Professor Stephen Curry awarded Peter Wildy Prize for Microbial Education

14 April 2014

Stephen Curry

Professor Stephen Curry will be awarded the 2014 Peter Wildy Prize for Microbial Education today, at the Society for General Microbiology's Annual Conference in Liverpool. Stephen, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London, researches the molecular mechanisms of RNA replication in viruses such as foot-and-mouth disease virus and noroviruses.

Stephen has been a been regular science blogger since 2008, he writes about his research, the scientific life past and present, and about the range of interactions between science and society on his blogs at Reciprocal Space and The Guardian. He is also a founding member and now vice-chair of the Science is Vital Campaign and a member of the board of directors of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

When were you first aware of science?

As a child I was always interested in space exploration; when I was a young teenager, I won a competition in the Belfast Telegraph and got to meet Jim Irwin, one of the Apollo 15 astronauts. I gravitated towards physics when I was thinking about university. Though I didn’t study the life sciences for my A-levels, the course that set me alight during my degree was molecular biophysics, learning about protein structure and X-ray crystallography – all the contributions that physics brought to the study of living systems. My PhD saw me doing lots of enzyme assays on luciferase, looking at how it was inhibited by general anaesthetic molecules. Although I enjoyed physics, it felt like all of the interesting things had been done in the first half of the 20th century, while the life sciences seemed to offer more opportunities.

What was science communication like while you were doing your PhD?

Public engagement really wasn’t on my radar at all, it didn’t really feature much in the university sector. Now it’s much more important and recognised, of course, but I think at the time most researchers were first introduced to outreach when they had to write in the ‘What are your plans for public engagement activities?’ section of a grant form. Even then, you never had a strong sense that funders or research councils believed in it very much.

When did you become involved in science communication?

I think it was when the ‘blogosphere’ took off. I’d always felt a bit guilty that I’d been unable to put anything substantive into the public engagement sphere. Writing online about science seemed like an efficient way to achieve that and to reach a broader audience. I did hesitate though, as a group leader I worried whether to do it under my own name or anonymously. I didn’t want to give anything from my lab away, but if you keep everything back you risk depriving a story of the gory and juicy details that make a story come alive. At the time, blogging didn’t have a shining reputation in the academic community and some researchers thought it trivial or frivolous. Some still do!

Do you think that’s the same now?

It’s changing. I didn't start blogging until I’d been made a professor. Maybe that’s cowardly, but I waited partly to give the activity a little more credibility and partly to show that even relatively senior researchers can get into it. I find that some postdocs hesitated because they thought it would be seen as taking away from their lab time and detrimental to their careers. Hopefully, having professors blogging legitimises the activity.

How does blogging help you?

I find it terribly useful, it helps to broaden your perspective on what a life in science is for. You can easily get caught up in lab work – and for some people that’s their passion – but I feel we have a duty to account for ourselves to the taxpayer when our research is publicly funded. I think that publicly funded science has to have a perspective that goes beyond the laboratory walls. Blogging also opened up other opportunities for me to do more: giving talks, working on libel reform and Science is Vital, among others. Online tools help you garner support around important issues. I remember talking to the people who ran Save British Science in 1986 – they spent three weeks raising money to put a full page advert in The Times; for us, within six weeks Science is Vital had organised a rally outside the Treasury and got into the broadcast media. It really showed people the value of being able to reach out – we learnt there is considerable support for science in the UK.

Your first post was in 2008. Do you think your style has changed, or that your writing has improved?

I wince when I read some of my earlier posts. There’s enthusiasm there, but way too many exclamation marks, a liberal sprinkling of commas and too many overly complex sentences. My first drafts are still a little ropey, but at least now I know where to go with them. I thought writing a blog would relax my writing style for scientific papers but it hasn’t – they’re very different audiences. Perhaps my scientific writing has become clearer, but it’s no more stylish.

You’ve since been writing for The Guardian, how did that come about?

It came about by building a reputation and a readership for the network we’d built up at Occam’s Typewriter. We now have a joint blog called Occam’s Corner. It’s a bigger audience and much more public facing.

Why should any researcher reading this want to start blogging?

I see it as a duty for scientifically literate citizens. As a publicly funded researcher, it’s important to show what we do with the money and give a good account of ourselves. I think it also opens science up to question from a different audience – the public is a lot more literate than many researchers would assume and a lot more interested too. For instance, I remember being very struck when I was doing the I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! competition by the interest of the students and their enormous optimism for what science can do for the world.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Just go for it. See how much you can learn from public engagement, what opportunities it throws up and how it broadens your horizons as a scientist. Most researchers are motivated for the best reasons: they want to make things better. One of the ways you can do this is to open science up, let people see inside and join in a conversation about it.

What’s the future of science communication?

I hope it will become more embedded into ordinary research activity. The tools are more powerful than ever – it’s easier than ever to make videos or record audio and share them. Now it’s also easy for this to be done badly, but the more people who get involved, the more good content will be produced. I hope both funders and universities will value the activity more by rewarding it, not just with prizes but as part of career progression and development.

Stephen will give his presentation Science communication: a communicable disease? today at 17:35 in Hall 1A.