perutz’s efforts to determine the three-dimensional atomic structure of proteins, from the 1997 Nobel that went to Sir John Walker for the details of the molecular energy machine, ATP synthase, to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan’s Nobel in 2009 for elucidating the structure of the ribosome, the molecular machine that turns genes into flesh and bone, and the development of an alternative to using X-rays by Richard Henderson, who shared the Nobel Prize last year for developing the technique of cryo-electron microscopy.

Next year, the Science Museum will unveil its £24m medicine galleries, which will transform the first floor of the Museum, creating a magnificent new home for its medicine collections.