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Dr Kat Arney


Kat Arney is a science communicator with a PhD in developmental biology.  She spent over a decade working with Cancer Research UK whilst also making radio programmes and writing about science and genetics.    She is a regular on the Naked Scientists podcast and her first book, ‘Herding Hemingway’s Cats’ was released in 2015.

I think that I am a writer trapped in the body of a scientist

On getting interested in science

I’m going to be very boring and say that the influences that really sent me on a science direction were probably my teachers at secondary school and my teachers at primary school and at first school.  I was really lucky to go to a very tiny village school, the first school I went to, where they basically just let me get on with stuff and do my own thing and read voraciously and I just read everything that I could get my hands on; there was like a book about dinosaurs, there were books about science, but our parents just encouraged us to do pretty much anything we wanted to. They weren't pushy but we could just, you know, try hard, do what you want to do.

On getting into science communication

I think that I am a writer trapped in the body of a scientist.  I love science, I’ve always been really into science and nature and all of that kind of thing, being very interested in it and at school I really loved science, they were my favourite subjects and my best subjects and it was clear to me I was going to go into science. 

But at the same time I’ve always written, I’ve written fiction, I enjoyed, like, editing and putting together magazines; I think my sisters and I ran a library at home, just for us, because I loved stories and books and communicating.  And then when I was at university I started to put the two of those together; so I was studying science in Cambridge and then started writing for the university newspaper and then during my PhD I carried on doing bits of writing, I got involved with the Naked Scientists radio show and it kind of snowballed from there.  So all the time I was in the lab I was also writing, getting involved in schools open days, communicating.  But at the same time I thought, I’m still going to be a scientist, I’ve got to be a scientist, this is what I’m good at.  And then it became clear after doing a PhD and a post-doc and another post doc that maybe I wasn’t.  I have a very short attention span and I’m very clumsy and this means that in the lab I may be not the best scientist, but I’m actually a great communicator and then I discovered at that time that there were these new roles, that you could become a science communicator, you could talk and write and speak and make radio programmes about science without having to be in the lab and do it.  And that’s really how I got into it.

On science communication

I think what’s changed about science communication is that basically we have it as a field now; when I left the lab some years ago, basically science communication didn't really exist as a formal field.  There’d been the Bodmer report all about public understanding of science, or PUS, but there wasn't an understanding that you could have a job talking about science, working for an organisation communicating science, and now suddenly we have more science communicators than we know what to do with; you can do courses in it, there are books about it, every man and his dog’s got a blog or a podcast, I think there’s more public facing science communicated by science communicators than there ever has been.

I think what makes bad science communication is when people forget who they're talking to, and you forget that you can be talking to someone who’s very interested but doesn't necessarily have the huge background knowledge that you have about stuff.  You know, I know a lot about DNA, how genes work, I know how cells work, I know how proteins work, all this kind of thing, but the key thing is I want to be able to tell someone a story: a great, exciting story about something that doesn't necessarily mean they have to know all of that biomedical background.  Some of them might have it, and in which case I still want to tell them a great story, but it’s important to remember that not everyone knows the nuts and bolts, so you need to get the story across and not necessary get bogged down in every single little detail.

I love the feeling when I’m talking to someone about science when they go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I get that’.  You almost see the lightbulb go off.  I like it as well when you get questions but they're the right kind of questions, you know, not, ‘Oh, so, what was that all about?’  But people go, ‘So if that is that, then what about this?’  That they’ve understood and have thought about what you’re talking about.  And it’s always nice when people come up afterwards and go, ‘Oh, you make it sound so simple’.  I mean, maybe they’ll go away and they’ll think, ‘I can’t remember what she was talking about at all’, but at the time they were with it and they were following the story. 

On communicating about cancer research

When we’re talking about cancer, it’s obviously a word that a lot of people know, it’s a disease that many people have suffered from or know of friends that have had it, so it’s something that’s very much in the public consciousness.  But do people really understand that it’s a disease that happens when cells go wrong, that it’s to do with our genes becoming faulty?  Some of us do, some of us don’t, some people struggle even with those kind of concepts, but cancer is still affecting them and their families.  So when we’re talking about cancer, about how it’s growing, how it’s spreading, how we’re treating it, how we’re researching it, do we need to use all those super technical details?  Sometimes we do because otherwise it becomes, well, we’re doing an experiment that looks at a thing that sticks to a thing that does a thing in cancer, so sometimes you need a bit of detail, but do we really need to get bogged down in the, ‘this is a gene doing this and making a protein’, so our researchers are trying to understand what’s gone wrong: the engine of these cells is stuck on and they’re trying to find drugs that block it.  That’s the story, and maybe the fact that this is called a cyclin kinese inhibitor isn't necessarily important.

On current research possibilities

If I was still in the lab I would still want to be in the field that I was in, which is developmental biology.  I am absolutely and endlessly fascinated by how we go from one cell, one egg cell, smaller than the head of a pin, and grow it into a baby or a mouse or a fish or a plant; how does that happen? I mean, there is so much that can go wrong.  I’ve worked with mouse embryos and they kind of, they work, they look beautiful, but when you think of how humans work, and…I’ve seen human embryos in the IVF clinic - they look a mess!  I’m amazed that any human gets pregnant at all and that you can go from one cell and divide it and divide it and divide it and switch genes on and off at the right time in this ballet of genetics that makes a more or less perfect human - I mean, obviously, it goes wrong a lot of the time and many of us are slightly more unique than others - it works.  And that was the kind of field that I was working in and that would still be the field that I’m still interested in, I don’t know if we’ll ever solve it all and build some kind of model organism that can grow from an egg to a baby in the computer, but understanding how on earth that works, fascinating.

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