Best Shortform Science Writing: April-June 2018
(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
At first glance, the immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border doesn’t sound like a science story. However, in the past few months, science and health reporters have been covering it well and often.
In this round-up alone, we have five stories about the ICE and separating children from families at the border. They include: a harrowing explainer detailing the neurological toll suffered by children ripped away from their parents by William Wan, a news story explaining why DNA testing at the border might not be such a good idea by Megan Molteni, a blistering op-ed condemning the ICE’s disregard for physical anthropology by Elizabeth DiGangi, a gut-wrenching investigative report about what goes on in the “shelters” were these children are sent by Matt Smith and Aura Bogado, and another heartbreaking investigative report documenting the risk of disease outbreaks at detention centers by Liza Gross and Lindsey Konkel.
The SciShortform Project has never chosen so many final picks centered around a single topic before. (Unless you count “Conservation” writ broadly as a single topic, which I don’t.) There were even more that didn’t make the final cut.
What struck me most about these articles, aside from their rigor and emotional impact, was how different they all are. Each has a distinct angle, and none felt redundant.
In covering the immigration crisis, the science and health reporting communities stepped up, showing not only bravery and persistence but also an immense amount of creativity in finding ways to weave science into a conversation about politics.
But there’s far more in this round-up of standout shortform science writing.
We’ve added two new categories: Institutional (under 1400 words), which includes pieces from university magazines, outreach blogs, and press releases, and Essays & Literary (under 1400 words) for first-person narratives and experimental pieces. We hope you enjoy them!
Record Number of Nominees
This cycle shattered our previous record for the most nominations. Last cycle, we read 250. This time, we read 350 nominated pieces.
About Our Editors
This edition’s editors include: science writer and editor Alex Arreola; digital strategist and nonprofit consultant for MarTech Digital Anne Berlin; science writer Madeline Bodin; science writer Jimmy Brancho, PhD, of University of Michigan; science writer and copy editor Michael Dhar of Purch/Tech Media Network ; graduate student Jess Hudgins, currently working with Sharks and Rays Australia; NIH postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; and me (science writer Diana Crow).
About the Round-Up Format
The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. Instead, the stories are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
As always, our selection is highly subjective and driven by serendipity and whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for July-September is here.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
If we’ve left out short piece that you adored, please share them in the comments.
You can follow the Best Shortform Science Writing Project at @SciShortform on Twitter and on Medium.
Onward to the standout stories!
SHORT SHORTS (600 words & under)
- “Mosquito Bites Leave A Lasting Impression On Our Immune System” by Roni Dengler for Discover
- “NASA engineers hope the Opportunity rover will sleep through a continent-sized dust storm on Mars” by Amina Khan for LA Times (Jimmy’s Favorite: “A giant dust storm on Mars brings more than trouble for rovers and researchers. It brings the opportunity to study something new, if the rovers can survive, and all of the worry and fear that comes with the possibility of them not surviving. I liked this piece for Amina Khan’s efficient writing, which allowed her to show us each facet in only 572 words.”)
- “Study estimates true value of ladybird as biocontrol” by Sandy Ong for SciDevNet
- “Satellite smashups could have given birth to Saturn’s odd moons” by Christopher Crockett for Science News
- “Little auks suck” by Richa Malhotra for Hakai
- “How Many Exoplanets Might Have Life? The Number Is. . .” by Bill Retherford for Forbes
NEWS & TRENDS (601–1200 words)
- “How Cape Town was saved from running out of water” by Krista Mahr for The Guardian
- “Effects of a fence” by Tim Vernimmen for Knowable Magazine
- “What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’” by William Wan for The Washington Post
- “Family DNA Testing at the Border would be an ethical quagmire” by Megan Molteni for WIRED
- “E-cigarettes’ chemistry may explain their popularity among teens” by Tien Nguyen for Chemical & Engineering News
- “Pro basketball players’ synchronous movements may help us predict the next NBA champ” by Dana G. Smith for Popular Science
- “Can precision medicine do for depression what it’s done for cancer? It won’t be easy” by Megan Thielking for STAT
SINGLE STUDY DEEP DIVES (601–1200 words)
- “Mini Brains Just Got Creepier — They’re Growing Their Own Veins” by Megan Molteni for WIRED
- “Fear of Humans Is Making Animals Around the World Go Nocturnal” by Michelle Nijhuis for The Atlantic
- “New Bird-of-Paradise Slides Around Sporting a Bright-Blue Frown” by Hannah Waters for Audubon
