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Graduate student shortlisted in British Library writing competition

Graduate student Hannah Ralph was one of the shortlisted entrants for an international public engagement writing competition.

Hannah Ralph

Hannah Ralph

Hannah's lay summary of a research paper was commended by the judges of the 'Access to Understanding' competition at a ceremony held at the British Library on Friday 27 March. Her entry was selected out of more than 300 entries from applicants from around the world (1). The winners were two postdoctoral researchers in Oxford and a PhD student at Clemson University in the US.

The annual competition is supported by the British Library, eLife and Europe PMC. It is for PhD students and early career postdoctoral researchers who are interested in opening up the latest biomedical research findings to a general audience. Entrants choose from 12 selected research papers spanning basic through to clinical science and in 800 words have to explain the research and why it matters to a general reader.

Although online and free access to current research is increasing, much of this information is only accessible to a niche audience due to the use of highly technical language. There is a real appetite for access to balanced, understandable summaries of scientific findings as demonstrated by the record-breaking number of votes for the People's Choice award, which invited the public to vote for its favourite amongst the 12 shortlisted summaries.

Professor Jim Smith (Deputy Chief Executive and Chief of Strategy at the Medical Research Council, and Director of the Council's National Institute for Medical Research) awarded the prizes at the event. He gave his own perspective on the importance of using 'plain English' to communicate scientific findings: 'The best advice I can give a young researcher is to learn how to write. All scientists should be able to explain their work to a variety of audiences.'

Hannah, who is a first year student on the Wellcome Trust Cell and Developmental Biology programme, has just completed her rotation with Alison Woollard. She chose the paper on a possible role for RNA toxicity in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): 'Sequestration of multiple RNA recognition motif-containing proteins by C9orf72 repeat expansions' by Cooper-Knock et al. Brain (2014).

'Toxic RNA as a cause of neurodegeneration was briefly touched upon during my undergrad so I was already curious about the topic as a general mechanism of disease,' she says.

'Coming from a genetics background, I watched the ice bucket challenge going viral with interest but noticed that a lot of people I knew, who didn't have a background in biology, didn't really understand the condition and struggled to find accessible information about it, especially the latest research.'

'I think that often it's hard for the public to relate to rare genetic conditions. But because of the ice bucket challenge and Stephen Hawking, I felt ALS was a topic the public would already have a reference point for and that there was a genuine surge of interest in.'

She enjoys writing and relished the opportunity of putting together an article that made the work accessible. Although the paper wasn't too hard to understand, she says, she found it difficult to know what non-specialist readers would understand.

Hannah did her undergraduate studies in Glasgow. She has enjoyed working in the Woollard lab, continuing the development of a worm model of the premature ageing condition Werner Syndrome. For her second rotation, she will move up the hill to the WIMM to work in Andrew Wilkie's lab on the 'selfish sperm' phenomenon.


  1. 'C9orf72 mutation in ALS: How the cause of neurodegeneration is bound to repeat'. Hannah Ralph, Access to Understanding 2015.





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