2016 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner
Lizzie Wade received the 2016 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes “a journalist for a feature story or series in any medium except books that makes information about the Earth and space sciences accessible and interesting to the general public.”
In her Science feature “Cradle of Life,” Lizzie Wade delves into the fascinating question of how life in the Amazon became so rich and diverse. It’s an edgy topic as well: Two research camps hold irreconcilable views on how rising mountains and shifting rivers transformed habitats over millions of years.
Lizzie could have written the article as a straightforward explanation laying out the arguments of the opposing scientists. Instead, she brings alternative histories to life by taking us on a journey from the foothills of the Andes Mountains on the western edge of the Amazon basin down deep into the rain forest. Her vivid on-the-ground reporting resulted in what the Walter Sullivan Award Committee called “a majestic piece, successful in its efforts to sketch the history, or possible histories, of an enormous and important part of our planet.”
Lizzie’s story had a long gestation. The question of Amazonian biodiversity first entranced her 4 years ago, when she was an intern at Science. After she completed her internship, we posted her to Mexico City as our first Latin America correspondent. Still a cub reporter, Lizzie suddenly found herself responsible for reporting on the disparate scientific communities of Central and South America.
Speaking from experience, I can say that it’s daunting to singlehandedly cover such an expansive territory, and being a one-person bureau can get lonely at times. But Lizzie, a fluent Spanish speaker, has proven that she’s up to the challenge, and in her short tenure so far, she has produced several memorable and high-impact stories.
I enjoy working with Lizzie both because she finds exclusive stories for us and because she’s a wordsmith who pays close attention to every detail of a story. Her love of language shines through in “Cradle of Life,” resulting in a narrative that traverses vast passages of time while weaving in telling details of the scientists whose work is illuminating the Amazon’s origins.
—Richard Stone, Science Magazine, Washington, D. C.
I’m very honored to receive this year’s Walter Sullivan Award. I’m particularly delighted because both of the editors who worked on this story, Richard Stone and Tim Appenzeller, are past Sullivan recipients. Weaving together the details of a scientific debate with a journey through disparate landscapes was an incredible writing challenge, and I sincerely thank Rich and Tim for helping me find a path through the weeds.
One of the great joys of science reporting is interviewing such intelligent, generous, and patient sources. I’d like to thank all the scientists who were kind enough to include me on this once-in-a-lifetime trip, especially Sherilyn Fritz of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Paul Baker of Duke University, and Yachay Tech for organizing it. They had help from Marianne van Vlaardingen and her team at Pantiacolla Tours, who did a phenomenal job managing the logistics and making sure we ate delicious food at every stop along the way. Earth scientists can be hard to keep up with, especially for a reporter who is more at home in urban jungles than natural ones. Thank you all for making sure I made it out of the cloud forest alive, especially Lauren Gonzalez, who pulled me to safety after I tumbled off the trail (and nearly off a cliff).
My story wouldn’t have been the same without the photographs taken by Jason Houston. His images of the landscapes and portraits of the researchers made my words come to life. His nightly slide shows of the pictures he had taken that day were a highlight of the trip for everyone, and his generosity and curiosity should be a model for all journalists.
And, of course, thank you to Science. After merely 6 months as a news intern, the magazine sent me to Mexico City to be its Latin America correspondent. It is a great privilege and responsibility to cover this often overlooked region for one of the world’s best science publications. But I don’t want to do it alone. We need more science reporters in Latin America, not to mention scientists. And they shouldn’t all be foreigners like me. I humbly encourage AGU and all its members to think about how they can support science and science communication in Latin America, so more stories like this one can be told.
—Lizzie Wade, Science Magazine, Mexico City, Mexico