Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
11/06/2014 - Winners Named in 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards Competition
(Originally published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science)
November 6, 2014
Stories exploring the complexities of human biology, including our interactions with the trillions of microbes we all harbor, the influences of our fishy evolutionary forebears on how we look, and the enduring challenge of understanding cancer, are among the winners of the 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945, go to professional journalists for distinguished reporting for a general audience. The Kavli Foundation provided a generous endowment in 2009 that ensures the future of the awards program.
Independent panels of science journalists pick the winners, who will receive $3,000 and a plaque at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif., in February.
Rob Stein, a science correspondent for NPR, won the radio award for reporting on the microbial hitchhikers that live on and in the human body. “In addition to revealing potentially profound new insights into human health,” Stein said, research on the human microbiome, as it is called, “raises tantalizing questions about our relationship with the world around us, and even in some ways what it means to be human.” The growing field of research also raises some tricky ethical concerns, Stein noted. “Altogether, producing this series proved to be a challenging, fascinating and thrilling journey,” he said.
Michael Rosenfeld, David Dugan, and Neil Shubin won the in-depth reporting award in the television category for a three-part PBS series on “Your Inner Fish.” The winning series described how Shubin, a fish paleontologist, and his colleagues use fossil evidence and our DNA history to trace different features of our anatomy to animals from long ago. Natalie Angier, a science writer for The New York Times, praised the PBS series. “I particularly applaud the segments that reveal what fieldwork is really like,” Angier said, “and the graphics really brought the fossils to life.”
George Johnson, a contributor to The New York Times, won in the large newspaper category for three insightful essays on cancer and some of the misconceptions about the disease. Hillary Rosner, a freelance writer who was one of the judges, said Johnson’s pieces “are gorgeously written and offer fascinating perspectives on a topic we like to think we know a lot about.”
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said a new online entry submission system for the contest resulted in a record 606 entries across all categories, suggesting that “there is a tremendous amount of good work being done in many venues of science journalism at a time when public understanding of science and its impact is more important than ever."
Winners of the 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards
LARGE NEWSPAPER: Circulation of 100,000 or more
George Johnson described how cancer is vying to become the final killer as heart disease and stroke are beaten back; how researchers are finding that the same genes that guide fetal cells as they multiply, migrate and create a newborn child are also among the primary drivers of cancer; and how the connection between the foods we eat and “the cellular anarchy called cancer has been unraveling string by string.” As Johnson noted regarding the food-cancer connection, “Trying to tweeze feeble effects from a tangle of variables, many of them unknown, inevitably leads to a tug of war of contradictory reports.” Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate, an online magazine, praised Johnson’s mastery of “a subject that people have a lot of misconceptions about.” Johnson, who previously won the large newspaper award in 1999, said he began immersing himself in the mysteries of cancer while writing his last book and “the subject still has me in its grip.” He wrote two of the award-winning pieces for his monthly “Raw Data” column in the Times.
SMALL NEWSPAPER: Circulation less than 100,000
Matthew LaPlante and Paul Christiansen
Salt Lake City Weekly
“Devastated: The World’s Largest Organism is in Utah — and It’s Dying”
Nov. 20, 2013
Matthew LaPlante and Paul Christiansen described efforts to understand what is killing the aspen groves of Utah, clones of genetically identical trees that exist as single interconnected organisms with unified root systems that can cover 100 acres or more. A clone dubbed “Pando,” first identified in the 1970s as likely the world’s largest organism, has an almost complete lack of juvenile and adolescent tree stems, a sign that the ancient organism (perhaps 80,000 years old by some estimates) may be dying. Despite an onslaught of boring insects, bark beetles, canker infections, and other problems, some researchers suspect the underlying cause of Pando’s distress may be the long-time suppression of forest fires that promote new growth as well as the hotter, drier winters associated with climate change. Helmuth noted the story’s “engaging explanations of clones and the debates over how to determine what is the oldest or largest organism.” Kathy Sawyer, a freelancer formerly with The Washington Post, said: “The writing provides easily digestible descriptions of the complex influences in play in the environment and how researchers have teased out insights about the forest, with its unified root system, and why it may be dying.” LaPlante commented: “I’d like to think this project is an example of how we can make science alluring — even romantic — without exaggerating the scope of the research, confusing our audience or pandering to anyone.” Paul Christiansen, who was an undergraduate student at Utah State University at the time the winning piece was written, is now a reporter in northeast Wyoming at The Gillette News Record. “I’m hoping to be able to expand my writing to incorporate more science pieces in the future, much like the story Matthew and I are being recognized for,” Christiansen said.
