Council for the Advancement of Science Writing


Content within the main section of the CASW site

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Mark Johnson awarded 2015 Victor Cohn Prize for medical science journalism

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel science and medical reporter Mark Johnson, a career newspaper journalist whose work is marked by its scientific breadth, human impact and storytelling verve, is the recipient of the 2015 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

Judges for the prize, awarded by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years, and now in its 16th year, cited Johnson for his “extraordinary ability to combine long-form, ‘inside’ stories of complex scientific research with a deeply human dimension” and to “write with such passion, narrative style, and clarity that readers are absolutely riveted.”

Johnson, they said, “is a masterful storyteller whose character-driven, edge-of-seat narratives offer uncommonly vivid portrayals of the profound human drama and passion that lie at the heart of so many medical pursuits, especially the often frustrating and heartbreaking efforts required to solve some of medicine’s prevailing mysteries.”

His stories, the judges added, are “so compelling, and so rich with detail and reportorial craft, that learning about the process of medical science, its practitioners and the people whose lives it touches is pure pleasure.”

Johnson was selected from a field of candidates whose fine reporting and writing made the judging process both exciting and difficult. The judges found that several of the nominees’ pieces met the Cohn Prize’s requirement of “uncommon clarity, accuracy, breadth of coverage, enterprise, originality, insight and narrative power,” but Johnson’s body of work stood out.

Among the selection of articles, sidebars, graphics and social media enhancements that made up Johnson’s nomination was “In the Course of Their Lives,” which, the judges said, recounted with exquisite sensitivity the quotidian but dramatically intimate hurdles negotiated by would-be physicians in their first-year human gross anatomy class. But Johnson did even more, they said, weaving into the piece the touching stories of once and future organ donors and the bioethical dimensions of medical training.

Another entry that caught the judges’ attention was “Murray’s Problem,” which followed a scientist as he struggled with confusion, failure and self-doubt and celebrated fleeting moments of triumph. The judges noted that the story captured drama in the daily routine of laboratory research and portrayed the “deep humanity of what science is really about.”

In a series called “Deadly Delays,” the judges said, Johnson’s “simply stunning” investigative reporting skills explored the flaws and dangers in the nation’s newborn screening program, focusing on how an infant died when a hospital delayed sending his blood sample to an outside lab in order to “batch” samples and save shipping costs.

One in a Billion,” another series, read like a detective story, the judges said, tracking an almost impossible effort to identify a mysterious disease that was killing a boy and horrifying his family and the physician-scientists racing to save him. That work earned Johnson and four Journal Sentinel colleagues the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Johnson, the judges observed, has also produced daily beat stories, blogs and tweets. “His way of adapting his reporting and writing to multiple platforms that make his stories widely accessible is exemplary,” the judges said.

In his nominating letter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor and vice president George Stanley wrote: “Mark’s work is unmatched when it comes to depth, storytelling and helping readers understand complicated science and medical issues. Mark’s stories are always told with care, with nuance and through the eyes of real people – patients, parents, doctors.”

Johnson, who joined the Milwaukee daily in 2000, received a $3,000 award and certificate at a ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Oct. 10, during ScienceWriters2015, a series of presentations, meetings, and workshops jointly organized by CASW and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). CASW is a not-for-profit organization of journalists and scientists committed to improving the quality of science news and information reaching the public. (He is shown with CASW President Alan Boyle and the Cohn Prize certificate.)

Journal Sentinel cited

The Cohn Prize judges this year also issued a special citation to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for its “enduring and outstanding commitment to medical science coverage, and its unwavering support for journalists who epitomize the craft and legacy of the man this prize honors.” Another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel medical writer, John Fauber, won the Cohn Prize in 2013.


Mark Johnson came to Milwaukee as a general assignment reporter, covering the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York, the 2000 presidential ballot controversy in Florida and the 2003 Space Shuttle explosion in Houston. He became a health and science writer in 2008. Since that time, in addition to the 2011 Pulitzer, he has been a three-time Pulitzer Finalist, and received both the National Academies of Science Communication Award and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism Award.

Prior to working for the Journal Sentinel, Johnson covered small towns for the Providence (R.I.) Journal. In the early 1990s he covered family issues for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. From 1987 to 1990, he covered southern New Hampshire and business for a small daily, the Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette. He began his newspaper career covering town hall and the fishing industry for the weekly Provincetown (Mass.) Advocate.

