Apoorva Mandavilli (@apoorva_nyc), a seasoned science journalist known for both superb narrative writing and breaking news coverage, is the recipient of the 2019 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. The prize is awarded annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW).
Mandavilli is the founder and editor-in-chief of the autism news website Spectrum, where her feature writing dives deeply into research and the lives of those affected. The judges cited her recent long-form work for Spectrum, The Atlantic, and The New York Times for its intimacy and power, and for Mandavilli’s ability to interweave the pathos of personal suffering with advances in science and policy issues.
The judges said Mandavilli’s compelling personal stories “aren’t narratives for the sake of narrative. These are stories we should all pay attention to.” Overall, they agreed that Mandavilli’s writing “demonstrates a remarkable facility for both long-form and spot reporting. Her work has both depth and breadth.”
In recent years, Mandavilli has traveled to Bhopal, India, to report for The Atlantic on how the consequences of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster continue to unfold more than three decades later. Another Atlantic story is a dramatic retelling of one man’s recovery from traumatic brain injury, blended with a larger, contextual science story about who recovers from brain injury and why.
The judges also cited Mandavilli’s recent reports for The Times, one on the continuing scourge of leprosy in India, and another on a possible second cure of HIV. Her nominator, freelance journalist Siri Carpenter, wrote that Mandavilli’s clear and crisp writing “brings color, energy, compassion, and clarity” to health topics that are often depressing and heavy with policy implications.
Letters from colleagues in support of her nomination praised Mandavilli’s tirelessly deep reporting. Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, noted that in the Bhopal story Mandavilli relentlessly named and introduced each young victim and laid out each detail of the history and legacy of the 1984 accident. “But she does not stop,” he said. “Instead, she digs deeper,” confronting officials, diving into epidemiological evidence, and closing with a victim’s bitter observation that she, the journalist, is another who will come and go as Bhopal’s residents face continued suffering and death.
Mixed into Mandavilli’s freelance writing and full-time work as Spectrum editor has been volunteer service and advocacy in the science writing community. Laura Helmuth, health and science editor for The Washington Post, pointed to her advocacy for diversity in committee work with the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), and her mentoring of many young writers, roles in which “she has elevated science journalism for all of us.”
Mandavilli is the 22nd recipient of the prize, given for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years. She will receive a $3,000 award and certificate, and will be honored in State College, Pa. on October 26, as science writers gather for ScienceWriters2019, a conference jointly organized by CASW and NASW. CASW, a not-for-profit organization of journalists and scientists committed to improving the quality of science news and information reaching the public, produces the annual New Horizons in Science program at each annual conference.
New York City-based Apoorva Mandavilli has been a science and medical journalist for the past 20 years. Mandavilli built Spectrum, which is supported by the Simons Foundation, in 2008 after several years as senior news editor at Nature Medicine, where she reported extensively about infectious diseases, public health, and neuroscience. She has also worked as an editor at BioMedNet, and as the health editor at About.com. Her work has also been featured at The New Yorker online, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, and Popular Science, and has earned awards from the Association of Health Care Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. She holds a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in addition to her NYU master’s degree in science journalism. She served as science writer in residence at UW-Madison in spring 2019. Under her direction, Spectrum has earned multiple Webby awards and other honors.
THE VICTOR COHN PRIZE
This year’s Cohn Prize entries were judged by Ivan Oransky, vice president for editorial at Medscape, Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and co-founder of Retraction Watch; Joe Palca, National Public Radio science correspondent and winner of the Cohn Prize in 2008; and Joann Rodgers, former national science correspondent and columnist for the Hearst Newspapers, longtime executive director of media relations and public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and former CASW and NASW president.
The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting has been presented since 2000. In addition to Palca, past recipients include Laurie Garrett of Newsday; Lawrence K. Altman of The New York Times; Jon Palfreman, a public television documentarian; Daniel Q. Haney, medical editor of The Associated Press; Shannon Brownlee, a noted magazine writer and book author; Michelle Trudeau of National Public Radio; Rick Weiss of the Washington Post; Jerome Groopman of The New Yorker; Geeta Anand of The Wall Street Journal; Denise Grady of The New York Times; Marilynn Marchione of The Associated Press; Ron Winslow of The Wall Street Journal; Jon Cohen of Science magazine; John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; freelance health reporter and former NPR correspondent Joanne Silberner; Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times; Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Liz Szabo, health writer for USA Today and senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News; Sharon Begley, senior science writer at STAT; and freelance medical writer Laura Beil.
The award honors the late Washington Post medical writer and health columnist Victor Cohn, known as the dean of medical science reporting. He distinguished himself by the clarity and effectiveness of his reporting during a 50-year career that began with outstanding coverage of early “wonder” drugs and the polio vaccine, as well as the dawn of the modern space age. Late in his career, Cohn started a Post column called “The Patient’s Advocate,” and authored News & Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields. Cohn, who died of cancer in 2000, was a co-founder in 1959 of CASW.
To learn more about ScienceWriters2019 (#SciWri19), visit https://sciencewriters2019.org