The Max Perutz Science Writing Award


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The Max Perutz Science Writing Award aims to encourage outstanding written communication among MRC PhD students. The annual competition challenges entrants to write an 800-word article for the general public answering the question: ‘Why does my research matter?’

The award is named after the eminent scientist and Nobel Laureate Dr Max Perutz, an accomplished and natural communicator who died in 2002. Since the competition began in 1998, hundreds of MRC researchers have submitted entries and taken their first steps in communicating their research to the public.

In 2015 Helen was one of 14 shortlisted finalists for the prize for her poem on why her research using stem cells to study Spinal and Bulbar Muscular Atrophy, a rare genetic type of motor neuron disease, really matters.

An Ode to the Androgen Receptor.


Neurodegenerative diseases
Occur when nerve cells die,
We certainly know that it happens
But we aren’t quite sure how or why.
Parkinson’s Disease would be easy,
Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s too,
They’re probably near the top of your list
If I asked you to name me a few.

But Spinal Bulbar Muscular Atrophy?
Not heard of it before?
There’s something special about it,
Let me tell you a little bit more.
Weakness in the arms and legs
Make it tricky for patients to walk,
Weakness in the face and tongue
Make it hard to swallow and talk.

The fault’s in the Androgen Receptor,
A particular genetic mutation:
Male patients have the disease;
Women pass it to the next generation.
When the Receptor binds testosterone
The troubles really start,
Patients get weakness, infertility
And problems in the heart.

The disease is slowly progressive
With no treatment and no cure,
I’m hoping that might change
if I understand it a little bit more.
So I’m going on a journey
To explore why these cells die,
By searching out disease pathways
Using microscopes and dyes.

The first step is to find a way
To make a good human model,
Studies in other cells and mice
May not show the real disease problem.
Induced pluripotent stem cells
Are an exciting innovation,
Stem cells from patient skin cells
Have the Androgen Receptor mutation.

From stem cells: motor neurons
I grow them in a dish,
And after about twenty days
I see how they perish.
Stress, transport, mitochondria:
Possible avenues to pursue,
In the course of my research
I may find something new.

Stress is hard to deal with
In research and in a cell,
I can go for a little jog
But a cell can’t in a well.
So they have a special mechanism
The “heat shock response” its name,
If this isn’t working correctly
Then this may be to blame.

Axons carry messages
From one end of the cell to the other
A traffic jam in this transport
Can lead to a spot of bother.
Motor nerves are very long
So they are at great risk
If blockages and hold ups
Mean transport isn’t brisk.

Mitochondria provide the energy
A cell needs to survive
If the fuel supply is faulty
Then the cell can start to die.
So if their shape is distorted
Or they aren’t working right,
The cells start to malfunction,
Pack up and say goodnight.

Cell death is like a puncture,
Discovering it’s not enough
The next job is to fix it
And that will be quite tough.
Motor neurons on a plate
Will be my way to screen,
For a drug to reverse cell death;
That would be the dream.

SBMA is a rare disease
But patients still need a cure
I hope that I can locate one
That’s what my research is for.
The findings that I find
May also hold the key
To overall common pathways
In neuro degenerative disease

My research is for patients with SBMA
Who find everyday journeys are hard
And for whom it is a challenge
To read this poem out loud.