Author: Stefano Sandrone

Dr Stefano Sandrone is a neuroscientist with a special academic interest in neuroimaging, neuroplasticity, history of neurology and of (neuro)science. He was born in Canelli, Italy, in 1988, and he has been studying and doing research in Milan, Zurich and London. In 2014 he was selected as a young scientist at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Physiology and Medicine (attended by 37 Nobel Laureates and 600 young scientists worldwide). For this, he has been included in Wired magazine’s list of ‘promising Italians under 35’. In 2015 he co-authored a book entitled Brain Renaissance. It received a one-page review in Nature on its release and won the biennial Award for Outstanding Book in the History of the Neurosciences presented by the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences. In the same year, he also wrote an online commentary for the Neuroanatomy chapter of the 41st edition of the Gray’s Anatomy, thus becoming one of the youngest contributors ever (bona fide the youngest one). In 2016 he was awarded the H. Richard Tyler Award for the History of Neurology presented by the American Academy of Neurology and its Archive Committee. Moreover, he was selected as member of the Young European Leadership Delegation at the European Parliament for the European Youth Event and recognised as Associated Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, the British professional institution promoting excellence in higher education. In 2017 he has been elected as Vice Chair of the History of Neurology Section at the American Academy of Neurology for the 2017-2019 term and recognised as Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Media coverage (selection): Class (Italy), Discover Magazine Blogs (USA), (Spain), Espresso (Italy), Fanpage (Italy), Focus (Italy), Gehirn und Geist (Germany), (Norway), Gravita’ Zero (Italy), Investigación y Ciencia (Spain), La Stampa (Italy), La Tercera (Chile), Le Scienze (Italy), Motherboard (USA), Neue Zürcher Zeitung Folio (Switzerland), National Public Radio (USA), New Scientist (United Kingdom), Rai Uno (Italy), Rai Due (Italy), Sapere (Italy), Science News (USA), Smithsonian (USA), Spiegel Online (Germany), Wired (Italy).

Interview with Professor Carla Shatz: ‘When I received the PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard Medical School in 1976, I was the first woman to do so’

Professor Carla J. Shatz is the first woman who received a PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard and the first woman who become Head of the Department of Neurobiology in the same university. She made breakthrough discoveries about the cellular and molecular basis of early cerebral development. Past President of the Society for Neuroscience, she is Fellow of the Royal Society, an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the National Academy of Sciences. Her long list of achievements includes also the Gerard Prize, the Gruber Prize, the Champalimaud Foundation Vision Award and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. Last, but certainly not list, here you can find the names of some among the neuroscientists she mentored during her career.


Alina Bondarenko) After completing your undergraduate studies, were you determined to pursue a career in neuroscience or were you considering other directions as well? Which options did you have at that time?

My undergraduate degree was in Chemistry. By my junior year of university, I realized that, although I loved Chemistry, it would not engage me over a lifetime. This realization propelled me directly into the newly born field of neuroscience. In 1968, on the advice of my undergraduate chemistry tutor Frank Westheimer, I reached out to two young faculty members of the newly formed (1966) Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School: David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. I spent my senior undergraduate year with them in tutorial and lab experience and was enraptured forever by studies of visual system function and development. Upon graduating (Harvard 1969; there was only one other woman chemistry major in my class), I was awarded a Marshall Scholarship to study for 2 years at University College, London. This wonderful honor happened because, unbeknown to me, the Dean of Students nominated me. It was quite unexpected since very few women were selected as Marshall Scholars (and women were not eligible for Rhodes Scholarships in those days). I received an M.Phil. in Physiology in 1971. The experience at UCL was formative and crucially educational- as a chemistry major at Harvard, I had never taken a single course in biology or physiology and so had a lot of catching up to do.

Living in London was exciting and wonderful, but I was anxious to return to the US. The question, though, was: how should I continue my career training? Should I apply to medical school or to graduate school? At the time women were admitted to Medical School, though in small numbers. Two of my uncles were clinical neurologists and both urged me to go to medical school. But several years earlier, Sonia- my paternal grandmother- had a devastating stroke. Not enough was known about the brain and even these two caring physicians could do nothing for Sonia except put her in a wheelchair and consign her to a nursing home. So, my decision was made: Go to graduate school, conduct research and make discoveries that might someday be relevant to help Grandma. When I made this decision, both of my uncles told me that I had made a “fatal career error” by deciding to do a Ph.D. rather than an M.D. When I received the Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Harvard Medical School in 1976, I was the first woman to do so. I felt welcomed and appreciated by Hubel and Wiesel, though at the time I expect that they and the Department were conducting their own “experiment” to see if a woman could succeed. Happily, the experiment proved successful. And eventually one of those neurologist uncles actually took me out to lunch and applauded my decision!


Kofoworola Agunbiade) You are the first woman who received a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard. Could you please give us one example of a situation where you had to be more vocal and assertive than your male colleagues?

As a Ph.D. student, I’m not sure that I ever had to be MORE vocal or assertive than my male colleagues. The environment in the Department of Neurobiology was remarkably supportive. However, please understand that I have always had a forceful personality and I think this trait has been both a strength and a weakness. As a child, my family engaged in many lively intellectual discussions and “arguments” around the dinner table and this family experience prepared me well as a Ph.D. student to hold my own in a scientific discussion (though it was definitely arduous dinner experiences for boyfriends and husband). Perhaps this early training even prepared me too well: Women are not necessarily rewarded or respected for being assertive. A challenge throughout my career has been to achieve a delicate balance on the tightrope between being overly assertive, as opposed to too compliant, since in both cases you end up being ignored. For example, I am not alone in having the experience of gently making a comment at a meeting that is promptly ignored, just to hear the exact same comment being applauded as a great idea when made again by a male colleague a few minutes later. This still happens to me, though these days I don’t hesitate to point it out.


Kofoworola Agunbiade) What was it like to work with Nobel Laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel? How did they ‘shape’ you as a scientist?

