Hannah Jongsma interviewed Julia Gottwald. Julia also writes for the Psychiatry News Team, and has just been awarded the Public Communications Prize by the British Association for Psychopharmacology (BAP).
Congratulations Julia! It’s been quite a month for you, hasn’t it?
Yes! I was in Seoul (South-Korea) when I found out I had won the Prize. I was there for the World Congress of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, where I presented a poster. I was awarded a Student Encouragement Award to attend the meeting, and I heard about the BAP prize on the same day as collecting my cheque.
Can you tell us more about the BAP prize?
Every year the BAP awards two science communication prizes: one for full members and one for trainee members, and I won the one for trainee members. I put in an online application, where I had to detail my public communication involvement. So I explained what I had done. One of the first things I participated in was the Max Perutz Science Writing Competition which is an annual competition for MRC-funded PhD-students where you have to explain in 800 words why your research matters. I found this really interesting, but also a quite hard. Many of us know why our research matters to the scientific community, but how often do we think about why it matters to society? I got shortlisted for the award. This meant I got to participate in a science writing masterclass and also got individual feedback on my essay. I realised that science communication is more than something you do on the side: it really is a skill to acquire.
And that made you want to develop this skill further?
Yes, very much so. I applied to be the CamBRAIN communications coordinator, organised an event for the Cambridge Science Festival, and visited primary schools to talk to kids in year 1 and 2 about neuroscience. I became involved with coordinating some Pint of Science events, and started writing for both the Psychiatry News Team and BluSci (I even got interviewed by Cambridge TV about one of my articles). My experience with CamBRAIN has been a lot of fun, and it’s so varied. I got to write blog posts, managed the website, and learned how to handle Twitter properly. I took quite a scientific approach to this: I did a bit of research about what the best time to tweet is, and how to get good engagement from your Twitter account. I’m also in the middle of writing a book with my supervisor Barbara Sahakian, which I’m really excited about. It’s going to be about ‘hot topics’ in Neuroscience. The book is not only a great excuse to read some fascinating studies not directly related to my PhD, but I also get to write about them in a fun way. It’s been incredibly helpful to have been given the time and encouragement from my supervisor to do all of this!
That’s quite a lot! What motivated you to do this?
A few things. Participating in the Max Perutz Award made me realise how important it is to articulate why my research matters. I think there is a lot of research out there that could gain much more attention, and that in turn would mean it could have a much bigger impact. I always find it a good test if I can explain my research to my family – they are really interested in what I do, but not experts in neuroscience. I find it a real sport to make everything fun and relatable to your audience, even if it’s as mundane as the life of lab fly.
You’ve been saying a few times how important it is to articulate the importance of your research. So, why is your research so important?
I’m researching teenage obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Treatment for teenagers with OCD is quite poor. They get given almost the same treatment as adults, and we know this often doesn’t really work. So I’m looking at how teenage OCD is different from adult OCD. I’m specifically focusing on the role of memory. My research so far suggests that memory is impaired in teenagers with OCD, and this can affect their memory confidence. This can be important in for example checking compulsions: if you’re not confident your memory about locking the back door is correct, you might have to go back and check it again (and again). So it might be that memory training could be beneficial for the treatment of OCD, especially in young patients.
You’re finishing up your PhD in December (fingers crossed!) – what will happen after?
Good question! I have realised that my real enthusiasm is for science communication, so this is what I want to continue my career in. I am on the look-out, but it’s still a little early to apply for a job. Hopefully the publication of our book (in January 2017 by Oxford University Press) will help a little in finding a job!
Thanks for a great conversation Julia, congratulations again on your prize(s), and best of luck!
Written up by Hannah Jongsma and adapted from Psychiatry News