- “The Salamander Army” by Geoffrey Giller for Discover
- “Her Study Said Having Kids Is Bad for the Environment. Then the Internet Came for Her.” by Kristina Johnson for Elle
- “Hybrid Chickadees Are Terrible at Memory Games” by Knvul Sheikh for Audubon
- “Fossilized Human Footprint Found Nestled in a Giant Sloth Footprint” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
COLUMN, OP/ED, OR BLOG POST (1200 words & under)
- “How ICE’s Bogus Science Is Violating Human Rights” by Elizabeth DiGangi for The Conversation via SAPIENS
- “Why Is Water Slippery?” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight
- “The Fundamental Nihilism of Yanny vs. Laurel” by Adam Rogers for WIRED
- “Harassers Aren’t Brilliant Jerks, They’re Bad Scientists — and They Cost All of Us” by Seattle 500 Women in Science for Scientific American
- “How ‘Frankenstein’ unfairly sways the GMO debate” by Devang Mehta for Massive Science
- “Why Was My Race Relevant To A Disagreement About Climate Change?” by Marshall Shepherd for Forbes
- “Yes, Being a Woman in Science Is Hard. That’s Why We’re Trying to Change It.” by Mariam Zaringhalam for Slate
INVESTIGATIVE OR DATA QUICK HITS (1400 words & under)
- “Suppressed Study: The EPA Underestimated Dangers of Widespread Chemicals” by Abrahm Lustgarten, Lisa Song, and Talia Buford for ProPublica
- “Malnourished Patients Fall Through the Cracks in America’s Hospitals” by Sushmita Pathak for Malutrition Deeply via Bright
- “Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims” by Matt Smith and Aura Bogado for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
- “Migrant children at risk of disease outbreaks, doctors say” by Liza Gross and Lindsey Konkel (reporting) for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
- “Parents Didn’t Want Fracking Near Their School. So the Oil Company Chose a Poorer School, Instead.” by Megan Jula for Mother Jones
- “Precipitation whiplash and climate change threaten California’s freshwater” by Lauren Tierney & Monica Ullmanu for The Washington Post
INSTITUTIONAL (1400 words & under)
- “A Drug Lord and the World’s Largest Invasive Animal” by Mario C. Aguilera for UC San Diego
- “Supportive Housing Reduces Homelessness and Lowers Health Care Costs by Millions” by Doug Irving for The RAND Review (Jimmy’s Favorite: “Too often we read an article reviewing a human health study and leave having felt nothing. The dollar amounts are unfathomable, or the number of people affected unimaginable, and nothing registers on the senses. By showcasing emotional and memorable quotes from a study participant, Doug Irving gives us a way into the study he presents and allows us to feel alongside Michael what this work could mean for society.”)
- “Quantum Chimpanzees: Do Watched Primates Change Their Behavior?” by Michelle Rodrigues for This View of Life / The Evolution Institute
- “Cracking the Olfactory Code” by Lea Galanopoulo for CNRS News
- “What an all-nighter does to your blood” by Lisa Marshall for CU Boulder Today
- “NIST/NASA Study Shows One Detector Doesn’t ‘Fit All’ for Smoke in Spacecraft” by Michael E. Newman for NIST
ESSAYS & LITERARY SCIENCE WRITING (1400 words & under)
- “Tracking the history — and future — of the world’s largest penguin breeding colony” by Brittney G. Boriewiec for Massive Science
- “Honoring Trees” by Gabriel Popkin for Orion
- “Living Will Template for Critically Endangered Species” by Elizabeth Preston for The Revelator (Madeline’s Favorite: “I’m a fan of the classic “hermit crab” essay form in this article. The humor is so dark that it’s like taking a bite of 90 percent cacao dark chocolate. There are big rewards here for savvy readers.”)
- “The Real Thing” by Lily Brooks-Dalton for Harper’s
- “Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain” by Erica Cirino for The Revelator
- “Finding Resilience in Nature: A Reflection on the Geography of Hope” by Eddee Daniel for Center for Humans & Nature
- “Nonhuman Workers of the World, Unite!” by Brandom Keim for Center for Humans & Nature
HONORABLE MISFITS (over-length, in a different language, or just plain hard to classify)
- “Regular screening can find teen depression, but getting treatment isn’t easy” by Jill U. Adams for The Washington Post
- “Why Do Americans Refuse to Give Up Tampons?’ by Emily Atkin for The New Republic
- “Preventing Childhood Leukemia May Eventually Be Possible. As A Survivor Myself, I’m Hopeful” by Victoria Forster for Forbes
- “The Secrets Hiding in the Simplest Animal Brains” by Jessica Leigh Hester for Atlas Obscura
- “These Whales Will Be Extinct In 25 Years, Scientists Say, Unless We Act Now To Save Them” by Sarah Kaplan for The Washington Post
- “The extraordinary life and death of the world’s oldest known spider” by Avi Selk for The Washington Post
- “The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer” by Kirk Wallace Johnson for The New York Times
- “Building planets, piece by piece” by Alexandra Witze for Knowable Magazine
And those are our picks for April-June 2018!
If you have stories you would like to nominate for the July-September 2018 round-up, you can do so through this form.
We are currently looking for 2–3 new editors to join us for the July-September cycle, contact Diana at email@example.com.
Check back with us in October for the next round-up!