The discoveries of Hubel and Wiesel of the columnar organization of circuits in primary visual cortex of animals with binocular vision, which resulted in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981, revealed brain circuits of almost crystalline- like perfection. Every day as a Ph.D. student I watched the beauty of visual system organization unfold before my eyes. I thought, “all research must be like this”, with major discoveries rolling off the press constantly! Of course, when I started my own lab, I realized that was not true, but from David and Torsten I learned the joy of research, the importance of articulating and presenting results clearly, and the thrill of going scientifically where few have ventured before. I can’t emphasize this point about venturing into the unknown enough- they described their own experiments as a voyage of discovery. If you view your research as an adventure, you don’t tire easily when difficulties are encountered because difficulties are part and parcel of any good adventure. Hubel and Wiesel were real people- we also played tennis together, ate dinner in lab together when experiments were running over night, went on ski trips and so on. From them I learned that the lab is also a home and your colleagues are your scientific family. Hubel and Wiesel have both been wonderful mentors and scientific parents ever since. But note that I did not have any “Womentors”, since at that time all faculty members in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School were men.


Alina Bondarenko) Have you ever felt that you, or your work, was treated differently because you were a woman, particularly at the early stages of your career?

I still feel that way. For a while, I thought that this feeling would disappear with success and age, but experience has proven otherwise. Being resilient is really helpful. Having good friends with whom to share your feelings and frustrations is crucial.


Alina Bondarenko) Which ‘leadership’ advice would you give to someone who feels like an outsider?

When I was a student, women were outsiders. Now, happily there is a good representation of women in neuroscience Ph.D. Programs, but not among the professoriate. Women are still forging paths to achieve balance between family and work. And so are men. This is an important time socially, when many men have partners who also have very high- powered jobs and so the challenge of creating a life that can encompass both work and family persists. Being “outside” is not only about gender and diversity. It can also be about being on the periphery of your own research field because you are forging a new scientific path or direction. My advice (which I try to take but not always successfully) is to have compassion and persistence. With compassion comes new ideas for creating a supportive environment based on your own experience. From this work, change can come but only with persistence.


Nadhrah Izmi) You are also the first woman to become Head of the Neurobiology Department at Harvard: what are the achievements you are most proud of?

I am most proud of the achievements of the junior faculty who were hired during my ChairWomanship (2000-2007). All of them are now very successful and all have received tenure: Lisa Goodrich, Bernardo Sabatini, Rachel Wilson, Chenghua Gu. Prior to my time as Chair, the basic science departments at Harvard Medical School had not granted tenure to junior faculty, who were generally expected to move on. This situation created both a gender gap and also an age gap between junior and senior faculty because the same great men who were there when I was a Ph.D. student were still on the faculty 25+ years later. The newly hired young scientists created a fresh environment of excitement and scientific novelty, and also most wonderfully all also managed to start families! They themselves achieved this success; I only helped by providing adequate resources and trying to create a positive and supportive environment in which they were expected succeed.


Faissal Sharif) It seems like students around the world are being taught with your explanation of the Hebbian theory ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’. What was the origin of that phrase? Did you expect that it would catch on?

It amuses me that the phrase is frequently attributed to Donald Hebb. In fact, I coined that phrase and used it often in lectures and seminars beginning in about 1989-1990, when my lab discovered the existence of spontaneously generated waves of activity in the developing retina (Meister et al, Science 1991; Shatz, Scientific American 1992). The phrase helps to explain how spontaneous neural activity during visual system development can drive synapse remodeling, resulting in highly ordered connections between eye and brain in which nearest neighbor relationships are preserved. The 2 key requirements for ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’ are 1) that groups of closely neighboring retinal ganglion cells (RGCs: the output neurons of the eye) are synchronously active, and 2) that there are Hebbian-based synaptic mechanisms similar to LTP (for strengthening) or LTD (for weakening out of synch inputs) at developing retinogeniculate synapses. It took us a number of additional years to prove that these endogenous patterns of retinal waves are relayed by the RGCs to their target LGN neurons in thalamus and drive Hebbian mechanisms of synaptic plasticity.

I’ve always been interested in the “nature vs nurture” question: That is, the question of how much connectivity is hard wired versus how much is tuned up by sensory experience driven by neural activity. When I set up my own lab at Stanford as an Assistant Professor, it occurred to me that by studying the development of connections between the retinal ganglion cells and their target LGN neurons it might be possible to address this question. The connections from eye to LGN are a developmental biologist’s dream because they are relatively accessible and highly stereotyped: In adult, retinal ganglion cells from each eye form connections with LGN neurons in separate but adjacent eye-specific layers. Prior to work from my lab, it had been generally assumed that the LGN layers had to be hard wired because they form prior to birth, well before the rods and cones function and before visual experience.

In the visual system of binocular mammals, this eye-specific segregation of RGCs is not present at the beginning of development. We showed that the eye-specific layers emerge as RGC axons remodel by pruning away sets of inappropriately located synapses and by growing and strengthening correctly located ones. We also found that these early synapses are functional and that the pruning process, which occurs long before vision, requires neural activity. Blocking action potential activity prevented eye-specific segregation. This observation surprised many at first but provided important evidence against the argument that connections are entirely hard-wired. On the other hand, blocking action potential activity did not alter the targeting of RGC axons to the LGN or the initial formation of the retinotopic map, both of which we know now are dependent on hard-wired molecular guidance cues, underscoring the dynamic interplay between “nature and nurture”.

The biggest surprise of all came when our lab discovered that the type of neural activity needed for LGN layer formation is generated spontaneously by the RGCs in the form of highly correlated “waves” of firing that sweep across the retina. This discovery was completely unexpected and happened at Stanford during a wonderful collaboration between Rachel Wong, at the time a postdoc in my lab and now a Professor at University of Washington, and Markus Meister, a postdoc in Denis Baylor’s lab and now a professor at Cal Tech. We used what was then a novel method of multielectrode recording to monitor simultaneously the neural activity of well over 50 retinal ganglion cells and found, incredibly, that even in the dark and prior to vision, neighboring RGCs in the eye fire action potentials synchronously. Subsequently, my lab showed that this synchronous activity is relayed to LGN neurons. These discoveries in the late 1980’s and 1990’s made me think about how Hebb synapses might function in developing systems, and I coined the phrase, “cells that fire together wire together” to help explain and teach the concept to students and audiences.


Nadhrah Izmi) Looking backwards, what advice would you give to your 20-something-year-old self?  

