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PhD student shortlisted for Max Perutz Science Writing Award

Published: 19 January 2023

PhD student Emily Woodcock was recently shortlisted for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award which recognises the ability to clearly communicate scientific research with non-scientific audiences.

Emily says, “Each year, PhD students funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) can enter the Max Perutz Science Writing Award competition. I first heard about the competition in the first year of my PhD and each year I wanted to enter but never found the time. When I received the reminder email last summer, I thought it would be my last opportunity to enter and that I should give it a go.

“The award excited me as I had never had the opportunity to write for a lay scientific audience about my PhD project. I spend all my time reading scientific papers and writing for a scientific audience, but I wanted to challenge myself to describe my project in a more creative way. The winner of the prize also had their article published in The Observer newspaper which was really appealing.

“My PhD project aims to understand how the stiffness of an individual cancer cell changes in order to help them spread throughout the body. I tried to come up with an analogy using everyday items to explain the concept because when I tell people I work on cell stiffness I usually get “what on earth is that?”

“In the article, I explain how a hard golf ball and a soft stress ball both have a different stiffness, and it is this softness or hardness which helps it to do its job. If you then tried to push the hard golf ball or soft stress ball through a tube, you would expect only the stress ball to emerge at the other end. I used this analogy to explain that the cells in our body can also be soft or hard, and that cancer cells may change their stiffness to squeeze through a blood vessel (tube) and spread in the body.”

Emily then went onto explain where her enthusiasm for her PhD topic originated.

“I really enjoyed my cancer research modules in my undergraduate degree so I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in cancer biology. When I found my current project, I found the idea of using novel microscopy techniques to look at individual cancer cells fascinating. I thought the whole project was really exciting and very unique.”

Emily’s submission for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award this year, titled 'Cancer: it's a hard cell', was shortlisted as one of the ten best submissions received by the MRC this year.

“I was quite shocked when I received the email to say I had been shortlisted. The MRC received over 150 entries this year, so I was not expecting to make it to the top ten, especially as this was my first time entering.

“As my article was shortlisted, I was able to attend a writing masterclass with Claire Ainsworth, freelance science journalist. I also attended the award ceremony at the Royal College of Physicians where Professor Robin Perutz, son of the late Dr Max Perutz, announced the winner. It felt wonderful to attend the awards evening and to be surrounded by such amazing scientific and writing talent. If you are eligible, I would urge you to enter the writing award, you may surprise yourself with what you can achieve.”

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