Best Shortform Science Writing: January-June 2020
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.
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).
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.
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.
- “Indigenous leaders say Australia’s bushfire crisis shows approach to land management failing” by Marian Faa for ABC News Far North
- “Australia Will Lose to Climate Change” by Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic
- “Australia’s Fire-Ravaged Forests Are Recovering. Ecologists Hope It Lasts” by Nathan Rott for NPR
- “The Rise of Zombie Fires” by Kate Wheeling for Eos
- “‘Silent death’: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction” by Graham Readfearn for The Guardian
- “Australian bushfire smoke drifts to South America” by Daniela Hirschfeld, Martin de Ambrosio, & Pablo Correa for SciDevNet
- “The Bleak Future of Australian Wildlife” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “How the Coronavirus Crisis May Hinder Efforts to Fight Wildfires” by Kendra Pierre-Louis for The New York Times
- “Siberian Wildfires Have Burned an Area More Than Three Times the Size of Delaware” by Brian Kahn for Earther
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.
- “Racism, Not Genetics, Explains Why Black Americans Are Dying of COVID-19” by Clarence Gravlee for Scientific American
- “Your Poop Might Be Key For Predicting the End of the Pandemic” by Shayla Love for VICE
- “Health care workers seek to flatten COVID-19’s ‘second curve’ — their rising mental anguish” by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega for Science
- “COVID-19 Can Last for Several Months” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “Social Distancing Is a Privilege” by Charles M. Blow for The New York Times
- “The Official Coronavirus Numbers Are Wrong, and Everyone Knows It” by Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic
- “In Hard -Hit Areas, COVID’s Ripple Effects Strain Mental Health Care Systems” by Cheryl Platzman for Kaiser Health News
- “How a West Baltimore nursing home has zero COVID-19 infections” by Dan Rodricks for The Baltimore Sun
- “I Recovered From COVID-19. But I Can’t Donate My Plasma Because I’m Gay.” by James West for Mother Jones
- “Feeling Scared and Anxious During the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Normal. Here’s Why.” by Alexis Wnuk for Brainfacts.org
- “Why Immunity to the Novel Coronavirus Is So Complicated” by Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian Magazine
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.
- “How to Transport Crucial Vaccines without Cooling” by Harini Barath for Scientific American
- “This Sea Urchin Just Won’t Die” by Richa Malhotra for Hakai Magazine
- “Fish eggs can hatch after being eaten and pooped out by ducks” by Carolyn Wilke for Science News
- “Uranus Ejected a Giant Plasma Bubble During Voyager 2’s Visit” by Robin George Andrews for The New York Times
- “An ancient galaxy grew massive — then oddly stopped making stars” by Christopher Crockett for Science News
- “Sparkly exoskeletons may help camouflage beetles from predators” by Jonathan Lambert for Science News
- “The Mystery of a Medieval Blue Ink Has Been Solved” by Isaac Schultz for Atlas Obscura
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.
- “‘This is not how sequoias die. It’s supposed to stand for another 500 years’” by Patrick Greenfield for The Guardian
- “A Giant Saharan Dust Storm Is Giving Earth Life” by Sabrina Imbler for The Atlantic
- “Human connection bolsters the immune system. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be kind.” by Sarah Kaplan for The Washington Post
- “The real reason we’re seeing more wildlife during the pandemic” by Ula Chrobak for Popular Science
- “Brainguard Guards the Brain that Nature Provided” by Ann Leslie Davis for Oakland Magazine
- “How swamped preprint servers are blocking bad coronavirus research” by Diana Kwon for Nature News & Comment
- “Can this tiny owl survive in one of America’s fastest-growing states?” by Shaena Montanari for National Geographic
- “Scientists rush to defend Venezuelan colleagues threatened over coronavirus study” by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega for Science
- “Why is courtroom science so unscientific?” by Jackie Rocheleau for Gizmodo
- “Why Alaska Native Villages Were Quick To Self-Isolate” by Yereth Rosen for In These Times
- “When Female Birds Are Overlooked, Conservation Suffers” by Tara Santora for Audubon
- “Could Coronavirus Make Telemedicine Abortion the New Normal?” by Anna Louie Sussman for Elle
SINGLE STUDY DEEP DIVES & PROFILES (601–1200)
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.
