Best Shortform Science Writing: January-June 2020

Diana Crow
Published in
11 min readSep 17, 2020


A bushfire burns on a hillside. Photo by Kate Sutton for Beyond Coal and Gas (CC BY 2.0)

So…2020 has been a rough year so far. But it has also been a pivotal one for science and health journalism.

COVID-19 has radically transformed our daily lives and dominated new cycles, even as the effects of climate change and centuries of racism and inequality have become more visible than ever before. Many general assignment reporters have effectively become health reporters overnight in order to cover the swarm of overlapping crises we face.

We hope you enjoyed these pieces as much as we enjoyed reading them.

And please remember to nominate the science stories that have awed you, moved you, frightened you, and/or informed you for our upcoming round-up covering July through December 2020.


This was the first time we did a round-up covering six months (rather than quarterly). We had initially planned to do separate “special edition” posts on the pandemic and this year’s intense fire season but decided to roll those special editions into the main round-up.

Altogether, we received 636 nominations for this cycle and narrowed them down to the 76 pieces below.

The pieces that made the cut had to survive two rounds of selection and impress at least two (and usually three) SciShortform editors.

Our Team

This edition’s editors include: Claire Cleveland of Colorado Public Radio; freelance science writer Courtney Columbus; PhD Candidate Matthew de Gannes of University of Cincinnati; science writer Elyse DeFranco; science writer Geoffrey Giller; Jess Hudgins; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; Silke Krampich of Laser Zentrum Hannover; science writer and editor Nicole Lim; science writer Laurel Oldach of ASBMB; science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD; mathematical biologist Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, PhD; freelance science writer Caroline Seydel; freelance science writer Richard J. Sima, PhD; biology grad student Madhuri Srinivasan; and me (freelance science writer Diana Crow).

Our team of story scouts included freelance science writer and Plant Crimes podcast host Ellen Airhart and graduate student Ashwini P.

Special thanks to freelance science writer Dani Leviss (NYU SHERP ‘19), who has been managing our social media. And to freelance science writer Courtney Columbus and graduate student Kiran Gurung of University of Groningen, who have been assisting us in the preparation of grant applications and outreach to other organizations.

This project was funded in part by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.

About the Round-Up Format

We sort the stories into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions.” In the “Special Edition” on fire, the stories are in chronological order (within the “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mention” tiers).

In the other categories, stories are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

There were a few outstanding pieces nominated for this cycle that were actually published in July, so we rolled them over to consideration for the July-December round-up. You can nominate pieces for the July-December round-up here.

Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.

A bush fire burns in a pasture in Australia. Photo by National Interagency Fire Center (CC PDM 1.0)

Special Edition: FIRE SEASON 2020

2020 began with a wave of “unprecedented” bushfires scorching their way across much of Australia, releasing more CO2 than Australia does annually, and killing millions of animals. Our Fire Picks here span November 2019 thru June 2020 and do not cover the recent horrific fires that have struck western North America in recent weeks.

These picks are listed in chronological order.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A microscope image of a MERS, which also belongs to the coronavirus family. Photo by NIAID (CC BY 2.0)

Special Edition: PANDEMIC, Part 1

COVID-19 needs no introduction. The pandemic has sickened more than 29.5 million people, killed over 900,000 worldwide, shuttered economies, and pushed the global press corps to the point of exhaustion. Writers and journalists have found inventive ways to cover the pandemic— and, in some cases, taken on data collection and analysis themselves. Whether in the form of local news updates, radio broadcasts, late- night comedy monologues, or big-picture commentary, many people are consuming more science and health writing than they ever have before.

These picks are listed alphabetically by author’s last name.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Uninjured sea urchins of the genus Strongylocentrotus. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)

SHORT SHORTS (600 words & under)

Condensing scientific research into ultra-short blurbs poses a unique set of challenges. Here we recognize writers for their ability to concisely convey nuance, while also telling a good yarn.

These picks are ordered alphabetically by the author’s last name.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Dust from the Sahara blows across the Atlantic. Photo by NOAASatelites (CC PDM 1.0)

NEWS, DATA, & INVESTIGATIVE (601–1400 words)

This year we decided to merge our “News & Trends” and “Data or Investigative” categories into one category. Pieces in this category often synthesize information from many scientific reports, explore local issues through a science lens, use data or FOIA requests to substantiate their stories, and, above all, display serious reporting chops.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A cuttlefish belonging to the species Sepia officinalis. Photo by bathyporeia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


These stories zoom in on one study, one scientist, or one healthcare practitioner and bring their worlds to life with compelling prose and behind-the-scenes insight.

These stories are alphabetized by author’s last name — except for the two Yarrabubba crater stories, which we think pair well together.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A constellation above Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. Photo by Diana Robinson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

ESSAYS, COLUMNS, OP/EDs, & BLOGS (1400 words & under)

We merged the “Columns, Op/Eds, and Blogs” with the “Essays and Literary” to create one category, full of compelling arguments and evocative personal narratives.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A cat enjoys a tuna meal. Photo by Dakiny (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

INSTITUTIONAL (1200 words & under)

This category recognizes stories by science writers who work for institutions, such as Public Information Officers (PIOs) and contributors to university magazines. It can also include pieces written for official outreach blogs and for scientific journals.

These picks are listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A New Zealand weka bird. Photo by SidPix (CC BY 2.0)

Honorable Misfits:

This is the category where we put pieces we loved that were either a little bit too long (like Maria Ter-Mikaelian’s “Can You Catch Your Death of Cold?”), too old (like Jennifer S. Holland’s “Speaking of the Trees,” which was originally published a few years back), or hard to directly compare to other stories (like Sarah Lewin Frasier and Amanda Montañez’s “Coronavirus Antibody Tests Have a Mathematical Pitfall,” which was one of the few infographics we received.)

Regardless, we loved these pieces. Enjoy!

Misfit Picks:

And those are our picks for January through June 2020!

What pieces would you have included? Sound off in the responses!

If you’ve read (or written) pieces published since July that you’d like to see in the next round-up, nominate them here.

If you’d like to volunteer for the next cycle of SciShortform, contact Diana at or at @CatalyticRxn on Twitter.



Diana Crow

Fledgling science journalist here, hoping to foster discussion about the ways science acts as a catalyst for social change #biology