Lizzie Wade takes her reporting to the Peruvian Andes. | Jason Houston
Science Latin American correspondent Lizzie Wade has won the 2016 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism in the features category for her story, “Cradle of Life,” about the evolutionary and geological history of the Amazon.
The award, named for the late New York Times science reporter, and presented by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), is granted in recognition of exceptional feature stories that make Earth science accessible to the public. The award committee noted that Wade’s story is, “a majestic piece, successful in its efforts to sketch the history, or possible histories, of an enormous and important part of our planet.”
In “Cradle of Life,” Wade explores the yet unanswered question of how the Amazon became so staggeringly biodiverse. In unfolding the two primary hypotheses – which differ in their views of how rising mountains and shifting rivers transformed habitats – Wade illustrates the life of a working scientist in the Amazon, making a story that takes place on a geological timescale remarkably personal.
“She could have written the story as a straightforward explanatory article laying out the arguments of the opposing groups of researchers,” writes Science International News Editor Rich Stone. “Instead, Lizzie brings the alternative histories to life by taking us on a journey from the foothills of the Andes Mountains on the western edge of the Amazon basin down deep into the rainforest.”
Wade first became interested in the question of Amazonian biodiversity and the contending explanations four years ago while reporting on another story about evolution in the Amazon as an intern for Science. Recognizing that her interest in the “deep past” is not widely shared, Wade chose to write from a personal perspective in hopes that a focus on the challenges faced by the scientists involved would make the story more accessible.
Hiking through the Amazon basin and up the Andes to bring this story to her readers was no easy task. “Geologists are extremely hard to keep up with,” laughed Wade, recalling an episode when she could have fallen from a cliff if not for some dead vegetation to catch her and a sure-footed scientist to pull her back to the trail. The scientists she worked with covered a lot of ground, which meant a lot of traveling and a lot of downtime, including nausea-inducing drives through the Peruvian Andes, and a ten-hour river-boat ride.
Winning the award has special significance for Wade as she joins the likes of John McPhee and Elizabeth Kolbert, as well as Stone, who edited her piece, and Tim Appenzeller, News Editor at Science. “It’s great to be part of that group of people,” she said.
Wade will be honored with a plaque and $5,000 prize at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco on 14 December, 2016.