Smiling and an overlooked problem

Ella Rhodes reports on the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prizes.

An Ig Nobel Prize winner and a former lawyer with an interest in prosopagnosia have been awarded Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prizes.

Psychologist Richard Stephens (University of Keele), won the category A prize, awarded to professional scientists, for his article about smiling called ‘Don’t say cheese say cheeks’. Dr Stephens is no stranger to bringing psychology to a wider audience and received the Ig Nobel Peace prize in 2010 for his research that confirmed that swearing relieves pain (see also our September 2013 issue: tinyurl.com/o58gptf). He said: ‘As scientists, we should all be doing all we can to engage with as wide an audience as possible. It’s also part of the strategic plan of the BPS to make psychology more visible and become more influential in important issues. I would like to imagine a future in which the general public is much more literate about science in the same way as they are about politics, the arts and sports.

‘Plus there’s so much of fascination in the world of psychology research that it makes you want to shout it from the rooftops, so to speak, because it’s so cool. I started blogging, my blog is called Cool Psychology, about things like do prices ending in 99 fool us into buying stuff, and does time freeze in an emergency. I’ve entered the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize for the last three years and for the last two I’ve mentored a group of Keele undergraduates to also enter. I chose the topic [of smiling] for the same reason as I do anything – because I thought it was interesting.’

The winner of category B in the prize, which anyone with a non-professional interest in science could enter, was Kate Szell. She told us that she originally worked as a trademark lawyer in London but recently left her job to pursue a career in the field of science communications. ‘I initially did a science degree but did nothing with it. Then recently, sparked by my interest in some TV programmes, I began to find it fascinating in a way I didn’t when I was younger.’ Kate set out to submit an 800-word article on prosopagnosia to the Wellcome Trust prize, after finding out a friend had the condition. She said: ‘The best thing about writing the feature for this prize was having a valid reason to talk to experts in the field.’

Prosopagnosia affects around two out of every 100 people, a statistic which, Kate said, people find quite astounding. She said: ‘When you start talking about it, people start telling you that they have it, or know someone who does. And some people realise for the first time that they have it. A friend of mine has to recognise people by their teeth. It’s much easier to know if you have this condition if the public are more aware of it. I spoke to one woman who didn’t realise she had the condition until she retired, she read an article in The Times and had this sudden, amazing realisation!’

Kate’s article, ‘Prosopagnosia – a common problem, commonly overlooked’, was published in the Observer on 23 November. Since writing it she has completed some work experience with the BBC in their science production department and hopes to start a career in either science communication, television or writing. 

To see Richard’s Cool Psychology blog visit tinyurl.com/nu6npwf

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