I would have told myself to check my fertility status! When I left home at age 16 to go to college, I had no idea what I might become. If you had asked me then to predict my future, I would have said that the one certainty is that I would be married with children. It is incredible to me that my life has turned out so differently. Back then, there were no role models to lead the way. I married, but waited until my scientific career was fully established and I had received tenure before embarking on creating a family, only to learn that it was too late to have children. I was an “experiment” in early in vitro fertilization techniques, which were unsuccessful despite many attempts. Nowadays there are so many options – and my advice to my 20-something year old self is to have a fertility evaluation and take appropriate steps. Though I don’t have biological offspring, there is still a silver lining. Over the years, I have been truly privileged to have incredible students and postdocs in the lab; these are my scientific children, and now even grandchildren (google Carla J. Shatz Family Tree – Neurotree). Without them, none of the discoveries would have happened. These extraordinary people- many now colleagues and friends- are not only talented and creative, but they have also had the courage to join me on the scientific journey, which has often ventured into unknown and controversial territory. There is no adequate way to express my gratitude to them.

Interview with Professor Fiona Watt: ‘It is much better to try and fail than never to try at all’

Professor Fiona Watt is a leading British scientist in the field of Regenerative Medicine and the Executive chair of the MRC. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts and her Master’s Degree from the University of Cambridge and her PhD from the University of Oxford. After a two-year postdoc at the MIT, she came back to the UK to open her own lab at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology. Then, she moved to the Cancer Research UK, London Research Institute, and taught at the University of Cambridge, where she was also Deputy Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research and of Cancer Research UK, Cambridge Research Institute. She then joined King’s College London, where she is currently directing the Centre for Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine. Fellow of the Royal Society (since 2003), she has been the first woman president of the International Society of Stem Cell Research (2008).


Rebecca Womersley) What piece of advice would you have liked to receive at the beginning of your scientific career? 

That the people you meet early in your career are likely to pop up again for the rest of it.


Rebecca Womersley) Who are your role models, both within and outside of science, which have helped you ‘shaping’ your career? 

I would like to pay tribute to Brigid Hogan – she has not only been a great scientific role model but also a true friend and ally.


Elton Yeung) In 2008 you became the first woman President of the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR): have you ever experienced any significant challenges or setbacks in that role? 

No – the stem cell field has always attracted talented female researchers.


Matthew Brace) In 2018 you were appointed as the Executive Chair of the MRC: what attracted you to this role and what are your key goals for the coming years? 

The MRC is over 100 years old and yet its mission has remained constant – to improve human health through world-class research. Who wouldn’t want to lead such a wonderful organisation? I am very keen to support individual clinical and non-clinical scientists, to foster collaboration and translation, and to ensure that no-one is denied access to the infrastructure required to pursue their research.


Elton Yeung) Which specific traits of yours contributed to your success as a successful leader? 

Growing up, I only ever wanted to be a scientist. I’m adventurous and I tend to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. And which skills and attributes are crucial for a successful leadership? I believe that it is important to listen to others, to have clarity of vision and to be compassionate.


Elton Yeung) How holding remarkable leadership roles have changed you as a human being? 

I have some sleepless nights and quite a few enemies.


Matthew Brace) How do you divide your time between the MRC and the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London, which you lead? 

I’m on secondment at the MRC for 80% of my time. That means I have one day a week at King’s and can hold weekly group meetings as well as catching up with everyone in my lab. I’m lucky that it only takes 25 minutes to walk between my office at the MRC and my lab. I can therefore fit lab time round MRC meetings and I don’t have to stick rigidly to one particular day of the week for King’s.


Matthew Brace) Stem cell research has advanced significantly over the past 20 years. What do you hope will be better understood in the next 20 years? 

I really hope that cell and gene therapies will continue to progress into clinical applications.


Rebecca Womersley) Many people assume there is a clearly defined boundary between arts and sciences: do you think so? Which role does creativity play in your work? 

I think scientists have much more in common – intellectually – with artists than with doctors, who are really craftsmen and women. Scientists need to have the time and space to be creative.


Elton Yeung) What would be your advice for women scientists who are about to start their journey in science? 

Go for it – it is much better to try and fail than never to try at all.


Matthew Brace) What is the most important advice you would give to a new PI on how to lead a lab?

Treat your team members with respect.


Rebecca Womersley) Looking backwards, which moment(s) are you particularly fond of and attached to? 

Over the years I have often taken my children to conferences. I will never forget my eldest telling me, after a conference reception, that I was ‘just a nerd magnet’.

Interview with Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes: Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Passion

Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes is the Head, Centre for Psychiatry and Professor of Addiction Biology at Imperial College London. She is also a Consultant Psychiatrist with a particular interest in pharmacological treatments of alcohol problems and other substance addictions at Central North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Her research has focused on using neuroimaging and neuropharmacological challenges to characterize the neurobiology of addiction

The key aims of this new blog are to enhance the curriculum and innovate pedagogy, highlight the contribution of women in academia within and outside the College, and engage and inspire the society. The founder and editor of the blog is Dr Stefano Sandrone, Teaching Fellow within the Faculty of Medicine, and the contributors are Imperial’s MSc Translational Neuroscience students.

Swetha Umashankar) What inspired you to choose scientific research as a career? 

At school I liked all science subjects but particularly biology and chemistry. I also liked doing projects since you were allowed to do subjects in more depth. Projects also helped to satisfy my curiosity about things that I could not find the answer to!  There are no scientists in my family so my teachers at school and my tutor at University were very important in helping me develop my career.

Lucía Luengo Gutierrez) What were the difficulties you have to deal with when you decided to start a science career? 

I do not really remember any particular difficulties. It was helpful being able to move within the UK and to the USA for my post-doc since I had no particular ties to one place. I saw for some colleagues that it was much harder to take up opportunities since they had family and financial responsibilities.

Swetha Umashankar) How would you describe your career trajectory so far?

Hard one! I think most people think they can always do better or differently? You can always find people you regarded as contemporaries at the start of your career who have done better or worse than you. On the whole I am happy with where I am and what I want to do next.

Caroline Schaufelberger) Was there a specific event or reason that aimed your interests in research towards addiction?

