Stories on the long-sought pill for male contraception, the complicated legacy of a sexually proficient panda, and the environmental hazards posed by toxic algae and invasive mussels are among the winners of the 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The judges also honored “Alive Inside,” a series by Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Hixenbaugh on efforts by a local hospital to restore patients with severe brain injuries, and “The Farthest – Voyager in Space,” a documentary written and directed by Irish filmmaker Emer Reynolds on NASA’s ongoing mission to the outer planets and beyond.
The science journalism awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945, honor distinguished reporting for a general audience. The awards, endowed by The Kavli Foundation, are open to journalists worldwide. There were entries this year from 54 countries.
Independent panels of science journalists select the winners. A Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500) are presented in each of eight categories. New “Video” categories were established this year with stand-alone online videos now included in what had been “Television” categories.
Emily Anthes, a freelancer for Bloomberg Businessweek, won a Gold Award in the magazine category for her story on the search for a male contraceptive. Maggie Koerth-Baker won a Gold Award for her lively online story for FiveThirtyEight about Pan Pan, the oldest known male panda at the time of his death in 2016.
Silver Award winners included Tony Bartelme in the small newspaper category for a report in The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. on the impact of destructive algae blooms and an audio team from Montana Public Radio for an ambitious report on the threat of invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Montana waters.
“These awards represent the highest quality in science journalism,” said Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer. “Congratulations to the winners for their important and compelling stories.” The awards will be presented at a Feb. 15 ceremony held in conjunction with the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 150,000 or more
The Houston Chronicle
“Alive Inside” (series)
Dec. 3-6, 2017
Mike Hixenbaugh spent months with sheriff’s deputy Nick Tuller and his family as they struggled to get him the treatment he needed after being shot three times, including once in the head. In a compelling four-part series, Hixenbaugh described how specialists at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston quickly determined that Tuller wasn't in a coma or a vegetative state, as previously thought, but was drifting in the netherworld between consciousness and brain death. He knew who he was and where he was but could do little to show it. Hixenbaugh reported that thousands of people are discharged to nursing homes or acute care hospitals each year, assumed to be unconscious after suffering a severe brain injury. According to some estimates, more than 40 percent of such patients may be in what scientists have dubbed the “minimally conscious state.” In his reporting on Tuller’s case and others, Hixenbaugh raised questions about the standard treatment offered to those who have suffered severe brain injuries and described the latest research on how the brain can wire and rewire itself over time, even after injury. He discussed the legal and ethical issues surrounding the difficult decision on whether to prolong the life of someone in a minimally conscious state. “This series was excellent,” said judge Sarah Wild, a freelance science writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. She said the writer wove the science into the narrative, while providing human faces for the story “without being heavy handed.” Hixenbaugh said he was new to the medical beat when he learned that so many living in a vegetative state might be covertly conscious. He described efforts by physicians and scientists to understand and exploit the brain’s plasticity to help them. “Thank you to AAAS for this award and for bringing more attention to their remarkable efforts,” Hixenbaugh said.
Hamburger Abendblatt (Hamburg, Germany)
Aug. 26, 2017
Underground between Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg-Bahrenfeld in Germany, scientists and engineers have built a huge X-ray laser instrument, called European XFEL, that costs twice as much as Hamburg’s new concert hall. Hasse told his readers what the physicists are up to in their backyard and how they try to illuminate the interior of matter and record films of atoms. When atoms come together during chemical processes to form molecules, he writes, the process happens “about a billion times faster than the wing beat of a hummingbird.” With extremely short and intense flashes of light, the device can provide, among other things, shots of chemical reactions at the atomic level, three-dimensional images of important proteins and the start of protein folding. Wrongly folded proteins can form clumps thought to contribute to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The “molecular cinema,” as some researchers call it, is designed to give a computer-aided reconstruction of reality, atom by atom. Hasse described how the powerful X-ray laser flashes are produced when free electrons “slalom” through a series of magnets in the 1.7 kilometer-long particle accelerator of the XFEL. While the scientists were preparing for experiments underground, which began in 2018, not everyone on the surface was happy. There were some ground collapses during the tunneling for the machine and some structural damage to houses. Some homeowners had to fight for years for compensation. Judge Nancy Shute, editor in chief of Science News, called Hasse’s piece “a good description of a physics experiment and the oddness of fitting this in amidst modern German life.” Hasse said: “Reporting science at a local newspaper can be a special challenge. Receiving this renowned award is a great incentive for me and an encouragement to do even better.”
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 150,000
Gold Award:Kale Williams
The Oregonian (Portland)
“The loneliest polar bear” (series)
Oct. 16-20, 2017
In his nearly 15,000-word narrative series on Nora the polar bear, Kale Williams described the harsh survival odds the cub faced when it was born in captivity at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (most hand-raised polar bear cubs die within 30 days), the challenges veterinarians and curators faced in keeping her alive, how they treated her metabolic bone disease and how she thrived when transferred to the Oregon Zoo in Portland and, eventually, to Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City where she joined a companion named Hope. But beyond the story of a young, charismatic animal, Williams grappled with larger questions about the survival of polar bears as a species in a time of climate change (with reporting among native peoples in Alaska) and the role of zoos, sometimes controversial, in the care and preservation of endangered animals. Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer formerly with The Washington Post, called Williams’ series “a real gem, full of cinematic detail.” She said it weaves the science in deftly with the drama…a grand example of creative, narrative science writing.” Throughout his reporting, Williams said, “I received tremendous support from people who sometimes had more faith in me than I had in myself, and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.)
Sept. 17, 2017
Tony Bartelme’s special report on the growing menace of harmful waterborne algae blooms ranged well beyond the local Charleston area. The blooms, which can spawn toxins as deadly as cyanide, have smothered manatees in Florida, wiped out sea otters in California, killed dogs in Minnesota and made water from South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell taste like dirt. At the time of his reporting, he found there already had been more than 460 blooms in 48 states in 2017. The algae-created toxins may do more than poison fish and dogs. Research suggests there may be higher rates of liver disease and cancer in areas near the blooms, Bartelme reported. He described the work of researchers at the local Hollings Marine Lab who are trying to better understand some of the new toxins that have been associated with the blooms. The “scum sleuths” at the lab prepare and distribute purified liquid toxins to other researchers, mostly for free. Bartelme raised concerns about the future of the Hollings lab, which has been hit by job cuts and funding uncertainty at a time when algae blooms are an urgent issue. The judges praised the enterprise and scope of Bartelme’s reporting for a local news outlet. Dan Vergano, a science reporter with BuzzFeed News, called Bartelme’s piece “a surprisingly delightful dive into the algae blooms menacing waters nationwide.” Sarah Wild called it “an excellent example of reporting on a critical issue, very relevant to its audience.” Bartelme said issues such as harmful algae blooms “affect so many of our readers but often fly below the public’s radar because they are so complex.” The award, he said, spotlights the need “for this type of investigative and explanatory journalism.”
Aug. 7, 2017
From her opening sentence – “The trouble began, as it so often does, with a bottle of Chivas Regal” – Emily Anthes takes her readers on a tour of the long and often frustrating effort to develop a male contraceptive pill. In the 1950s, Sterling Drug synthesized a class of drugs that made male rats temporarily infertile. When tested on inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, the initial results were startling. Within 12 weeks, sperm counts plummeted. But then one of the test subjects drank some contraband Scotch and became violently ill. The drug and booze didn’t mix, and the research was quietly abandoned. Since then the joke in the field, according to one researcher, is that “the male contraceptive has been five years away for the last 40 years.” Anthes describes the state of the research effort, including some of the funding and regulatory hurdles that any proposed male contraceptive likely would face. Men, with long reproductive lifespans, would probably use such drugs for decades longer than women typically take the pill, Anthes notes. “Unless researchers manage to find a contraceptive with real health benefits for men,” she writes, “regulators will probably have a lower tolerance for side effects.” Anthes also looks at alternatives to pills, such as an injectable hydrogel that can solidify and block passage of sperm to the urethra or implantable valves that could block sperm flow at the flip of a switch. Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for The Wall Street Journal, praised Anthes for a fine style of explanatory writing with “a good sense of background and the agonizing process of drug development.” Anthes said her story “came from a desire to put a hot, headline-grabbing topic into broader context – and to shed light on how hard it can be, in practice, to make these kinds of medical breakthroughs.”
