Seeing a bright future for science in these innovators

 One of the many joys of being editor in chief of Science News is learning about remarkable work being done by younger scientists. This year’s SN 10: Scientists to Watch honorees, who are profiled in this issue, are tackling some of the biggest challenges facing our world.

The search for the next SN 10 class starts in early January, when we contact Nobel Prize winners, members of the National Academy of Sciences and previous SN 10 honorees and ask for nominations. With those recommendations, we do our own research, checking out scientists’ CVs, publications and websites.

That portfolio then goes to Science News writers who cover those beats. We ask our writers to help us narrow down a very long list of people, all of whom are doing significant science and worthy of recognition. The aim is to find people who are making important discoveries, approaching a big problem with novel insights or shaking up their field.

I get to join in the next phase, when a small group of editors makes the final very difficult decisions. Once we’ve chosen the 10 finalists and double-checked their eligibility, we assign reporters to write short profiles. That’s no easy task; these researchers are so interesting we could write a very long story on each of them. But our goal is to offer a lively introduction, rather than a tome. We still take pains to put each scientist’s work in context. “The ‘why’ is interesting,” says Elizabeth Quill, Science News’ special projects editor and leader of this effort. “Why something as seemingly simple as the size of the proton is hard to know is a fascinating concept.”

I loved learning about Phiala Shanahan, a 29-year-old theoretical physicist at MIT who was shocked to discover while a graduate student that scientists disagreed on the size of the proton. That drove her to become adept at calculating the influence of gluons, which help keep protons intact. I’m inspired by Zhongwen Zhan, a 33-year-old seismologist at Caltech who wants to put fiber-optic cables to work as an earthquake early warning system. And since I have relatives in Oregon struggling with terrible air pollution caused by wildfires, I’m grateful for Emily Fischer, a 39-year-old atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University who built a collaborative network of researchers to study the enigmatic components in wildfire smoke, which are surprisingly not well known. It’s an urgent mission at a time when the western United States is contending with massive fires and choking smoke. “There’s so much science behind what people are experiencing in these devastating circumstances,” Quill says.

These researchers also have interests that go beyond the lab bench. Fischer, for one, has built a network to mentor undergraduate women in the geosciences. The program reaches more than 300 women at institutions across the United States. She encourages her own mentees to go after big, bold questions. “It’s OK to be wrong, and it’s OK to take risks,” she told staff writer Jonathan Lambert.

We hope you’ll enjoy getting acquainted with these remarkable young scientists and following their exploits in the years to come. I expect big things from them.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.