Paula S. Apsell

2004 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

Paula S. Apsell received the Cowen Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held 19 May 2004, in Montreal, Canada. The award honors lifetime achievement in science journalism.


“Paula S. Apsell got her start in broadcasting at WGBH Boston, where she was hired fresh out of Brandeis University to type the public broadcaster’s daily television program logs—a job that Apsell notes is now, mercifully, automated. Within a year, she found her way to WGBH Radio, where she developed the award-winning children’s drama series ‘The Spider’s Web,’ and later became a radio news producer. Her real interest, though lay in television and science. In 1975, she joined a fledgling WGBH-produced national series that would set the standard for science programming on television: NOVA.

“Apsell produced a number of critically acclaimed NOVA episodes before joining Timothy Johnson at WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston, as senior producer for medical programming. In 1983, she spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Knight Fellow, then called the Vannevar Bush Fellowship in the Public Understanding of Science. She returned to WGBH in 1984 to become executive producer of NOVA, guiding the series into today’s highly competitive, multimedia environment.

“In addition to the programs in the regular NOVA television schedule, Apsell has overseen the production of many award-winning WGBH Science Unit specials including ‘A Science Odyssey,’ ‘Secrets of Lost Empires,’ ‘Building Big’; and the eight-part miniseries, ‘Evolution.’ Currently, NOVA is celebrating its 30th season on PBS and has produced the three-part miniseries on string theory, ‘The Elegant Universe,’ hosted by Columbia University physicist and award-winning author Brian Greene. NOVA also produced ‘MARS Dead or Alive,’ a behind-the-scenes look at how the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The program culminated with footage from the control room as scientists such as Steve Squyres celebrated a successful landing. She’s also directed NOVA’s diversification into other media, most notably NOVA’s award-winning Web site and the NOVA/PBS Online Adventures. As executive in charge of NOVA’s large format film unit, Apsell has overseen the production of ‘Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure’—currently in national release—‘To the Limit,’ ‘Stormchasers,’ ‘Island of the Sharks,’ and ‘Special Effects,’ the second IMAX film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“Today, NOVA is the most popular science series on American television and on the Web. In 1998, the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation awarded NOVA its first-ever Public Service Award. NOVA has won every major broadcasting award, including the Emmy, the Peabody, the AAAS Westinghouse Science Journalism Award, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Gold Baton. Apsell has received numerous individual awards for her outstanding record of achievement, among them the 1994 Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science, Boston, whose previous winners include Walter Cronkite and Jacques Cousteau; the 1996 Carl Sagan Award given by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, and in 1999, the American Physics Institute’s Andrew Gemant Award. This past May, NOVA took home three 2002 News and Documentary Emmy Awards including two awards for Best Historical Documentary, ‘Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance’ and ‘Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens,’ and the top award, Best Documentary for ‘Why the Towers Fell.’

“The Cowen Award from the AGU recognizes Paula Apsell for her commitment to the very highest of standards in journalism, her appreciation for science, and her devotion to creating programs for the public about issues that affect their lives.”

—HENRY P. BECTON, WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, Mass.


“I would like to thank the AGU for recognizing me and NOVA as recipients of its Sustained Achievement Award for Science Journalism.

“In this day and age, it is said that the American public wants to watch programs about unsolved murders, killer storms, military hardware, and brainless comedies—something to switch on with a mind switched off. Survey after survey shows appalling levels of scientific illiteracy countrywide. For example, only 13% of the population can define a molecule, and less than half know that it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the Sun.

“So as NOVA ends its 30th year on television, how do we explain our success? The key is, tell a story, report it fairly and accurately, and meld your science with that story. Often the story will take the form of a scientific quest leading to the moment of discovery, while also reflecting the blood, sweat, and tears that so often precede it. At NOVA, we humanize science by revealing the passion and the people behind it.

“And sometimes we get to cover stories that we know are history in the making. This past January, NOVA aired ‘MARS Dead or Alive.’ We were privileged because ours were the only cameras that documented the production of the rovers and the problems that Lead Scientific Investigator Steve Squyres and his team had to overcome to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats in recent memory—landing the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars. While 50% of all previous missions to Mars had failed, this group of scientists and engineers succeeded. For me, the chance to be with the scientists producing our up-to-the-minute ending of the film as they found out that Spirit had landed safely on the Martian surface was one of the highlights of my career.

“Other stories that flexed our journalistic muscles include ‘What’s Up With the Weather?,’ in which NOVA took on the complex question of global warming; ‘Volcano’s Deadly Warning,’ about a new and controversial way to predict eruptions; ‘Bioterror,’ a co-production with reporters from The New York Times that explained the development of germ warfare and was based on the best-selling book Germs; and ‘Why the Towers Fell,’ in which NOVA offered viewers an exclusive look at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report into the root causes of the Towers’ collapse the day before it was presented to Congress. For this program, NOVA was honored with a 2002 Emmy for the best documentary.

“In the coming years, NOVA will continue to be dedicated to bringing programs that inform and inspire, programs that respect the public’s intelligence and report on some of the most fascinating science news stories of our times.

“Awards like this from the AGU mean a great deal to us at NOVA. It means you value what we do, and for that we are most grateful.”

—PAULA S. APSELL, NOVA and WGBH Science Unit, Boston, Mass.