The New Yorker
Nov. 6, 2017
In her exploration of the biology and chemistry of physical exercise, Nicola Twilley introduces the reader to Couch Potato Mouse and Lance Armstrong Mouse. Both had been fed a diet consisting almost entirely of fat and sugar and got little exercise. But while Couch Potato Mouse was lethargic, with rolls of visible fat, Lance Armstrong Mouse was lean, taut and active in its cage. It had been fed a daily dose of GW501516 or “516”, a drug that, as Twilley puts it, “confers beneficial effects of exercise without the need to move a muscle.” Whether such drugs will ever prove beneficial for humans remains very much to be seen. GlaxoSmithKline, the developer of the compound, shelved it after mice treated with high doses began developing cancer at higher rates than their drug-free peers. But researchers continue to investigate the possibilities of an “exercise pill” and Twilley visited labs in the United States and the United Kingdom to explore the risks and potential benefits of trying to manipulate the body’s metabolism even as the biological processes unleashed by physical activity remain quite mysterious. She even toyed with taking a dose of “516” herself (chemical supply labs have synthesized it for sale) but a small bottle of the substance remains on her desk, unused and developing a faint yellowish tinge. “The pitfalls and peculiarities of the search for a pill to replace exercise offer a fascinating window into the challenges of bioscience in the eternal search for a fountain of youth,” said judge Dan Vergano. “In the reporting, what was most fascinating to me," Twilley said, "was the way that the struggle to mimic the benefits of exercise artificially reveals how little we actually understand about the biological mechanisms behind those benefits.”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Joss Fong, David Seekamp, Rubab Shakir, Laura Bult
Vox.com for Netflix
“Designer DNA, explained”
May 23, 2018
As part of a new series by Vox.com for Netflix, Joss Fong and her colleagues explored not only the science but also the ethical implications of the much-discussed CRISPR technique for snipping and editing DNA. Scientists have focused on the potential the tool has for helping to treat or cure human disease. But it also could be used to do germline editing involving sperm, eggs or embryos, allowing changes that would be passed on to future generations. Such changes could ultimately affect human evolution. There also is an important debate on whether DNA editing will go beyond medical therapy to allow genetic enhancement of humans, a process that raises the possibility of designer babies with selected features such as hair and eye color. Selection for more complex traits such as intelligence remains the realm of science fiction for now. “It’s great to see the topic being covered so well and so excitingly on this platform,” said judge Victoria Gill, science reporter for BBC News. She called the piece “emotional and personal, as well as informative. Very effective storytelling.” Larry Engel, a filmmaker and faculty member at American University, agreed and said the award for “strong, engaging” work should hearten other science journalists who are producing content for streaming services and social media platforms. Fong said she and executive producer Claire Gordon “decided that it was as important, if not more, for our audience to map the ethical landscape [of human genome editing] as it was to explain the technical one.” The video asks people “to interrogate how their values interact with future applications of the technology,” Fong said, “while providing enough detail to clarify what is and is not actually feasible.”
