The communications department at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) has been recognised for its media work in 2021, having won first prize in the idw Award for Science Communication. The award is presented by idw in recognition of press releases that are of high professional quality, outstanding news value and high scientific importance. The news that naked mole-rat colonies develop their own dialects – just as German speakers communicate not only in standard German but also in Bavarian or Saxon, for example – resonated with the international media last year. It was reported in Die Zeit, GEO magazine, New Scientist and Flemish daily De Standaard, and was covered by the German radio station Deutschlandfunk as well as the BBC and ARTE. To accompany its award-winning press release, the MDC communications team also produced a variety of video, image and audio material for the media. “There's still a lot of interest in this subject,” says deputy head of communications Jana Schlütter. “Even today, we're still receiving enquiries on the topic.” In total, 84 press offices in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy nominated themselves for the idw award.
The jury explained that its decision was based on the fact that the press release is “a clearly structured flowing text with an understandable, entertaining and at the same time comprehensive presentation of the interdisciplinary research achievements. Not only do we learn a great deal about how naked mole rats communicate, but the text also brings them closer to us as social creatures. The story put the naked mole rat on the cover of 'Science'. The multimedia package of text, images and – of course, especially important for this topic – sound certainly contributed to the great international media response.”
Jutta Kramm, head of communications at the MDC, commented: “We're absolutely thrilled and we'd like to thank the jury for selecting us for this award. It’s very encouraging. We aim to make basic biomedical research at the MDC accessible, understandable and engaging for everyone and explain the processes involved in scientific research. We don’t exaggerate and we don’t promise too much. At the moment, with science sceptics becoming ever louder, the importance of this is more obvious than ever.”
A team of 14 people at the MDC are responsible for communicating the organisation’s research output to the public – in the form of press releases, photos, videos, exhibitions, social media activities, a newsletter and the MDC website. They also organise scientific conferences and events for the general public, for example during the”'Long Night of the Sciences”, Berlin Science Week, and for schools. The department works hand in hand with MDC researchers and many communications teams at partner institutions in Germany and abroad.
Naked mole-rats are some of the more unusual animal models used at the MDC: they are insensitive to pain, highly resistant to cancer and very long-lived. They form states and in the wild they live in extreme conditions. “This makes them extremely interesting to scientists – and to the public,” says Jana Schlütter. “We also have a responsibility to explain the animal experiments involved and show what purpose they serve.”
High-impact press release
The award-winning press release presents a study by the working group Molecular Physiology of Somatosensory Perception, headed by Professor Gary Lewin. Together with Dr Alison Barker from his team and researchers at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Lewin used algorithms to analyse the quiet twittering of 166 naked mole-rats. The researchers found that each individual animal had its own distinctive voice and that each colony had its own dialect. This increases cohesion within the
naked mole-rat state while helping to maintain boundaries. “Humans and naked mole-rats seem to be much more alike than anyone could have guessed,” says Lewin. “Naked mole-rats have their own language culture that developed long before humans even existed.”
The second-placed press release came from the Institute for the World Economy. Third prize went to the press office of Philipps Universität Marburg. The first prize is worth €2,000, the second prize €1,000 and the third prize €500.
Text: Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig