Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
11/06/2013 - Winners Named in 2013 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards Competition
(Originally published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science)
November 6, 2013
Stories about efforts to prevent the Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes, about evolutionary stress on endangered pupfish in the Mojave Desert, and about the use of “crowdsourcing” to solve tough biological problems are among the winners of the 2013 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 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February.
Dan Egan, a science writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, won the award for the large newspaper category for a three-part series, “Deep Trouble,” that examined why a seemingly radical solution — damming and reversing the flow of the Chicago River —may be necessary to protect the Great Lakes from the invasive Asian carp. The reporting was done as part of a master’s thesis project at Columbia University, Egan said.
“I want to thank my editors for letting me go to New York to stretch my ability to write about these complicated topics, and for recognizing there was such a strange and interesting story lurking in the Chicago River,” Egan said.
Hillary Rosner, the winner in the magazine category for a piece in Wired, also considered some of the consequences of a rogue fish population. She described what happened when a few pupfish from a different species managed to infiltrate a refuge designed to preserve the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish in the Mojave Desert. The possible response to the invasion, she found, goes against conventional thinking on how to protect an endangered species.
Rosner, too, thanked her editors for “seeing the promise in this story, which deals with some of the serious issues — both biological and philosophical — facing the future of conservation.”
Joshua Seftel won the television award for spot news/feature reporting for a NOVA scienceNOW segment on Adrien Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. Treuille has harnessed the brainpower of thousands of people who play computer games as a way to help solve difficult problems such as protein folding. David Baron, health and science editor for Public Radio International’s “The World” and a contest judge, said Seftel’s segment “brought energy and artistry to a topic that could easily be dry. A great concept, brilliantly executed.”
Barbara Lich of GEOlino, a German science magazine for children, won the award for writing about science for children. The children’s science news award, established in 2005, is the only AAAS Kavli award open to journalists for media outlets not based in the United States.
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said the total of 485 entries for this year’s contest suggests that “science writing remains a vital and engaging enterprise, both in traditional venues and in the evolving online world.
WINNERS of the 2013 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards
LARGE NEWSPAPER - Circulation of 100,000 or more
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Deep Trouble” (series)
Aug. 19, Aug. 22 and Aug. 26, 2012
Egan reported that DNA analysis by a University of Notre Dame team showed that Asian carp likely had breached an experimental electric barrier designed to block them from reaching Lake Michigan. In his comprehensive and well-reported “Deep Trouble” series, Egan examined why reversing the flow of the Chicago River — so that it no longer connects with the Mississippi basin via a canal — could be the only feasible method to protect the Great Lakes from the invasive carp. In the series, Egan takes his readers deep into both the biology and the policy questions surrounding the carp invasion. Laura Helmuth, science editor for Slate, said the personalities in Egan’s reporting are “rich and real, full of good intentions, worries, and doubts.” She added, “The history of engineering, public works, and invasive species battles is woven into the story elegantly. It’s a fascinating read, full of drama and passion.” The judges were impressed by the quality of entries in the large-newspaper category this year, but they decided Egan was a clear winner. “His was science reporting with considerable impact on a topic of national importance,” said Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal.
SMALL NEWSPAPER: Circulation less than 100,000
East Bay Express
“Warning: Quake in 60 Seconds”
May 1, 2013
An early warning system could save thousands of lives when the next major earthquake hits the West Coast. Ghorayshi reported on the work of a group at the University of California at Berkeley that has been developing such a warning system, and she pointed out the wide gap between the United States and Japan in the deployment of such systems. Hotz said Ghorayshi’s piece was “sound on science and sage on the politics of earthquake early warning systems.” Ghorayshi “made a great case for why California needs to follow Japan’s lead in investing in earthquake prediction systems,” Helmuth said. The story explained “complicated seismology questions clearly and engagingly,” she said. Ghorayshi said she “found the case of how Japanese deal with earthquakes head-on as a culture quite fascinating, especially where Californians are more likely to shrug them off as an inevitability.”An early warning system could save thousands of lives when the next major earthquake hits the West Coast. Ghorayshi reported on the work of a group at the University of California at Berkeley that has been developing such a warning system, and she pointed out the wide gap between the United States and Japan in the deployment of such systems. Hotz said Ghorayshi’s piece was “sound on science and sage on the politics of earthquake early warning systems.” Ghorayshi “made a great case for why California needs to follow Japan’s lead in investing in earthquake prediction systems,” Helmuth said. The story explained “complicated seismology questions clearly and engagingly,” she said. Ghorayshi said she “found the case of how Japanese deal with earthquakes head-on as a culture quite fascinating, especially where Californians are more likely to shrug them off as an inevitability.”