The lab I joined for my post-doc was studying the GABA-A receptor. Amongst a range of modulators that we studied, it was known that some of the effects of alcohol were mediated through this receptor. When I returned to research after completing my clinical training I joined a group whose primary focus was on schizophrenia. At that time evidence had been growing for a potential role for the GABA-A receptor in schizophrenia. Having failed to get a fellowship to support an imaging study of the GABA-A receptor in schizophrenia, I reapplied to study alcoholism – and got funded. At that time very few people were looking at the biology of alcoholism using brain imaging so it was quite novel.

Claudia Ghezzou) Throughout you career, what have been the motivations and incentives that have kept you focused in your impact as a researcher regardless of the possible difficulty of the processes or discouraging results from the research carried out?

Being in the clinic where there is obvious unmet need continues to motivate me to keep going – particular as addicts are a vulnerable, stigmatised and often marginalised within society.  Being a member of a good team who can celebrate and commiserate is crucial. Support and understanding from my family has also been crucial.

Pavlina Pavlidi) Did you experience any conflicts between your career and personal life choices?

All the time! It is a constant juggling act particularly as for the last 10yrs I have lived away from my family during the week so I try to limit activities which impact on time with them at weekends. Modern technology has been helpful – so even if I am not at the dinner table with them in person, I can join via skype. On the other side, they have had some amazing experiences when they have joined me on a ‘work trip’ so they have benefited as well.

Shinil Raina) What gaps do you think exist between neurobiological and clinical research in the field of addiction?

Gaps still exist though having to argue that there is a neurobiology to addiction is less of an issue now compared with 20yrs ago. Compared with other areas of psychiatry we know quite a bit about the brain in addiction and many of the medications used came from knowledge about pharmacology and neurobiology. I think many people are aware of this however most people who work in the addiction field have no training in this area. This then means that the number of clinical researchers in this area is limited – this needs to change if we are to improve prevention and treatment. So to me the gap is about lack of people trained in research and who work clinically rather than highlighting a gap in a particular area.

Caroline Schaufelberger) To what extent do you think that the research you are doing in addiction will have an impact on the societal understanding of addiction?

I hope that by people understanding the role of the brain that addiction is destigmatised, that it is no longer seen as due to someone ‘lacking moral fibre’.

Ryan Dowsell) What’s the most ridiculous scientific report you’ve seen in the media?

Another hard question! No one report comes to mind but I do find it intriguing how the media can report that ‘alcohol is bad for you’ and ‘alcohol is good for you’ without any sense that they are being inconsistent or informing the reader how to interpret research.

Shinil Raina) Why do you think in the current political climate are some politicians against the advancements in science?

I am not sure it is just current – it has always been this way. I am not sure they are against scientific advances as such but more about how much they will cost financially and whether it will be popular with voters. As one elected official was quoted as saying when asked about cuts to budget for addiction services – no ‘man on the street’ in the run up to an election has ever asked me to give more money to addicts. Another factor is that in the UK (I do not know about elsewhere) very few politicians are scientists and also they like yes/no – whereas we speak in terms of probability.

Jessica Hain) Are there any areas in addiction research which you would like to see explored in the future?

I think we need more in the area of opiate addiction where we have not really seen a step-change in what we can offer for decades – we need new treatments to help those struggling with street heroin and also those whose use of opioid analgesics have escalated uncontrollably.

Leire Melgosa) What is your advice to young scientist (i.e. a hard truth or something we tend to worry about but we should not)?

Jessica Hain) Do you have any advice for neuroscience students?

Same answer to both – if you are interested in a topic or technique, join a group working in this area and use it like an apprenticeship. I think it is also important to have people around you that you enjoy working with to mentor and help you to keep going towards your goal. Neuroscience is a great area to be in and there is always something new and exciting happening.

Interview with Professor Helga Nowotny: ‘In basic or fundamental research one does not know what one will find, yet it is precisely this uncertainty that is attractive’


Professor Helga Nowotny is Former President of the ERC, the European Research Council and one of its Founding Members. She is Professor emerita of Science and Technology Studies, ETH Zurich and Nanyang Technological University Visiting Professor (source:

The key aims of this new blog are to enhance the curriculum and innovate pedagogy, highlight the contribution of women in academia within and outside the College, and engage and inspire the society. The founder and editor of the blog is Dr Stefano Sandrone, Teaching Fellow within the Faculty of Medicine, and the contributors are Imperial’s MSc Translational Neuroscience students.

Kausar Raheel) You hold different positions throughout your career. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? What drives you?

Being able to follow what I like to do: to be curious about the world, people, ideas…and passionate in exploring how we might improve the human condition.

Kausar Raheel) How did you come to be passionate about what you do?

How does one become what one is? A mixture of luck with what nature, parents and our early social environment has endowed us with and what we were able to make of it. I feel very humble about what I have been able to achieve and privileged in being able to do what I strongly care about.

Kausar Raheel) What do you wish to see more from female scientists?

More self-confidence and persistence. Don’t let anyone discourage you – women can make it!

Kausar Raheel and Esther Awodipe) What are your aspirations and advices for young female scientists?

My answer is very simple and always the same: chose your partner well! Why? To embark on a scientific career and, even more important, to sustain it, you will need the full support of your partner. As probably neither you nor your partner has already experience in juggling the precarious life-work (im)balance that awaits you in science, you might want to involve a mentor to discuss with both of you what this entails for you. Don’t fall into illusions – life is sufficiently hard, but life in science is also immensely rewarding.

Esther Awodipe) Have you experienced any challenges working in STEM as a woman? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?

My first challenge came when I applied for my first job with a professor who knew my work well. He frankly declared that he prefers a man for the position – in those days this could still be stated openly! I asked him why and he had rational arguments: sooner or later I would get married, have kids and his investment into my training would be lost as I might leave the job or be less committed. In the end, we agreed: if he finds a man whose overall qualifications are better than mine, the job should go to him. Well, I got the job! But this is not the end of the story. After two years I got married and left with my husband to New York where I started a new career. The cunning of reason was on my side after all.

Esther Awodipe) Who is your biggest inspiration and why?

Although there are many people who do great things, I had to find my own way.

Esther Awodipe) How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?

Motivation was never a problem for me. As I said before, I feel privileged that I can do what I like to do. But I had also had to work hard to get there.

Esther Awodipe) How do you manage your work-life balance?

