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Winners Named for the 2011 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards
Stories on the use of genetic analysis to help save a boy imperiled by a devastating disease, on the potential impact of climate change in two localities, and on the secret lives of scientists and engineers are among the winners of the 2011 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The awards, administered by 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 $3000 and a plaque at the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada in February.
Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won in the large newspaper category for “One in a Billion,” a compelling series about the use of genomics to find the cause of an unknown disease that was eating away at the gut of four-year-old Nicholas Volker. Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal who served on the judging panel, called the series “a richly reported and brilliantly told epic of biomedicine.”
“From the day we began working on ‘One in a Billion,’ we knew that understanding and explaining the science would be enormously challenging,” Johnson said. “It was a wonderful learning experience and deeply rewarding.” The series also won a Pulitzer Prize.
Christine Peterson, Kerry Huller and Wes Watson of Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune won in the small newspaper category for a series on the shrinking glaciers in the Wind River Range and the possible impacts locally. “Kudos to the Casper Star-Tribune for devoting energy and ink to explaining the science right in its readers’ back yards,” said judge Nancy Shute, a freelance science writer and contributor to NPR.
Local environmental reporting also won the spot news/feature reporting award in the television category. A team from KQED, San Francisco, looked at the potential impact of sea level rise on the San Francisco Bay. The QUEST/Climate Watch co-production “used the visual medium of television effectively as it laid out the facts—and uncertainties—surrounding rising sea levels,” said Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR who served as a judge.
After considerable deliberation, the judges decided to give two awards this year for in-depth reporting in the television category. The awards go to a WGBH/NOVA team for “Japan’s Killer Quake” and to Mark Davis for “Death of a Mars Rover” on the National Geographic Channel.
In the online category, PBS NOVA Online’s “Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers” offers a sometimes surprising look at the avocations and enthusiasms of researchers who pursue the mysteries of science. William Saletan, who covers science for Slate, called the winning entry “a delightfully engaging, visually creative series that illuminates the intrigue and texture of science through the personalities of its people.”
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said the 2011 awards “show that journalists are providing excellent coverage of science, both locally and beyond, even as resources at many news organizations continue to be stretched.”
The full list of winners of the 2011 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
- Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more
Johnson and Gallagher told about the use of DNA gene sequencing methods to reveal the entire genetic script of a sick child in hopes of finding clues to the cause of his debilitating disease. A small team of scientists sifted through more than 16,000 variations in the boy’s genetic script to find a single mutation on his X chromosome that proved to be the cause of the baffling illness in his gut. The reporters described both the promise and the limitations of genetic technology. The boy received a cord blood transplant to treat a rare immune system disorder from which he also suffers, but it is unclear what the transplant will mean for the illness that ravaged his intestine. Hotz of The Wall Street Journal said the winners “have set the standard for 21st century science writing” with their complex and nuanced story.
- Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 100,000
Peterson and her colleagues looked at the work of local Wyoming scientists who have been studying the glacier ecosystem of the Wind River Range, including how microbes have been adapting to climate changes in the high-altitude environment, the concerns of ranchers who worry that receding glaciers will decrease late-season water flow in the streams they use to irrigate, and the possible impact of glacier melt and altered ecosystems on the region’s blue-ribbon fisheries and game herds. Peterson, who said she was honored to receive the award, noted that “very little is known about the Wind River glaciers compared to many other glacial complexes, mostly because of their remote location.” She and photographer Kerry Huller joined two Wyoming scientists who have trudged up the mountains for decades to keep an eye on the glaciers and study the likely impact on their retreat.
Why is the town around a Canadian whiskey warehouse coated with a strange black fungus? Rogers explored some of the mysteries of microbiology in an unusual locale and took readers on an engaging, lively journey of exploration. “The story skillfully slips the spinach of science into the reader as smoothly as a shot of fine whiskey,” said science reporter Dan Vergano of USA Today. Laura Helmuth, a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine, called it “a charming story—unexpected, vivid, dramatic.” She added that Rogers “deftly explains the relevant history, chemistry, evolutionary biology, taxonomy, and mycology.” Rogers said he became fascinated with what makes a fungus grow outside distillery warehouses. “And then it turned out that a scientist-detective was looking into the mystery, and he was in love with it,” Rogers said. “I think that kind of passion always makes for a good story.”
- Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Along with the rest of the world’s oceans and estuaries, San Francisco Bay is rising. The changes are slow and barely perceptible, but even the most optimistic estimates about how high and how quickly this rise will occur suggest potentially significant problems for the region. “Sea level rise is one of those issues that seems far away for the public,” said Paul Rogers, managing editor for QUEST. “It’s also been clouded by huge amounts of misinformation and political spin. We wanted to show that scientists have documented that it’s already happening, and that it is going to have direct effects on the Bay Area and other coastal communities which will cost billions of dollars in the decades ahead.” Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer formerly with The Washington Post, said the entry was “a nicely executed zoom-in from a global perspective to a regional close-up of the encroaching seas.”
- In-Depth Reporting (More than 20 minutes)
(Two winning entries)
In a gripping account of the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the broadcast team looked at the impact of the disaster and the search for answers by scientists in the field. Harris said that the producers “moved with astonishing speed to tell the story of a still-unfolding disaster.” Richard Hudson, director of science production for Twin Cities Public Television, said the program used “breathtaking footage not seen in other broadcasts” and offered an “excellent treatment of the drama and the underlying science.” Robert Strange, executive producer for Pioneer Productions, said the logistics for the program were challenging, given the short turnaround time, and praised “the willingness of respected members of the scientific community to investigate and publicly explain the causes and consequences of the disaster, even at the risk of placing themselves in considerable personal danger.”
Davis of MDTV Productions, the writer, producer, and director of the program, tells the story of the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and the desperate effort to save Spirit after the craft drove into a quicksand trap five miles from its landing site. When the rovers arrived at Mars in 2004, they were expected to travel only a few hundred yards and last 90 days. More than seven years later, Opportunity is still active but a final attempt to revive Spirit on 25 May 2011 was unsuccessful. “Along with its gripping storytelling,” Sawyer said, “the production makes maximum use of real-life images from the surface of the Red Planet in seamless combination with animation and graphics to depict the lonely, cliff-hanging adventures of two robots under the skilled remote direction of an engaging team of handlers in a lab back on Earth.” David Baron, health and science editor for PRI’s “The World,” said the program had “memorable characters—human and otherwise. You can’t help but care about this plucky piece of machinery.” Davis, who won previously in the same category in 2004, said it was “flattering and reassuring to get a pat on the back” from the judges.
Spitzer and De Bonis won for several segments in the ongoing “Clever Apes” series on WBEZ public radio. The series tells the stories of Chicago-area researchers and some of the intriguing questions they are out to answer. The winning segments dealt with pain research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University’s Medical School; work by a Field Museum scientist in search of an elusive monkey in Tanzania that turned out to be part of an entirely new genus; the theory of a Northwestern University engineer on the origin of consciousness; tales of how our brains keep a beat; and how vibrations can unlock some of the planet’s oldest seismic secrets. “Spitzer tells his stories in such an engaging manner that it makes the science not just interesting, but downright fun, without dumbing it down,” said science writer Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press. Larry Engel, an independent filmmaker who is on the faculty at American University, said that Spitzer’s “well-crafted storytelling and humor combine to bring laughter and understanding of science to the listener.” Spitzer previously received a “Certificate of Merit” in the radio category in 2010. “It’s especially gratifying that the judges have chosen to recognize an example of locally focused reporting, and I hope that science journalism at local stations and news outlets continues to grow stronger,” Spitzer said.
The winning online video series introduced scientists and engineers in both their professional and personal lives. The subjects included a neurobiologist who meditates, a researcher on synesthesia who also has the condition, in which two or more body senses are merged, and a psycholinguist who likes to drive fast cars. Tina Hesman Saey of Science News said the series “humanizes scientists, and that’s a good thing for the future of science.” The team members for the winning entry said that their goal was “to open up the world of science to a broader audience by creating intimate, humanizing portraits of scientists today. We are grateful and proud to be recognized with this award.”
- CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Miller took her young readers to the top of redwood trees to learn how scientists study the canopy of these magnificent giants and the organisms that live there. They also are learning how water moves through the trunks and branches of trees that grow to more than 300 feet. “The story is a complete package with interesting sidebars, including one explaining how salmon and redwood forests benefit each other,” said Mary Knudson, a freelance science writer. “I first went camping on the northern California coast in the 1970s,” Miller said. “I was awestruck by the redwoods, but I didn't know then what was going on in the tops of the old-growth trees. Nobody did. It was a decade later that researchers discovered that the canopies supported thriving aerial ecosystems, with their own trees and bushes and animal life.” Researching the story, she said, “felt like exploring a hidden world—and one that young readers would be just as thrilled by as I was.”
The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. The Foundation’s mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics, and through the support of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships, and other activities, including the Kavli Science Journalism Workshops at the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the biennial Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.
9 November 2011