“Attack of the Mutant Pupfish”
When a few pupfish from a different species managed to infiltrate a refuge designed to preserve the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish in the Mohave Desert, the invaders quickly spread their DNA throughout the captive population. Within about five years, every fish in the pool was descended from the invaders, who gave their offspring telltale genes and an extra set of fins. Wildlife officials moved all the hybrids to a hatchery, but one evolutionary biologist recognized that the influx of new genes was correcting a glut of defective DNA that accumulates in a small population. That suggested the endangered fish could be saved by allowing hybridization to proceed, but that would go against the old conservation approach that called for fencing off swaths of wilderness and stepping aside. In the new order, Rosner wrote, “we’d be the stewards not just of land or wildlife but of individual chromosomes.” Through great storytelling and use of language, Rosner “explains a fascinating topic—what is a species and how does that impact what we should and shouldn’t do to save it,” said judge Sarah Zielinski, a freelance science writer who also works for Science News. Freelancer Guy Gugliotta said Rosner’s story “bears on the future of life on the planet. Should species be allowed to die if they cannot be saved as evolution has decreed?” Rosner won the AAAS Kavli award in 2010 in the small newspaper category.
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
“Adrien Treuille Profile”
Nov. 14, 2012
Adrien Treuille of Carnegie Mellon University created a game called FoldIt, which turns protein-folding – a puzzle that is difficult for even the most powerful computers – into a task that even a ten-year-old can take on. In just three weeks in 2011, FoldIt players (there are now more than 300,000 of them) solved the folding pattern for a protein that helps the HIV virus reproduce. In another game called EteRNA, more than 40,000 players have helped discover new rules for how the RNA molecule folds. “The program wisely allows the impassioned young scientist Adrien Treuille to carry the narrative, augmented with informative and beautiful graphics, as he explains how he converted his childhood obsession into a way of harnessing human brain power to solve scientific puzzles,” said judge Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer who was formerly with The Washington Post. “I’m grateful that NOVA cares about telling the important stories in science — stories like Adrien Treiulle’s which give me hope for the future,” Seftel said. He was a winner in the online category in 2011.
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Dennis Wells, Linda Goldman, David Royle
“Killer in the Caves”
March 13, 2013
Bats in North America are dying by the millions, victims of a mysterious fungus that causes white-nose syndrome and has produced one of the greatest wildlife disasters in U.S. history. “Killer in the Caves” follows bat expert DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University and wildlife manager Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission in their fight against a disease that is driving little brown bats, one of the most common bat species in the northeastern United States, toward extinction. It also is causing mass mortalities among five other species. The program “paired fantastic visuals and video technology with a compelling scientific mystery that is superbly explained,” said judge Christine Dell’Amore, a science writer for NationalGeographic.com. Tina Hesman Saey of Science News said the program “humanizes scientists as well as illuminating the process of doing science, with its frustrations and disappointments but also inklings of hope.” Dennis Wells, the producer, director and writer of the program said: “I didn't expect just how passionate the researchers can be. At 4 a.m. after finishing 14 hours of work in a cold, damp cave they would cheerfully discuss potential avenues of further research while the ‘tough’ film crew was in the back of the car — covered in mud and completely beat. It was very impressive."