Taking a break when it feels necessary, getting enough sleep, keeping fit, laughing…

Ines Das Neves) Based on your experience in several areas, but particularly through your work in the European Research Council, what, to you, are the major problems with the way peer review processes are currently conducted or set up to work? Do you think there is room for much change within the frameworks for research funding and policy that are presently in place?

We worked hard at the European Research Council to set up a peer review culture unlike any other. Not that we changed the procedure, but we made huge efforts to find the best scientific minds to serve in our evaluation panels, people who were broad in their scientific knowledge and open-minded, having good judgement and looking for scientific excellence only. But nobody is exempt from unconscious bias. We carefully monitored what we observed, giving feed-back to panel members and showing them examples of where unconscious bias might have occurred.

The general problem is that the peer-review system is under immense pressure. It is bursting at the seams. Funding agencies then resort to formal mechanisms, i.e. indicators of various kinds and quantitative measures. While this alleviates stress to the system, it that can never fully replace a carefully calibrated peer-review system with good human judgment.

The solution is to differentiate much better: which funding streams can rely on light reviewing, perhaps with very simple indicators? Which funding streams need a (perhaps quantitative) preselection, followed by careful interviews with the pre-selected candidates? When should reviewers read the publications of the candidates and when is it sufficient to look only at the publication list? Various other solutions are being discussed right now, but the most important is not to rely on ‚One size fits all’.

Ines Das Neves) Why do you believe that embracing uncertainty is important to scientific research and the way its findings are presented to the general public?

As I wrote in „The Cunning of Uncertainty“ science and scientists thrive on the cusp of uncertainty. In basic or fundamental research one does not know what one will find, yet it is precisely this uncertainty that is attractive, pushing scientists into the yet unknown. Speaking to the public, one has to have the courage to admit that absolute certainty does not exist and that we all have to learn to live with probabilities. We have to communicate better that scientific knowledge is always preliminary in the sense that it will be replaced by more and better knowledge. We also have to say loud and clearly that scientific findings hold under certain conditions that can be spelled out. There is no simple and unconditional ‚yes’ or ‚no’ to many of the questions that preoccupy the public. But we can and should explain better how science works and how scientific findings are arrived at. It can be done!

Ines Das Neves) You have recently written the book, An Orderly Mess. What drove you to write about this particular subject?

This little book consists of two essays. ‚Revisisting Eigenzeit’ is based on an Inaugural lecture I was invited to give for a big research project at the Haus der Kulturen in Berlin. It is an analysis of what has changed in our experience of time since I first published my book on Time (the German title was ‚Eigenzeit’) some thirty years ago. The Central European University Press (yes, from the embattled Central European University in Budapest that is under threat of being closed) wanted to translate and publish it. They asked me to write a second essay and I thought that the topic of ‚messiness’ cuts across societal concerns and can be found in science as well. In a sense, it follows the cross-cutting  theme of uncertainty. Messiness alerts us to the dynamics of order and disorder and our involvement in generating both, but also how to deal with it.

Carolina Beppi) The educational system can be considered a ‘positive constraint’ to our creativity, providing us with the scientific knowledge and tools that spur our creative ideas. One the other hand, the educational system represents a ‘negative constraint’, limiting our research to a corrupted ‘school of thinking’, where the scientific discovery and advancement is limited by the demand and interests of the capitalist economy and market. What ‘revolutionary action’ should we enact, in your opinion, as socially aware scientists?

I don’t think that ‚revolutionary action’ is anywhere on the horizon these days. We speak about ‚responsible research and innovation’, of more sharing, better cooperation and open science. The point is that greater awareness is needed about the many complex interrelationships between science and society in a global and globalising world. To become more aware of our interdependencies, but also of our ability to act. We are neither the pawns of history, nor its masters. But we often do have greater freedom to act than we may think. I would like to see more young scientists to become what I call ‚competent rebels’.

Carolina Beppi) Currently successful industries are now applying machine learning classification and prediction techniques on consumer data to guide their market strategies and maximise their outcomes. Only those industries that are successfully integrating these softwares will survive in the economy. At that point, economical power will only become a matter of ‘who owns the biggest data’. To what extent do you agree with this statement?

This is too deterministic for me. All big technological paradigm changes have produced monopolies. They have to be broken up and regulated by the state. This is the point where we are now with Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like. I admit that it is more complicated now as the state has partly been overtaken by markets and we have to factor in the global world. But I am convinced that regulation of the ‚big data’ world will happen.

Carolina Beppi) Algorithms that extent predictions at aggregate level, the increasing accumulation of big data, but also developments in risk management, cannot protect against ‘the unpredictable’ – and the 2008 financial crisis is an exemplification. Do you believe the development and integration of AI intelligence will soon lead to another worldwide economical and social risks in the context of both employment and security?

The risks are there, undoubtedly.

Carolina Beppi) Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. She believed ‘Women have always had to fight doubly. They always had to carry two weights, the private and the social. Women are the vertebral column of society’. What is your idea in this regards?

Rita Levi-Montalcini was right, but we have to challenge men more and better to share the burden. With humanity stumbling into an uncertain and artificial future in which humans and non-human artefacts will mix and mingle in unforeseen ways, new forms of living together will evolve. Perhaps much of the aggressive misogynic behaviour that we see today is the last rear-guard fight of a patriarchy that will no longer have a place in the future. Let us remember: whatever life forms will evolve depends also on us. My hope is that they will be more inclusive and based on mutual respect.

Interview with Professor Jackie de Belleroche: ‘Just be yourself, follow your dream’

Professor Jackie de Belleroche leads the Imperial College London research group that has a strong commitment to investigate on Amyotrophic Lateral sclerosis (ALS) through molecular genetics, expression profiling in spinal cord and through the use of experimental models to develop new therapeutic approaches.

The key aims of this new blog are to enhance the curriculum and innovate pedagogy, highlight the contribution of women in academia within and outside the College, and engage and inspire the society. The founder and editor of the blog is Dr Stefano Sandrone, Teaching Fellow within the Faculty of Medicine, and the contributors are Imperial’s MSc Translational Neuroscience students.

Leire Melgosa) What made you choose science and the area of research you work in?

I was always deeply fascinated by Molecular Biology from DNA to medical research.

Caroline Schaufelberger) What were the main considerations you made when taking your career forward in research rather than in a clinical environment?

