Waking up early to cover science’s biggest honor

At 5:10 a.m. on October 1, news director Macon Morehouse walked into her kitchen, powered on her computer and hit “start” on the coffeemaker she had preloaded the night before. It was game day for the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and she wanted to be ready when the announcement came from Stockholm, six time zones away.

It’s a ritual we follow every year at Science News; reporters and editors rise before dawn to cover the Nobels, the biggest prizes in science. Now that we’re all online it’s a bit simpler — no need to get out of pajamas.

“Here we go!” digital director Kate Travis posted on Slack at 5:30 a.m. At 5:33 a.m., audience engagement editor Mike Denison had the news up on our Twitter account: James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan had won for their work on checkpoint blockade cancer immunotherapy. Travis and associate digital editor Helen Thompson turned to mining the Science News digital archives for articles on the winners’ work and to finding photos of Allison and Honjo.

Once molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey’s initial news report was posted, she and biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham turned to reporting and writing a longer, more in-depth story. That included interviewing Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, for perspective on the winners’ work.

That afternoon, the Science News staff turned to prepping for the next day’s announcement on physics, with chemistry following on October 3 and economics on October 8. In each case, writers specializing in those fields took over the reporting duties. And as the stories went live, the Science News for Students team adapted them for readers ages 9 and up.

This year’s awards were notable for recognizing two women. Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada became only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics, for her work on laser physics. Frances Arnold of Caltech was the fifth women to earn the chemistry prize. She was honored for her method of creating customized enzymes, a technique that’s been used to make new drugs and environmentally friendly biofuels.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Morehouse says of the annual ritual. “It’s exciting to see who’s going to win, and it was exciting to see the diversity this year.” She says that directing the Nobel coverage provides a reminder of just how very long Science News has been covering these fields. “You can go back in our archives for decades and find stories about these key developments that end up resulting in a Nobel.”

And though we typically don’t cover awards, the Nobels are different. They offer an opportunity to look broadly at how individual discoveries seed the growth of new fields of science. This year’s medicine award highlights the success of new forms of cancer immunotherapy. And the laser advances have led to remarkable new treatments for eye disorders.

So when you see those stories blip across your screen next year, think of our noble band of early risers. It’s our pleasure.

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.

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