Jennifer Green and Jules Bartl
BBC World Service
June 28, 2018
Jennifer Green opened her short, animated video on trees with a simple message: “Trees may look like solitary individuals. But the ground beneath our feet tells a different story. Trees are secretly talking, trading and waging war on one another.” In just under two minutes, Green and animator Jules Bartl described the fungal network through which trees communicate, a system that has been nicknamed the “Wood Wide Web.” If attacked by pests, trees can release chemical signals through their roots that can warn neighboring trees to raise their defenses. The judges praised the visual appeal of the animation and the amount of information it imparts. “This video is short and lighthearted,” said judge David Baron, author and former health and science editor for Public Radio International’s “The World.” He added, “The animation is wonderfully artistic, and the script is vivid and fun. It shows that a science video doesn’t have to be long to convey big ideas.” Laura Helmuth, science, health and environment editor for The Washington Post, said Green and Bartl’s entry “sends the viewer off with a wish to go outside and think about the natural world differently.” Green and Bartl commented: “It has never been more important to understand and appreciate the wonders of the natural world, and we are both very excited and honoured to win the AAAS Kavli award for a piece we care so greatly about.”
(Note: Victoria Gill of the BBC recused herself from judging this entry.)
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Emer Reynolds, John Murray, Clare Stronge, John Rubin and Sean B. Carroll
A Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS
“The Farthest – Voyager in Space”
August 23, 2017
“The Farthest” recounts the remarkable story of NASA’s Voyager mission to the outer planets of our solar system and beyond. After more than 40 years of travels, the Voyager spacecraft are still in contact with Earth and returning data. Launched in 1977, the two Voyagers – each with less onboard computing power than a cell phone – used slingshot trajectories to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 left our solar system for interstellar space in 2012.
Voyager 2 left it in November 2018. Each spacecraft carries a golden record with greetings, images and music from Earth for any civilization that might one day find them. The documentary tells about the new data and striking images the Voyagers returned in their swing through the outer solar system. But it also tells the human stories of the scientists and engineers who devised the bold mission and lived with it throughout their professional careers. Judge David Baron said of the film: “It is inspirational both in its construction and its content, which goes far beyond the science of the Voyager missions to the human drive to explore and understand where we fit in the universe.” Speaking for the production team, Emer Reynolds , the Dublin-based writer and director of the film, said: “We are delighted and deeply honored to receive this prestigious award, not only on behalf of our whole wonderful, committed team, but especially on behalf of the engineers and scientists who designed, built and flew the extraordinary, and era-defining, Voyager spacecraft.”
Jamie Lochhead and Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe
Windfall Films for SVT2 (Sweden), Channel 4 (UK) and PBS
“Ozone Hole: How We Saved the Planet”
May 21, 2018 (SVT2)
It was an environmental and political success story that resonates in today’s contentious debates over climate change. In the 1980s, the planet was threatened by the growth of a continent-sized hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, a hole that scientists determined was due to the impact of human-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, found in refrigerants and hairsprays. The ozone layer provides vital protection from the sun’s high-frequency ultraviolet rays. The alarming erosion of that layer provoked international concern and, eventually, the Montreal Protocol that led to the phasing out of CFCs. Two of the principal, and unlikely, actors in the drama were President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Anne Gorsuch, Reagan’s EPA administrator, had told Congress that the research by F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina on CFCs was highly controversial and cut the agency’s research on them. But when Lee Thomas became EPA administrator, proponents of the ban gained an advocate. Secretary of State George Shultz convinced Reagan – who was no fan of regulation – that the threat was real. Margaret Thatcher, who was trained as a chemist, appealed to world leaders to provide the money to make the Protocol work. “You’ve got to have leaders who can come to a conclusion and lead,” Shultz says in the film. The same is true for action on climate change, says chemist Mario Molina, who shared a Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of the CFC problem. Victoria Gill of the BBC called the film gripping throughout. “It is rare to see a chemistry story presented in such a human way,” she said. Jamie Lochhead, writer and director of the film, said: “As climate change begins to feel like an impossible challenge, we felt that the story of how the world came together to fix hole in the ozone layer offered a timely message of hope.”
