OSB archive
OSB archive

Adventures in science writing

Pete Wilton

For many scientists writing about science either in their spare time or as a career can seem attractive: but what does it take to be a successful science writer?

I caught up with Penny Sarchet, a doctoral student at Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences, who has managed to combine her studies with writing science articles for, among others, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, and New Scientist.

She recently won the Wellcome Trust/Guardian & Observer Science Writing Prize [read her article in The Observer]: I asked her about winning, her favourite stories, and what it was like to write for our very own OxSciBlog…

OxSciBlog: How did you first become interested in science writing?
Penny Sarchet: When I started my DPhil, I was surprised to find that I missed writing undergraduate tutorial essays! I really enjoyed being given a topic and being told to go off and write something good about it.

Research scientists do read and write a lot but you mainly have to focus on your (rather narrow) field and write in a very specific, scientific way. Science writing allowed me to continue my wider interest in science and gave me an outlet for writing in a more accessible, generalist way.

OSB: What did you get out of writing for OxSciBlog?
PS: I wrote articles about research in my own department (Plant Sciences). It was a great excuse to sit down with different professors I admire and ask them lots of questions! There’s some fantastic science going on in Oxford and you feel honoured when someone takes the time to explain some of it to you.

I covered fighting world hunger through crop improvement and the modern face of the historic University Herbaria, and I enjoyed helping to place a spotlight on some of the exciting work that’s being done on these.

OSB: What are your highlights from the work you’ve done so far?
PS: I’ve just won the inaugural Wellcome Trust/Guardian & Observer Science Writing Prize (professional scientists’ category), so that’s the definite highlight. Prior to that, I was really pleased to get a news story about the invasion of harlequin ladybirds into The Sunday Telegraph because I’ve been going on to everybody I know about the plight of British ladybirds for years!

Interviewing the artist Angela Palmer, who created the Ghost Forest (currently outside Oxford’s Museum of Natural History) for the Oxford magazine Phenotype was also a lot of fun too – her determination to disobey everyone who told her she couldn’t bring a collection of gigantic Ghanaian trees whole into the UK made a really great story.

OSB: What led to the choice of subject for your WT entry?
PS: I report on recent science findings for the alumnae magazine Oxford Today. I was looking for stories for last Trinity’s edition and I came across the work of Professor Irene Tracey.

She’d been using MRI scanning to look at how negative expectations can completely reduce the effectiveness of pain killers through something called the nocebo effect. I’d never heard of this flip-side of the placebo effect before.

Reading more about it, I saw that it has so many implications for health and medicine – the fact that doctor-patient trust and the power of suggestion could potentially be fatal really interested me, so I began looking for an excuse to write about it. Then I heard about the new Wellcome Trust/Guardian & Observer Science Writing Prize.

OSB: What was it like to hear you’d won?
PS: Fantastic and unexpected! I’d spent the day at a workshop at The Guardian with the other 29 shortlisted writers and they were all such interesting people with imaginative topics, so I really didn’t think I’d win.

When Dara O’Briain read out my title I had to pause to make sure in my head that it really was mine! I really enjoyed meeting so many other science journalism/writing/blogging enthusiasts and the message of the awards ceremony – that science journalism has never been so important or in-demand – was very up-beat and encouraging.

OSB: What advice would you give any budding science writers?
PS: Give it a go! You don’t know if you’re any good or if you'll enjoy it until you try. There are lots of opportunities in Oxford for students and staff to cut their teeth. It’s easy now with the internet – anyone can set up a blog and have a try.