- “Tweaking how CAR-T therapy kills tumors could stop a dangerous side effect, study finds” by Sharon Begley for STAT News
- “How the Cosmic Dark Ages Snuffed Out All Light” by Dana Najjar for Quanta
- “Scientists Velcroed 3-D Glasses to Cuttlefish to Study Their Depth Perception” by Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian Magazine
- “5400 kilometers of vaporized ice: scientists have unearthed the mystery of the planet’s oldest known crater” by Julie Hollis for Massive Science
- ”Yarrabubba crater in WA outback world’s oldest recognised impact structure” by Genelle Weule for ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
- “Megadrought Helped Topple the Assyrian Empire” by Mary Caperton Morton for Eos
- “Pi in the Sky: General Relativity Passes the Ratio’s Test” by Dan Garisto for Scientific American
- “Pediatrician Ben Danielson sees stress in children visiting Odessa Brown Clinic, but he still sees cause for hope” by Sally James for South Seattle Emerald
- “New Study Hints at Bespoke Future of Lightning Forecasting” by Jon Kelvey for Eos
- “3 Wash U researchers put casts on their arms. The results could help people with brain damage” by Max Kozlov for St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Microbiologists took 12 years to grow a microbe tied to complex life’s origins” by Jonathan Lambert for Science News
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.
- “The Future Remaking Itself” by Craig Childs for Last Word on Nothing
- “Lost in the Glow” by Sam Illingworth for Poetry of Science
- “Opinion Mount St. Helens’ ominous lessons for the age of coronavirus” by Steve Olson for The Seattle Times
- “Lost in the Everglades” by Mary Caperton Morton for Eos
- “So … Can Dogs Get COVID-19, or What?” by Kelly Conaboy for The Cut
- “Beyond words: medical institutions must act to support Black lives” by Carrie Flynn and Chinye Ijeli for STAT News
- “Speech Recognition Tech Is Yet Another Example of Bias” by Claudia Lopez Lloreda for Scientific American
- “The Arsenic Cake of Madame Lafarge” by Jess Romeo for JSTOR Daily
- “The Weed Scientist Who Brought Down the Wrath of Stalin” by Jess Romeo for JSTOR Daily
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.
- “Soft robot fingers gently grasp deep-sea jellyfish” by Jordan A. Greer for Cell Press
- “An invasive seaweed’s secret to success” by Erin Malsbury for California Sea Grant
- “Cat Food Mystery Foils Diet Study” by Michelle Jewell for NC State News
- “For Patients With Special Needs, Any Dentist Is Hard to Find” by Nina Bai for UCSF
- “One-Time Treatment Generates New Neurons, Eliminates Parkinson’s Disease in Mice” by Heather Buschman for UCSD
- “Accounting for the Higgs” by Sarah Charley for Symmetry
- “Revisiting Decades-Old Voyager 2 Data, Scientists Find One More Secret” by Miles Hatfield for NASA
- “You Don’t Smoke — But Your Home Could Have Thirdhand Smoke Residue” by Padma Nagappan for SDSU
- “Laser focused on Alpha Centauri” by Sarah Perdue for UWMadScience
- “The Weird Way Coronaviruses Assemble Their Offspring” by Vanessa Wasta for Johns Hopkins Medicine
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!
- “What can initial remdesivir data tell us about tackling COVID-19?” by Lisa Jarvis for Chemical and Engineering News
- “The Quest to Purge New Zealand of Invasive Predators” by Mara Johnson-Groh for Undark Magazine
- “Speaking of the Trees” by Jennifer S. Holland for Last Word on Nothing
- “Coronavirus Antibody Tests Have a Mathematical Pitfall” by Sarah Lewin Frasier and Amanda Montañez for Scientific American
- “Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That’s Why I Left.” by Brandon Taylor for Buzzfeed News
- “Can You Catch Your Death of Cold from a Walk in the Rain?” by Maria Ter-Mikaelian for The Coffeelicious on Medium
- “Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at @CatalyticRxn on Twitter.