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Winning ways – meet the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize winners

3 Jan, 2011

Penny Sarchet

One competition, 800 entries, two winners: 2011 saw the first ever Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, in association with the Guardian and the Observer. I met up with the winners to find out more.

Penny Sarchet, winner of the professional category

Doctoral research student, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford.

What’s your background?

During my PhD I realised that I really missed the reading and writing that I did as an undergraduate. I started writing for a couple of student magazines and the Oxford Science Blog, and have built it up from there. Since March, I’ve been juggling freelance work alongside my PhD.

Where did you get the idea for your article?

Whilst working on a piece for the Oxford University alumni magazine, I came across a press release from Irene Tracey’s lab, who had been looking at the nocebo effect in pain relief and pain perception. I’d never heard about an opposite of the placebo effect, or the ‘evil twin’, as it’s often called. I found it really fascinating.

Who inspires you?

I’ve done some pieces on Martin Brasier, who’s in the Oxford University Earth Sciences department. He’s interested in the origin of life, and has found one of the earliest and most complex fossils in a loch in Scotland. He’s been a real inspiration. I also enjoyed speaking to Angela Palmer, the artist behind the Ghost Forest project. She heard about the rate at which we’re losing rainforest and it completely transfixed her. She developed the idea to move several huge trees from Ghana to the UK, to show people what we’re losing. Everybody told her that there was no way that she could do it. She did it, but it sounded like a nightmare! It was amazing that she managed it, very inspiring.

What are your future plans?

I’m hoping to wrap up my experiments over the next six months and then write the thesis. It would be my dream to get a full-time job doing science journalism. I’ve been writing for New Scientist about how awful the job market is for new graduates, so I guess I’ll just have to see how I get on! I’d really love to continue writing about science, definitely.

Tess Shellard

Tess Shellard, winner of the non-professional category

Health Project Coordinator for an international NGO.

What’s your background?

I’ve been working in the charity sector for about ten years now, so it isn’t a scientific background at all. That being said, I’ve always had an innate curiosity about science and have always written for pleasure, which is why I went for the competition.

Where did you get the idea for your article?

I do a huge amount of reading and watch lectures online. The idea for this article came out of a TED talk, given by Professor Bonny Bassler at Princeton. She’s an amazing lady who has led the way in quorum-sensing research. I was blown away! It seemed so fascinating, but also the implications were huge. It could completely change the way that we design our medicines.

Who inspires you?

I’m a huge fan of Richard Dawkins, I love his books. As well as the technical knowledge, the way that he conveys it is spectacular. He has a gift for metaphor and for enthusing the reader with the same passion. I’m a regular follower of P Z Myers on his Pharyngula blog. He covers such a wide range of topics beyond biology, including current affairs and atheism. I’m also a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould and Ben Goldacre.

What are your future plans?

I’m putting together plans for a website or blog, which I can use as an outlet for my writing. I have done a blog before and got a lot of really positive feedback, so I would like to start that again. I would love to get to the point where I could make some sort of living from writing. We’ll just have to see how it goes, but I will always carry on writing.

You can read both Penny Sarchet’s and Tess Shellard’s prize winning essays on the Wellcome Trust blog. We’re also publishing other shortlisted essays.

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