I was lucky that my early research was always relevant to neurological disorders such as epilepsy and stroke. This background helped me to gain a lectureship, a joint appointment in Biochemistry and Neurology, which provided the perfect environment to pursue research in clinical Neuroscience.

Leire Melgosa) What have been the most challenging part of your career and the most satisfying one so far?

In common with many others, the most challenging stage was finding an established position that would enable me to develop as an independent researcher. For me, this came with the award of a Mental Health Foundation Fellowship. Research is full of surprises, but each new discovery, however small, is very satisfying. However, even more than this, is to see the success of members of my research group in setting up their own research teams and establishing themselves in their various chosen careers.

Ryan Dowsell) How realistic is it to think that gene mutations play a much more significant role in motor neurone disease (ALS) than we currently believe?

Understanding how gene mutations cause disease in families has had a phenomenal effect on our ability to define the processes that underpin disease processes and also occur in sporadic cases, and are therefore targets for therapeutic intervention. This is, of course, only part of the story, as ALS is an adult-onset disorder and effects of ageing play an important role and an increasing number of DNA variants are being discovered that modify gene function and act as risk factors. Overall, multiple factors will undoubtedly contribute to the final evolution of disease, e.g. age at onset and duration of disease.

Claudia Ghezzou) Throughout you career, what have been the motivations and incentives that have kept you focused in your impact as a researcher regardless of the possible difficulty of the processes or discouraging results from the research carried out? 

I have always been committed to finding out the basis of disease both in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. This is never ending, whatever the setbacks, the challenge is always there to find a way forward. Discouraging results may even provide a greater depth of understanding and lead to a more fruitful approach.

Shinil Raina) How has your experience as a woman in science changed since when you started as an undergrad?

Jessica Hain) Did you encounter any difficulties in your pursuit to be a female scientist, and do you think attitudes have changed over the years? If so, to what extent?

Of course attitudes have changed monumentally which is a major achievement, but there is still room for improvement. As a scientist, I did not think of myself as being different, being female. Travelling to international conferences, where female representation amongst the speakers is low, just makes you realise how much has been achieved.

Caroline Schaufelberger) What do you think are the main challenges for women in science and what has your experience taught you that would aid the next generation tackle these challenges?

Danielle Kurtin) How do you balance work as well as motherhood?

These are of course relevant to all walks of life. The framing of your question is absolutely correct to address the issue of balancing work and motherhood. Once you return from maternity leave you need to find a balance, allocate your time as much as possible equally to your work and your family. There are many options available for childcare and universities like Imperial have many facilities available and provide other types of support, which all help to make life easier at what would otherwise be a challenging time. My daughters have greatly benefitted from attending the crèche and nursery which are highly recommended but many other options are available.

Ryan Dowsell) How has working at Imperial College London helped to shape your career as a woman in science?

Imperial is a very dynamic and supportive place to work, whether male or female.

Caroline Schaufelberger) Especially in our MSc cohort there is a higher percentage of women compared to men, what do you see is the importance of more women entering a career in science?

Ryan Dowsell) Throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I’ve noticed how the classes have always included more female than male students. So from your experience, what do you think is causing a gender disparity between the roots of STEM and the managerial positions?

Across UK Universities as a whole, there are similar gender differences in particular subjects, more females in biological subjects, more males in engineering. Medicine and chemistry are more evenly balanced. The disparity may be based historically on traditional attitudes, but there have been some marked changes in some subjects, such as Medicine, to reach an equality between males and females compared to a few decades ago. I am encouraged to see more women embarking on careers in sciences, where there will be increasing opportunities available.

Jessica Hain) Do you have any advice for neuroscience students?

If you have a passion for a subject, you should pursue it.

Leire Melgosa) Do you have specific advices for young female scientists (i.e. a hard truth or something we tend to worry about but we should not)?

Just be yourself, follow your dream. There are always difficult times, whether male or female, but there is always a way through.


Photography credit: Jackie King

Interview with Dr Magdalena Skipper, new Editor-in-Chief of Nature

Kety Alania and Ines Das Neves) You are the first woman to become an Editor-in-Chief of Nature over the last 149 years. What does this mean to you personally?

It is interesting actually, at some level it means very little. When you think about the role, my gender should not matter. I am in the role because of what I have to offer, both as a scientist first and now as an editor. My professional setting should be gender-neutral. Of course, in general, there are fewer women and less diversity in leadership roles and roles of influence: for these reasons it is important that I am a woman in this role.

As it happens, I am the first woman. What is worth remembering is that although Nature has been around for almost 150 years, I am only the 8th Editor-in-Chief. My predecessor, the outgoing Editor-in-Chief Sir Philip Campbell, was appointed 22 years ago. When you go back to the previous appointments, unfortunately, there were fewer women in positions that would have allowed them to compete for the role then, both from perspective of personal engagement, education, and so on. Fortunately, things are changing, and this is important. Overall, I rarely think of myself as a role model in the true sense of the word, but if I can be a role model for young women, that is of course a delightful side effect of my appointment to this role.

Esther Awodipe) Have you experienced any challenges as a woman in science? And if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

I have to be honest and say that I personally have not, at least I do not believe that I have experienced any specific challenges, which of course is a delightful thing for me to be able to say. I have been fortunate enough to have the kind of mentors and teachers since the very beginning who looked at me as a person in a gender-neutral way, and then encouraged me in the direction I wanted to proceed. That has always been the case: when I was at school, at the University of Nottingham, where I had fantastic tutors in the Genetics department, and similarly during my PhD and my postdoc.

The biggest challenge we all have to face is the decision on how to divide the time between the professional engagement (and science is a very jealous profession, to which you have to devote so much time) and personal life. Early career stages are also times during which one thinks about a family; while these considerations are equally important for men and for women, for biological reasons women tend to be more intensively engaged, at least for a period of time.

Kety Alania) Have you seen a change in recent years in terms of number of females competing and being appointed in leadership roles within or outside academic publishing? Also, do you think we can do more about that?


In general, we do see many more women who are much more visible in roles of responsibilities and senior roles in academia, in publishing and in industry (or applied research, if you like), which is, of course wonderful to see. Just the right thing to be experiencing: there is not a reason why they should not be there. There never was, but it is great that we no longer see it so emphasised.

