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Thursday, 25 June 2009


Toby Murcott changed my life

How an encounter with the ABSW led to a career change, and a happier life for one frustrated scientist.

The year is 2003. I'm working as a post-doc at a west London institution affectionately known as the 'Hammer House of Horrors'. My experiments are misbehaving, and my dreams of becoming a professor seem to be vanishing down the plughole as fast as a contaminated bottle of saline. All my life I've worked towards becoming a scientist, but I'm rapidly falling out of love with the idea of a career in research. But I'm still very much in love with science - so what else can I do?

Fast forward a few months. I'm passing the time by writing satirical articles for Science's online careers magazine and appearing on a small-time radio show called the Naked Scientists. I love doing it - and I'm getting some great fan mail - but surely it's no kind of career? Or is it...

Investigating routes out of the lab, I head along to a meeting of the Association of British Science Writers. Someone tells me it will be good for networking, and there will be free booze. Initially sold on the latter prospect rather than the former, I find myself chatting to real life writers and editors. The glamour! The opportunities! The cheap wine! I come home and write my first new story for BBC Online, and I'm hooked.

Time passes. By day I'm a lab rat, and by night I'm writing my socks off. I eventually find myself in the pub, having been co-opted onto the ABSW committee in what I cynically suspect is an attempt to lower the group's average age. A writer called Toby Murcott (previous chair of the Association) buys me a half of bitter and gives me the best piece of advice I've ever had. “Quit the lab and become a science communicator. You'll never look back. Just do it.”

Six months later I'm working as a Science information Officer at Cancer Research UK, and as a freelance writer and broadcaster in my spare time. It feels like the best job in the world - I get to write and talk about science all day, but I don't have to deal with test tubes.

Fast forward to the present. Since starting at Cancer Research UK five years ago (insert your own 'five year survival' joke here) I've been able to use my skills and passion as a communicator to tell countless people about the charity's work. I've been broadcast on radio and TV around the world - including having to explain how to do a testicular self-examination live on air to a sleazy drive-time DJ.

As part of my role I produce and present the charity's monthly podcast and write for our award-winning science blog, as well as writing and editing science content for our website. I'm also still helping to present the (now hugely successful) Naked Scientists BBC show and finding time for the odd bit of freelance writing.

Along my journey I've been grateful for the encouragement and advice of ABSW members. I'm now vice-chair of the association, and it's an organisation that I believe provides fantastic networking opportunities for new and established science writers. And Toby was right - I've never looked back.

Kat Arney
Vice Chair, ABSW

Got a story about your involvement with the ABSW? Contact us at TSR and let us know...