“The Social Life of Genes”
David Dobbs explained how a growing body of research with diverse species, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans, suggests that social life can affect gene expression at a scale and breadth not previously suspected. Sawyer called the piece a “fascinating, entertaining trip through studies of gene expression and how scientists came to learn what they know about how genes interact with our social environment.” Dobbs also explored some of the more speculative questions raised by the research, including just how quickly a person’s gene expression may change in response to social isolation and other environmental factors. The story is rich in detail, including an opening description of how researchers kidnap “foster bees” from switched colonies, vacuuming them up, shooting them into chilled chambers and freezing their gene activity. Peggy Girshman, executive editor of Kaiser Health News, said Dobbs used “clear and creative prose” to lay out “complex issues in ways a layperson could really grasp, not always easy to do.” Dobbs said he welcomed the encouragement by the judges as he works on a book which deals with similar themes. “Writing rigorously and engagingly about behavioral science is terrifically challenging,” Dobbs said, “and this story in particular took an enormous amount of work.”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
“The Ecology of Fear”
March 6, 2014
Michael Werner explored the return of wolves to the Cascade Mountains in Washington State and the impact they could have on a vast wilderness area where prey species must learn to cope with their new neighbors. He reported on the work of biologist Aaron Wirsing, who uses a simple video camera (a “deer cam”) to study predator/prey relationships and provide insights on how we think about wolves. The judges applauded Werner’s piece as a good example of enterprising science journalism at the local level. “Discussions around wolves are too often fueled by passion rather than science,” Werner said. “The whole topic of wolf management is a lightning rod for controversy. I’m fortunate to work with a strong and supportive team who believed in this story and understood the power of showing what it means to have wolves on our landscapes.” Richard Hudson, director of science productions for Twin Cities Public Television, called Werner’s entry a “compact, well-paced story” with solid writing and editing. “I like the intense focus on one scientific study,” said David Baron, a freelance science writer. “We get a good sense of the question being asked and how scientists intend to answer it. I especially enjoyed the deer cam.”
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Neil Shubin, the author of two books on popular science, has spent his career studying the distant reaches of our family tree, looking for evidence of the ancestors that helped shape the human body. Much of how we look today, from our necks and lungs to our limbs and hands, can be traced to our fishy evolutionary forebears, including amphibious creatures that first crawled onto the land more than 300 million years ago. Every reptile, bird and mammal alive today is descended from ancient fish, including us, Shubin notes. Hudson applauded the “fascinating, creative storytelling with illuminating, effective, high-end graphics throughout.” He said the smart pacing and use of humor was a plus, “yet the humor never compromises the consistent focus on scientific discovery.” Lila Guterman, a deputy managing editor of Science News, said: “I loved it. It had loads of science, including how it’s done.” Michael Rosenfeld, executive producer of the series, remarked: “Using multiple scientific disciplines, and with Neil himself as our charismatic presenter, we were able to take our viewers on a journey through millions of years to meet a strange cast of characters — the ancestors that shaped our anatomy.” Shubin added: “I’m thrilled to share this special recognition by the AAAS with Michael and David. One of the great joys of doing the show was the way it became a partnership between scientists and filmmakers, each bringing their different vision to telling” the story.