Cathy Edwards and Marnie Chesterton
BBC World Service
October 6, 2017
Each week the BBC’s engaging “CrowdScience” program takes off on an adventure in response to a question from a listener. In their award-winning entry, producer Cathy Edwards and presenter Marnie Chesterton wound back the clock to three million years ago, the last time the atmosphere may have contained levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide comparable to the levels we are experiencing today due to burning of fossil fuels. They visited a monitoring station on the east coast of the United Kingdom to describe how current carbon dioxide levels are measured. They spoke to specialists on ancient CO2 trapped in air bubbles in Antarctic ice, on the number of breathing pores, or stomata, of fossil leaves as a clue to ancient CO2 levels, and on the chemical composition of seabed fossils, another clue. They also discussed what the climate was like three million years ago and what kinds of plants and animals were around. They stressed what they learned from the scientists interviewed: “It’s not the level of carbon dioxide per se that we need to worry about, but the speed at which it’s rising.” Christina Horsten, a correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, said it is “just incredible how one can make a palatable, accessible, fun and entertaining audio piece about a topic that, at first glance, doesn’t lend itself to audio at all. Very well done.” Producer Cathy Edwards said the award is “a tribute to our listeners’ amazing curiosity.” She added, “We thought this question from our listener Thomas was really intriguing: doing detective work into ancient carbon dioxide seemed like a good way to explore ‘how’ we know what we know about climate change.”
Nicky Ouellet, Eric Whitney, Josh Burnham and Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
Nov. 20, Nov. 24, Dec. 4, Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, 2017
Montana was invaded in the summer of 2017 by microscopic aliens floating in the waters of Tiber Reservoir in the north central part of the state near Shelby. The tiny organisms, which emit a glowing X-shape in the light of a microscope, were infant forms of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, species that already had invaded the Great Lakes with devastating impact. The organisms soon were found in the Canyon Ferry reservoir east of Helena and downstream in the Missouri River as well. The finding triggered immediate concern about the future health of Montana’s fisheries and led Nicky Ouellet and her teammates at Montana Public Radio to mount an ambitious five-part podcast series on the destructive history of the mussels in other bodies of water, how they may have arrived in Montana, how they can be detected and controlled and what political decisions are needed to ensure a unified effort to attack the pests.
Ouellet travelled to affected waters in Minnesota and Wisconsin as part of her reporting. “Nicky Ouellet stages a tour-de-force of reporting on the mussel invasion of lakes and waterways across the United States,” said judge Tina Hesman Saey, molecular biology writer for Science News. “All the while she presents science in nuanced and engaging ways.” Ouellet said “SubSurface” is Montana Public Radio’s first venture into podcasting. “We’ve been overwhelmed by our listeners’ support, as well as recognition from our peers and experts in the field,” Ouellet said.
Nov. 28, 2017
The judges praised Maggie Koerth-Baker for an exhaustively reported, elegantly written story about bringing a species back from extinction. It went well beyond the popular image of pandas as cute, iconic creatures who are photogenic representatives of zoo-based conservation efforts. As Koerth-Baker wrote, “Behind the big eyes and rounded frames that signal vulnerability and cuddliness to the human brain, pandas are real, live 200-pound bears. Bears that can shred your flesh. Bears that roll around in the dirt and turn themselves dingy gray. Bears that grow old and frail.” She told the tale of Pan Pan, who was the world’s oldest known male panda at the time of his death in 2016 at the age of 31. Of the 520 pandas living in research centers and zoos, mostly in China, 130 of them are descendants of Pan Pan. And “just as living bears are messier than their plush, gift-shop counterparts, the reality of conservation science is more complicated and nuanced than a poster or a press conference can convey,” Koerth-Baker wrote. “Pan Pan’s story is about human triumph ─ and it’s also about our limitations. Even the most well-intentioned plans have unpredictable consequences. And we can never truly erase a legacy of harm.” Judge Alexandra Witze, a contributing correspondent for Nature, called Koerth-Baker’s piece “a masterful exploration of the gritty realities of conservation science ─ and what it really takes to perpetuate a species.” Nsikan Akpan, a digital science producer for the PBS NewsHour, said the writing was “heartfelt and contained the perfect balance of reporting and character narration.” Koerth-Baker said Pan Pan “became incredibly important to my understanding of how humans are changing the world around us ─ the mistakes we can correct, and those we can’t. I’m grateful to him, to the sources who told me about his life, and to the team that made this story possible.”