Howard Berkes, Andrea de Leon, Sandra Bartlett, NPR, and Chris Hamby, The Center for Public Integrity
“As Mine Protections Fail, Black Lung Cases Surge”
July 9, 2012
“Black-Lung Rule Loopholes Leave Miners Vulnerable”
July 10, 2012
In a joint investigation by NPR and The Center for Public Integrity, Berkes looked at the resurgence of black lung disease among coal miners, particularly in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. He described how the disease is afflicting younger miners and advancing more quickly to the worst stage of the disease. The two-part series discussed how existing regulatory limits on coal dust are inadequate to protect miners from the increasing levels of silicon dioxide being released as more powerful equipment is used to mine narrow seams of coal. Lauran Neergaard, a science writer for the Associated Press, called the series “a compelling look at the resurgence of an epidemic once thought solved—complete with the science to show why the solution didn’t last.” Dan Vergano, senior science editor at NationalGeographic.com, said the entry was “a compelling portrait of the lives of people hurt by the failure of regulatory science.” Berkes said his interest in the resurgence of black lung stems from his extensive reporting about the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in 2010 and the medical examiner findings that the victims of that disaster had an extraordinarily high rate of the disease, including younger miners with relatively little tenure underground. “Winning the 2013 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award bolsters our belief that our findings are critically important to the thousands of coal miners who will continue to suffer horribly from black lung if industry and government fail to protect them,” Berkes said.
Certificate of Merit - Radio
The radio judging committee also recognized Ashley Ahearn of KUOW Public Radio in Seattle for a three-part series on coal in the Pacific Northwest (March 11, 2013, March 12, 2013, and June 18, 2013). Energy companies have been assessing several sites for ship terminals in Washington and Oregon where coal could be transferred from trains arriving from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. “The prospect of exporting millions of tons of coal through the Northwest is, and will continue to be, the most important story on my beat.” Ahearn said. “My goal in this series was to use science to answer my listeners’ questions about coal’s impacts on human health and the regional environment, as well as the global implications of burning that coal once it gets to Asia.” Naomi Starobin, news director for WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, Conn., called Ahearn’s series “a wonderful example of solid, important local reporting.” The judges, on occasion, give certificates of merit to runner-up entries that are considered to be particularly noteworthy.
“Uprising: Can a self-trained scientist solve one of the biggest problems in energy policy?”
Feb. 21, 2013
Bob Ackley spent his life working the streets for some of America’s biggest gas companies. More recently, with the help of Boston University’s Nathan Phillips, he has been tracking the gas that leaks from underground pipelines, all with full knowledge of the industry. He has concluded that the amount of natural gas leaking beneath city streets is far greater than previously realized. Some scientists now believe such leaks may be helping to accelerate climate change in a way that few had suspected—even as governments worldwide are backing natural gas as an alternative to coal. McKenna’s story, written for MATTER, a new online site dedicated to long-form science journalism, introduced readers to Ackley and his dogged pursuit of urban gas leaks, including his decoding of clues such as fungal growth at the base of trees and gooey black soil that were signs of leaks. For Phillips, who began his scientific career studying the physiology of trees, it was an eye-opening experience. “Science is all too often something that is only done by scientists in a formal laboratory setting,” McKenna said. “It was fascinating to profile a gas company whistle blower who turned some of the world’s leading climate scientists on to a problem lurking literally right beneath their feet.” Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press called the story “enthralling and well-written,” bringing to light a little-known problem. John Carey, a freelance science writer, called it a “wonderful narrative using a compelling character to illuminate one of the important issues in climate science.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
While corals have been well-studied in tropical reefs, Barbara Lich told her young readers about the lesser-known cold water corals living hundreds of meters below the ocean’s surface, a realm only reachable by a crewed submersible. She accompanied a team of research biologists from the Helmholtz Center for Oceanic Research in Kiel, Germany as they explored the depths of Norway’s Trondheim Fjord in a submersible called Jago. “The article had really nice details that made readers feel they are there, underwater in a submersible,” said Lila Guterman of Science News. “It had a real strength in its clear description of an experiment—showing how science is done.” Catherine Hughes of National Geographic Kids praised the article’s “clear, linear explanations and interesting conclusions that illustrate the scientific process.” Lich said she wanted to take her young readers “into the water, to the reef deep down in the fjord, to show them the beauty of this mystical world that I had the chance to see with Jago. And I wanted to make them aware of how fragile this world is because of ocean acidification and climate change.”