Roberta Kwok

2010 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Roberta Kwok received the Walter Sullivan Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. Kwok was honored for “The rock that fell to Earth,” published in the journal Nature, which recounts the first space-to-ground tracking of a tiny asteroid that struck Earth. Kwok’s story brings to life the drama of the asteroid’s belated detection in space, its plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, and, finally, the recovery of its remnants from the desert in Sudan.


We at Nature congratulate Roberta Kwok for winning the 2010 Walter Sullivan Award for her story “The rock that fell to Earth” (458, 401, 2009).

Her remarkable article tells the tale of 2008 TC3, a little boulder in space that was unknown until a telescope operator in Arizona spotted it on a collision course with the Earth. Less than 24 hours later, the rock lit up the skies above Sudan as it hit the atmosphere and broke into pieces that dropped to the desert floor.

The case of 2008 TC3 was unusual because researchers were eventually able to find some of those pieces, making this the first time that an object had been tracked through space and then recovered from the ground.

Roberta followed the opposite trajectory through her story of 2008 TC3. At the time she wrote it, she was an intern in our Washington, D. C., office, just out of graduate school, and this was her first feature for us. From that start on the ground floor of science journalism, she is now a rising star with much promise in her future.

The article about 2008 TC3 showcases Roberta’s tenacious reporting and talented writing. Under a tight deadline she contacted people around the world who had played a role in the case of the little asteroid. She collected the small but critical details that allowed her to bring this story to life, putting readers in the room with the telescope operator when he first saw the rock. We also were able to listen in on conversations among researchers tracking the object and witness the rock piercing the atmosphere from within the cockpit of a KLM flight over Africa. In the last act of the drama, Roberta put us in the middle of the desert along with the scientists literally combing the landscape for fresh shards of meteorite.

It is fitting that AGU is honoring Roberta with an award named after Walter Sullivan, who opened up new worlds to millions of readers through reporting that captured the excitement of research in action. Roberta’s tale of 2008 TC3 did the same, and I am confident she will continue to transport readers with that same wonder of discovery as her career develops.

—RICH MONASTERSKY, Features Editor, Nature


It is a tremendous honor to receive this award, which has been given to so many science writers I admire.

Credit for the story idea belongs to Oliver Morton, the Nature editor who assigned me to write a feature about the collision of asteroid 2008 TC3 and the discovery of the meteorites. It was a rare opportunity to construct a fast paced, dramatic narrative with an international cast of characters. During this assignment I received crucial guidance from features editor Rich Monastersky and my internship mentor Alexandra Witze, both past winners of AGU awards for their writing on geophysical sciences. Alex pointed me in the right direction as I began reporting, and Rich patiently worked with me over several drafts to shape the story into the final published version.

The scientists I interviewed for this story were unfailingly open and generous. I owe thanks to Peter Jenniskens of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, Richard Kowalski of the Catalina Sky Survey, Tim Spahr of the Minor Planet Center, Steve Chesley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories, Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario, Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast, Jacob Kuiper of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, Muawia Hamid Shaddad of the University of Khartoum, Mike Zolensky of the NASA Johnson Space Center, and many others. They told their stories with such excitement and vivid detail that my job was very easy.

I’m also grateful to the mentors who helped me along the way to the Nature internship. Holly Stocking and Scott Sanders at Indiana University Bloomington encouraged me to try science writing, and Rob Irion and other instructors at University of California, Santa Cruz’s science communication program provided invaluable training in the craft.

Finally, I would like to thank AGU for its efforts to recognize and aid science communication. I look forward to speaking to more AGU members in the future and telling the stories of their work.

—ROBERTA KWOK, Foster City, Calif.