Thursday, 14 January 2016

Kat Arney - Four Way Interview

Kat Arney has a degree in natural sciences and PhD in developmental genetics from Cambridge University. She joined Cancer Research UK in 2004, after spending a few years as a laboratory researcher and realising that life in the lab was not for her. Part of the Science Communications team, she translates science-speak into plain English, so that everyone can understand the charity’s work. Kat loves communicating about science, including writing for the charity’s award-winning blog and talking to supporters, and regularly comments in the media on the latest discoveries.

Outside the office, Kat co-presents the highly successful Naked Scientists BBC Radio show, presents and produces her own monthly Naked Genetics podcast, and has fronted several BBC Radio 4 science documentaries. As a science writer, her work has featured in the New Scientist, Mosaic, BBC Online, the Guardian Online and more. Her first book, Herding Hemingway's Cats: understanding how our genes work was published in January 2016 by Bloomsbury Sigma.

Why science?

Ever since I was tiny I've been fascinated with how the world works. It started off with an interest in nature and science in general, graduated to a home chemistry set, then eventually to a degree, PhD and embryonic career in developmental genetics (if you'll excuse the pun). Things didn't work out for me in the lab as I'm very clumsy and have a woefully short attention span, but I've always loved writing and telling stories, so moving into science communication has been a dream career. In terms of my own subject and field, I'm just blown away by the fact that a few strings of molecules – DNA – can direct the growth of something as complex and wonderful as a baby entirely from chemical interactions. The more we know about how our genes work and how the molecules inside our cells organise themselves and interact together, we're starting to get glimpses of understanding how it all fits together. It's an incredibly exciting time to be reporting back to the public from the frontiers of genetics.

Why this book?

I got the idea at a conference about gene regulation – how genes are turned on and off – at the Royal Society in London. One of the researchers, Bob Hill from Edinburgh, was talking about the six-toed cats that roam Ernest Hemingway's estate on the Florida Keys. While you might expect that the extra toe is the result of a fault in a gene, it's not. It's a mistake in a control switch miles away (biologically speaking) from the gene it affects. This really got me thinking about how we talk about genes in the media. We hear that they 'make' our eyes brown or our hair curl, make us fat or give us cancer, but most people have no idea how they actually work. So I set out to write a book explaining a he latest ideas in genetics and molecular biology, as well as a bit of history, told through the medium of stories, first-person interviews, quite a lot of jokes and a bit of swearing. People have been saying very nice things about it, so it seems to have worked.

What’s next?

I'm going to be busy doing a lot of talks around the UK and hopefully further afield as well as cracking on with an idea for my second book and all the regular radio and writing stuff I do. There are lots of exciting plans in the pipeline, so I'm hoping that 2016 will be a year full of adventure!

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I'm increasingly intrigued by why and how we believe things about the world around us – how we understand and interpret the stories that help us make sense of the universe and our place in it. There's an idea that science provides us with absolute, immutable fact, yet although I think it's the most reliable way of measuring and marking out the world compared to any other it's still flawed. Scientific research provides us with evidence-based stories, but we urgently need to communicate it effectively and build belief in the process and outputs of science. We're seeing more and more nonsense, pseudoscience and conspiracy thinking permeating our culture thanks to the internet – not just in science and medicine but also in technology, politics and more – so I've been thinking a lot lately about why and how people come to believe and spread these things, and how best to combat them.

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