Publishing is a very interesting example. In my experience, and I have been working in science publishing for eighteen years now, has always been quite well balanced. If anything, I would say that it was almost skewed towards females. In my experience, many professional editors tend to be female rather than male.

Actually here within Springer Nature some of the most senior roles on the editorial side are actually filled by women. Editorial directory: is a woman. Nature editorial director: is a woman. Many among the Chief Editors of Nature Research titles are women. My previous role, Editor-in-Chief of Nature Communications, was filled by me, a woman, until some days ago. In this particular industry, women ‘drive’ and this is certainly recognised (and rightly so).

Ines Das Neves) Considering your background in genetics, what drew you to a career in publishing/editing or out of a career in research? 

My answer is actually agnostic of my specific background. Having spoken to many colleagues of mine over the years, the reason why I left the bench and active research itself and chose publishing actually resonates with many of my colleagues. The fact that I was a genetic researcher before is not related to that decision. I did a PhD and a postdoc. At some point during my postdoc years, I began to think in what way I could most fruitfully contribute to the advancement of science. My postdoc was such that I would have not been in a position to start an independent career after one postdoc, so the plan would have been then to go onto a second postdoc. While I enjoyed research very much, I decided that I was probably not the person who would make the strongest contribution to the advancement of science through research. And yet I really love science, ever since I was a child. I have always found scientific discoveries fascinating, and knowing how the world around me works fascinated me more than anything else. So I did not want to lose this kind of contact with scientific research.

Having considered a number of possibilities, I thought that the editorial career could have been ‘the’ thing for me. At that time I began to look for editorial opportunities and I saw a job advert for an Associate Editor at Nature Reviews Genetics, very much within the area in which I specialised. What happened next was this: the journal, like all  Nature Reviews journals do, sent me a set of tests to be done at home. The test consisted of a series of tasks you would do if appointed to the role. One of them was, for example, looking at a submitted review article to see whether it could be edited to improve the story flow. Another one was to come up with a number of commissions, to effectively create a table of contents for a future issue of the journal, and select some recently published research articles to write a short ‘research highlight’ about, and explain the choice. I had no previous experience in writing nor editing. But as it happened, I enjoyed the test that I had at home so much that by the time I came back for the interview I obviously was imbued with so much enthusiasm that, as I now joke, I almost bullied them into giving me the job.

For me, moving from research to being an editor was, in many ways, a  perfect transition for me.

Mash Coomaraswamy) Do you feel like more needs to be done to open pathways for a more equal gender representation in the biological sciences?

Definitely we do need to encourage girls and young women, and this effort has to start very early on, at school or pre-school. We, as a society, anywhere, continue to have pre-set ideas of what girls and boys are like, and we reward our children for different things depending on their gender. The stereotyping unfortunately begins very earlier on. I do think we have to place more emphasis on equality from the very early days. The responsibility is not only on the educators, but on the whole society, whether we are talking about our own children or children of others

Certainly this effort needs to continue through the schooling years, at university at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, during postdoc years and so on. I see no distinction between biological sciences, physical sciences or engineering. Right across the board, agnostic of the topic, we should encourage those who are interested in the study, regardless of their gender.

Esther Awodipe) How do you manage your work-life balance? 

With difficulty! (she smiles) I have never really made a complete distinction between work and life. Work is part of life for all of us, it is more of a continuum. I find what I do absolutely fascinating. Having said that, I do other things in life, which have nothing to do with work. For example I particularly enjoy pottery. One has to make an effort to switch off. Another thing I try to do as much as possible is not to check my emails when I am on holidays. It is for everyone’s sake, really. For most of us, balancing leisure and work requires some active management of time, but I believe it is very important that we have leisure time and can switch off completely.

Esther Awodipe) Who is your biggest science inspiration?

I am inspired by a numbers of characters, not necessarily within science. But let’s start with scientists.

My earliest inspiration, when I was still a child, was Isaac Newton. My parents bought me a book specifically written for young readers, and it was a book about Newton’s life. I guess that partly thanks to how the author put the story across and explained the different contributions that Newton made and how they came about in his life, I was absolutely fascinated by the dedication to discovery and knowledge, and it may be that this is why I become a scientists. Although I do not remember a very clear connection, now, from perspective of time, I think that was an early inspiration for me.

I have recently acquired a new inspiration – Alexander von Humboldt; he is somebody I did not know much about until recently. The remarkable thing about von Humboldt was that he was a bit of a Renaissance man and possibly the first environmental scientists. Multi-disciplinarian but most importantly, he was somebody who was not afraid to go out there and empirically test ideas and collect data. He spent months and months travelling around South American jungle, completely disregarding the associated discomforts because he was so interested in collecting data. Importantly, he was a very progressive thinker. One of the things he encountered during his travel was slavery. He very openly spoke against slavery and human inequality. Apparently, this was one of the few things he disagreed with George Washington about.

Another person I was very inspired by, if I am allowed to use an inspiration from outside sciences, was a woman called Rosita Forbes. She was not a scientist, but an incredible woman. During the early 1930s she spent quite some time travelling in the Central Asia, by herself and propelled by her own curiosity. At that time Central Asia was politically quite sensitive. She wrote the most wonderful diaries about her travels, where she described her amazement at the cultural variety in Central Asia: it is an amazing chronicle. She wasn’t formally trained as a scientist, but her writing tends towards social anthropology. I think that the reason why I am inspired by her is that in that climate, when women did not travel or did not have necessarily independent existence from their male companions, she just went forth to a part of the World that nobody knew very much about (and which was associated with many different perils) and brought back incredibly rich stories; I find it very inspiring.

Sarah Lee) Over the past years working at Nature, what do you think has been the greatest change (development) in regards to publishing scientific data?

Certainly data availability and being able to increasingly and effectively link scientific papers  to real underlying data. The problem is far from solved: a great challenge for publishers is to be able to even better link the data with the results as discussed in the paper and, ideally, to provide the data exactly as associated with each figure and each graph in a paper that has been published. Publishers spend a lot of time thinking about how we can best do this best. Our ability to directly link and lead the readers of a paper, and of a story, to the dataset would allow them to replicate (at least in silico) how the data were analysed and a particular conclusion is reached.

Sarah Lee) What has been the highlight of your career at Nature so far, from the very first job interview to nowadays?