June 8, 2018
Sarah Zhang visited a facility in the Guangdong province of China where researchers are tinkering with monkey brains to better understand the most severe forms of autism. It is research that is too expensive, too impractical and perhaps too ethically sensitive to be carried out in the United States. The researchers use CRISPR, a powerful new gene-editing technique, that enables scientists to zero in on and disable specific genes. Zhang recounted the research of Guoping Feng, who holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT but who now travels to China several times a year to pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. Feng is looking at mutations in a gene called Shank3 which are found in 1 to 2 percent of cases of autism spectrum disorder, including some of the most severe cases. Primate centers in the United States have done important work on diseases such as HIV, Zika and Ebola, but intense scrutiny by animal rights groups and others have led to closure of some centers and migration of research projects overseas. Zhang did not shy away from the issues raised by continued research on primates and discussed them frankly with Feng. Judge Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer, called Zhang’s piece “a dispassionate treatment of the controversy surrounding primate testing in medical research, told from the viewpoint of an American scientist working with monkeys in China.” Zhang said her story is “about the outer limits of neuroscience research, how we define those limits, and how it is playing out across the world stage.” She noted her personal interest in the story since, like the scientist she profiled, her father also had left China for better opportunities in science in the United States.
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Guinea worm disease, a disabling condition that once afflicted millions of people mostly in rural areas of Africa and Asia, is now close to eradication thanks to aggressive efforts by public health authorities to promote use of clean drinking water. The number of cases has dropped from 3.5 million in 1986 to 25 cases in 2016, and the end is in sight. Jeanne Miller told her young readers about the complex life cycle of the disease, in which tiny fleas containing the guinea worm larvae are ingested through contaminated drinking water. The spaghetti-like worms eventually emerge through the skin and can be two-feet long or more. Miller told her story through the work of Donald Hopkins, special advisor for Guinea worm eradication at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Judge Paul Basken, North America editor for Times Higher Education, praised Miller for tackling an important problem that affects millions of people while presenting the story “with an engaging mix of age-appropriate grossness.” Miller, who previously won the Children’s Science News award in 2011, said there were no drugs or vaccines to treat Guinea worm. “Instead there was a massive education campaign that changed the behavior of the at-risk populations,” she said. “That amazed me, and I thought young readers would want to know about the heroes who took on the challenge of eradicating the Guinea worm.”
“Science Magic Show Hooray” from The Washington Post
May 31, 2018
“Why am I so sweaty?”
July 12, 2018
Anna Rothschild has a knack for telling stories that both entertain and enlighten her young audience. In one of her award-winning segments, Rothschild explained the evolution of the digestive tract and why the human posterior looks like it does. In the second piece she explored the functions of sweat, from the days when our ancestors were evolving to more efficiently cool their bodies as they became more active in chasing prey (and avoiding predators). And as Rothschild points out, “Getting a super-efficient way to dump excess heat may have been part of what allowed our brains to get larger. So, rather than complaining about pit stains, thank your lucky stars that you’re the sweaty ape that you are.” Andrea McDaniels, a health and medicine reporter for The Baltimore Sun, said she “absolutely loves” Rothschild’s videos. “There was great use of props and corny songs to draw kids in,” she said. Rothschild said she created her program “as a way for kids and parents to explore science together. I'm honored to receive this award, and hope that it will prove to young people that there are still so many questions to answer − even ones about your own bum.” Rothschild also won a Children’s Science News award in 2016 for her “Gross Science” program with PBS NOVA.