Alexandra Witze

2000 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Alexandra Witze was awarded the 2000 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on June 2, 2000, in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes a single article or a radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.

Citation

“‘Paradise Submerged,’ an account of a sunken plateau in the Indian Ocean mimicking the legend of Atlantis, has earned writer Alexandra Witze the 2000 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.

“It is most fitting and proper that Alexandra Witze should be honored for her excellence in writing on the Earth sciences, for she is a gem. Her writing has sparkled since her first days as a science writing intern in Dallas 7 years ago.

“From the outset of her career, Alex has brightened the lives of her science journalism colleagues with her enthusiasm and energy, intelligence and insight. Now an accomplished veteran at age 29, she outshines many writers much older, combining clarity with verve in presenting the wonders of the geophysical world to the half a million subscribers of The Dallas Morning News.

“The foundation for her endeavor is solid—an Earth and planetary science degree from MIT, a master’s certification in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz, 2 years as an editor at the now defunct, but once lively, magazine Earth. On that foundation she has built a record of superior reporting on science around, outside, and inside the world. She has brought to readers of The News vivid accounts of probes in deep space, comet collisions with Jupiter, rocks and rovers on Mars, as well as engaging glimpses into the scientific secrets of the Earth—from dinosaur fossils and the inner working of earthquakes to the archaeology of brothels and the science of precious gems.

“She has also guided readers on tours of the life and land beneath the sea, most entertainingly in the journey to the submerged Kerguelen Plateau—‘a remote island, covered by a lush forest inhabited by fantastic creatures,’ wrote Alex. ‘But don’t call a travel agent yet,’ she warned. The island paradise of Kerguelen ‘vanished millions of years ago, beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean.’

“The only Kerguelen vacationers today are the scientists who study this lost land, now ‘visible only where its highest mountains jut above sea level.’ Alex went on to report the secrets that the scientific vacationers seek, ranging from the history of the Indian Ocean to patterns of ancient animal migrations to the dangers of explosive basaltic eruptions. In describing Kerguelen research and its implications, Alex brought her readers face to face with the excitement of exploration and discovery. That’s the sort of thing that science writers are supposed to do, and Alex does it superbly.

“Her award for this article honors excellent work on a specific story, but this recognition should echo as a well deserved acknowledgment of her career in its entirety. She is a paragon of what is best not only in science journalism, but in journalism of all sorts, and her work demonstrates a consistent dedication to presenting readers the new, the interesting, and the important, with accuracy, sophistication, and flair.”

—TOM SIEGFRIED, Science Editor, The Dallas Morning News, Tex.

Response

I am thrilled to accept this award from the American Geophysical Union, an award associated with the names of two early influences on my science journalism career.

“Walter Sullivan, for whom this award is named, is an icon in the science writing world. I met him briefly, at my very first AGU Meeting where he made an appearance in the press room. I think I worked up the nerve to tell him how I had just finished Continents in Motion, his book on the development of plate tectonics theory. Talking to him seemed almost as monumental as talking to scientists, who seemed remote and inaccessible to a fledgling science writer.

“John McPhee, who received this award in 1993, is most likely a familiar name to this gathering. My bookshelves, probably like yours, have long been packed with McPhee’s geology books. Like no one else, he showed how it is possible to wax poetic about olivine and ophiolites. It is an honor to be in his company, and that of the other award recipients.

“While I worked on the Kerguelen Plateau story, my editors in Dallas, Tom Siegfried and Karen Patterson, provided encouragement, writing tutorials, and constant advice on transitions. Jeff Kanipe has always been a loving source of moral support.

“I learned long ago that scientists are not as inaccessible as they can initially appear. My story would not have been possible without the generous help of Mike Coffin and Fred Frey, co-chief scientists of Ocean Drilling Program Leg 183, and the ODP support staff at Texas A & M. These researchers gave me a virtual tour of Kerguelen, in lieu of an actual trip to a lost continent. Thanks to the American Geophysical Union and its scientists for providing an endless source of rich material for us journalists to write about.”

—ALEXANDRA WITZE, The Dallas Morning News, Tex.