I am most excited by is something I was involved in when I was the genetics and genomics editor at Nature. I am referring to the ENCODE project.

ENCODE is the Encyclopedia of DNA elements. The Consortium had been working for years, producing a very large body of work, some of which had been published previously. But at some point a very significant bulk of information was ready to be published in a number of papers that were going to come out simultaneously. The dataset and the analyses were so rich that it was quite tricky to choose the story to tell. If you imagine the project as a landscape, writing papers to convey certain messages only allow you to discover certain aspects of the ‘landscape’. But there are other paths through which you can explore a landscape.

Together with the authors we proposed to create what we called ‘threads’. Threads were composed of sections from the already accepted papers, sections of text, or figures, or tables. Threads orthogonal to the exiting papers revealed additional insights into the ‘ENCODE landscape’. The reason why I find it particularly exciting was that not only that was an added way of enriching the data and the analyses, but also a new thing in publishing: nobody has ever done this before. We did this not just with the papers we published in Nature, but together with papers that were published in other journals, such as Genome Biology and Genome Research, which were published by other publishers. For me that was a wonderful opportunity but a number of things had to align: we had amazingly rich datasets, which were ready to be published at the same time; we had the interested and willing authors who took an extremely active part in the whole process; we had the goodwill of the different publishers (including publishers of Nature, but also different publishers: now Genome Biology is part of Springer Nature, but at that time it was not, it was BMC, and Genome Research was published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory). A wonderful opportunity! And then the efforts were well rewarded by the response from the community: I had much positive feedback on this initiative

Ines Das Neves) Do you think there should be any major shifts in the way Nature and scientific publishing in general work?

I certainly can see the need for some shifts. Although not an entirely new initiative, we have made a lot of effort towards rewarding and surfacing efforts to make research reproduce and robust. Again, much work remains to be done.

Another important focus is transparency. Transparency of research goes hand in hand with reproducibility. That said, in my view publishers and editors, who demand transparency from researchers, should themselves be more transparent about their own practices. We at Nature have begun this journey already: we try to surface exactly what it is that editors do, how we consider submissions and how peer-review is conducted. For example, within the journal I led until some days ago, Nature Communications, with the author’s agreement, we publish the referees’ report: we call it ‘transparent peer-review’.

It is important to add much more transparency to the whole scientific discussion that surrounds the publication of a paper. These are just a couple of examples of where I think we should be increasingly moving, and certainly that I would like to champion.

Alexandra Rother) What is in your opinion the best strategy to make sure that papers present reproducible results? What is your opinion on this on both sides, editors and scientists?

I would say to the scientists that a lot of reproducibility uncertainty arises from unclear reporting of how research was actually done. It is not that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way something was done, but simply insufficient details are provided. In some way,  the most transparent way would be for all the researchers to switch to electronic notebooks and publish them as part of, or substituting, the methods section of the papers. This would lead, by definition, to a 100% transparency. Although I am not entirely sure whether that would be necessarily helpful to all the readers.

In the meantime, there are a number of platforms and venues available to researchers to publish their protocols in details, to deposit their data and to describe their datasets in a specific way. For example, a number of journals are specifically dedicated to publishing descriptors of datasets. Springer Nature publishes one of them, but there are also others. The one we publish is called Scientific Data; it publishes an article type called ‘Data Descriptors’. There are no results there, no conclusions, but a description of a dataset alongside, not necessarily coincident, with the analyses and the results that emerge from this dataset; the latter published elsewhere. Of course the beauty of spending more time on describing the dataset is that others can re-use it. There are already a number of tools that scientists could take better advantage of and which can be linked to papers themselves.

Mash Coomaraswamy) What advice would you give to those hoping to enter university or those unsure about pursuing a PhD and further study in science? 

The advice to those entering university: open your mind and enjoy learning about the most wonderful planet (and beyond) and the various aspects of whatever you have chosen to study. I remember being very excited when I was an undergraduate: learning about the mysteries of life. It sounds perhaps cheesy, but that really was the case. Uncovering how things work. Very importantly, uncovering what it is that we do not know yet.

I should say that I am still very excited by many of these questions today, so you do not have to stop being excited by them when you leave university. But I do think it is a wonderful time when you are a student. My advice would be: do not constrain yourself with other things, just immerse yourself in this sort of sea of knowledge as a student.

Moving on to the PhD and further, I would say the following: if you are thinking of doing a PhD because you cannot think of something else to do, you probably should not do it. PhD is hard work: you will have to dedicate yourself to work on a specific problem (to the exclusion of many other things) and to be persistent. Most of the time experiments do not work, you will have to encounter a lot of failures. But if you are genuinely interested in what you do, if you are curious and if you want to make a contribution to research, then the PhD and the postdoc are absolutely wonderful times to be exploring and making your own contribution.

If, after your PhD, you find that you are happy with your contribution, but you are not sure about what to do but the path of least existence  seems to be a postdoc, I would say: think again, there are many other things you can do after a PhD in science. You are incredibly well-qualified for all sorts different roles in society, outside of academia, in industry or actually in other aspects of academia, or publishing, industry etc. The somewhat cliché question ‘where do you see yourself in a five-year time?’ is useful to consider, despite being a cliché. Even if you do not know exactly what you may want to do, perhaps you know what you do not want to do; that is already quite informative.

Alexandra Rother) What tips would you give to someone wishing to pursue a carrier in scientific writing/editing?

Scientific writing and scientific editing are actually quite separate. For scientific editing, there is not specific training or preparation. What you need is an open mind, the ability to consider and discuss a broad range of topics, broader than just your own area of research. If you are interested in pursuing this career, what really helps is talking to an editor. From my own experience, I can tell you that editors are very happy to talk about their careers Editors attend scientific conferences and will often come and visit your university or your institute. Why not invite an editor to come over and maybe give a talk or just have a lunch-session with you and your peers so that you may find out what specific advice they have for you.

Scientific writing usually requires a little bit more of preparation. Some people are natural writers, but, as with any skills, it requires practice. If you do have an opportunity to write, whether it is a blog or a newspaper (it can be a student or a university newspaper or any other), then do so. Sometimes newspapers are looking for science writers as interns. There are also specific courses: Master Degrees or summer courses that will teach you about the fundamental of science writing or just give you tips on how to do that.