“Staying Healthy May Mean Learning To Love Our Microbiomes”
July 22, 2013
“From Birth, Our Microbes Become As Personal As A Fingerprint”
Sept. 9, 2013
“Getting Your Microbes Analyzed Raises Big Privacy Issues”
Nov. 4, 2013
As part of his continuing reporting on the collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes that we all harbor, Rob Stein told his listeners about the positive benefits we can derive from our microbiome, the distinctly personal nature of our microbial ecosystems, and the privacy issues that loom now that individuals can readily and inexpensively get their microbes analyzed. One of the pieces included an imaginary bus tour through the microscopic world of the body. Judge Marc Kaufman, a science writer for The Washington Post and other publications, called Stein’s stories “a tour de force, as it were…deeply reported, very important and well described. Stein uses his medium extremely well.” Naomi Starobin, a project editor at WHYY radio in Philadelphia, said she found Stein’s three pieces “totally engaging.” Stein used “a lot of creativity and clever use of sound to tell the story,” Starobin said. “He fairly presents both the promise and the reality of where the biome research will lead. His trip through the human body feels like the Magic School Bus for adults.”
Amy Dockser Marcus
The Wall Street Journal
“Trials: A Desperate Fight to Save Kids and Change Science”
Nov. 14, 2013
In “Trials,” a sweeping, multimedia project, reporter Amy Dockser Marcus followed a group of families and scientists trying to accelerate the development of a drug to treat Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a rare and fatal disorder of cholesterol metabolism that strikes primarily children. Those with the disease, which gradually steals mobility, speech, and the ability to swallow, seldom live beyond their teen years. The families and scientists, whom Dockser Marcus followed for six years, were part of a fledgling movement to change medical science in the United States and gain a larger role for caretakers and patients in shaping research protocols. In a gripping narrative, Dockser Marcus described the lives of the children and their parents as the new model of citizen involvement in scientific research emerged. She grappled with difficult questions on how to accommodate the understandable drive of parents to save their children without compromising the safety and efficacy of clinical drug research. “Telling stories helps create community,” Dockser Marcus said. “We need to hear the stories of both patients and scientists. I hope that the Trials series shows that collaboration is essential to accelerating the discovery of new therapies.” Pete Spotts, a science writer for The Christian Science Monitor, said the winning entry was “a fascinating story with strong reporting and writing.” He added, “The writer’s approach respects the different ‘cultures’ involved in what could have become either a vilification of meddling parents or of scientists more concerned about the fastidiousness of their trials than about the patients involved.” Mary Knudson, a freelance science writer and editor, said: “The story is compelling, of major importance, rich with details, and highly readable.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
In engaging stories about venomous animals, sinkholes, and a do-it-yourself submarine, Mara Grunbaum offered her young readers a look at how scientists and engineers seek to understand and interact with the natural world. She explained how erosion can carve out cavities in certain types of bedrock resulting eventually in a dramatic collapse called a sinkhole. But Grunbaum also sought to reassure her readers that the odds of being swallowed up in a sinkhole are very, very small. Her story on snakes and other venomous animals explained what makes snake venom harmful, how to counteract it, and how researchers are using ingredients of venom to treat disease. Her piece on 18-year-old Justin Beckerman described how he built a working submarine out of a piece of plastic drainage pipe. She explained forces, such as buoyancy and fluid pressure, that Beckerman had to understand before he could make a successful sub. The piece on Beckerman “skillfully draws you into a simply cool story while telling you important tenets of science,” said judge Christine Dell’Amore of National Geographic News. Tina Hesman Saey of Science News said Grunbaum’s piece on the submarine “seamlessly incorporates the failures inherent” in science and engineering discovery and “teaches concepts without ever bogging down the story.” Grunbaum called the award a “huge honor,” adding, “I love writing about science for kids — and I learn a lot in the process.”