Johnson lives with his wife, the writer Mary-Elizabeth Shaw, and their son, the composer Evan Johnson. He also played (“badly,” he reports) guitar for a punk band in Rockford, Ill., called The Bloody Stumps.

This year’s Cohn Prize entries were judged by Ben Patrusky, CASW’s executive director emeritus; Joann Rodgers, a freelance writer and author, a CASW past president and current board member, and part-time faculty scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics; Cristine Russell, CASW’s immediate past president and a current board member, freelance writer, and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; and Ron Winslow, NASW’s immediate past president, a Wall Street Journal medical writer and past winner of the Cohn Prize.

The inaugural Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting in 2000 was shared by Laurie Garrett of Newsday and Lawrence K. Altman of The New York Times. Subsequent recipients were Jon Palfreman, a public television documentarian; 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; Joe Palca of NPR; Denise Grady of The New York Times; Marilynn Marchionne 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; and Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times.

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 wrote a highly regarded professional book, 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 read Mark Johnson’s work (Twitter: @majohnso), visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website.

To learn more about CASW (Twitter: @sciencewriting), the Cohn Prize and past recipients, visit the CASW website.

To learn more about ScienceWriters2015 (#sciwri15), visit


2019 Cohn Prize nominations accepted online through July 31

CASW honors extraordinary writing on medical science with the annual Victor Cohn prize. Nominations for the 20th annual award, to be given in October at ScienceWriters2019, will be accepted through July 31. Nominations, writing samples and letters of support may now be submitted online. Please check the Cohn prize page for information and submission instructions.

Again this year, work published in digital media may be entered along with print and broadcast material.

See this page for more information on CASW's fellowship and award programs.

Handelsman presents third Patrusky Lecture at ScienceWriters2015

Microbiologist Jo Handelsman, a pioneer in metagenomics research who is currently serving in a key White House science-policy post, presented the Patrusky Lecture on October 11, 2015, at New Horizons in Science, CASW’s annual briefing on emerging research and issues in science.

Handelsman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Frederick Phineas Rose Professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University, is currently Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her White House work focuses on advancing basic research and developing targeted areas in biological research, STEM education, and diversity in science.

In her talk, "The Earth's Microbiomes: Opportunities for Research and Policy," she provided an update on these initiatives to the writers gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., for ScienceWriters2015, a conference that combines the New Horizons science program with the professional development workshops of the National Association of Science Writer(NASW).

Handelsman was appointed to her current role by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in June 2014. Reporting to OSTP Director John P. Holdren, she helps advise the President on science policy and Federal support for research. Before joining the White House, she had been recognized for her research on science education and her promotion of opportunities for women and minorities in science. She received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2011 and also co-chaired the PCAST working group that developed “Engage to Excel,” a 2012 report making recommendations for strengthening STEM education to meet workforce needs.

During her White House service, Handelsman’s Yale laboratory is continuing its work under the direction of two of her former graduate students, carrying out studies to understand diversity in microbial communities and the role of these communities in infectious disease. Current research uses the fruit fly gut as a model for the microbiology of the human gut and also employs functional metagenomics to probe microbial communities’ genetic and biochemical diversity.

Handelsman earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined UW’s plant pathology faculty in 1985. After serving in a number of roles, including chair of the Department of Bacteriology, she moved to Yale in 2010. At both universities she has been instrumental in founding and directing programs that teach the principles and practices of evidence-based education to current and future faculty at colleges and universities nationwide. Her teaching, mentorship and research have been recognized with a number of awards. She has also served the scientific community in numerous roles as a panel member, peer reviewer and journal editor and as president of the American Society for Microbiology.

The Patrusky Lectures were launched by CASW in 2013 to honor Ben Patrusky, executive director of CASW for 25 years and director of the New Horizons in Science program for 30 years. Handelsman has been an invited speaker at New Horizons in Science twice before, in 1994 and 2001. The first and second Patrusky Lectures were given by George M. Whitesides of Harvard University and Donald Johanson of the Institute of Human Origins, respectively. Video recordings of all Patrusky Lectures may be found on the Patrusky Lectures page.

Award entries due from young science journalists by June 30

CASW invites 30-and-under science writers to submit entries for the 2015 Clark/Payne Award, which will recognize outstanding reporting and writing by a young journalist covering any field of science. This is the second year that the annual Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists will be judged and presented by CASW.

Entries may be submitted online and must be completed by JUNE 30, 2015.

The Clark/Payne Award is intended to encourage young science writers. The 2015 winner will receive $1,000 and expenses to attend ScienceWriters2015, which combines the annual National Association of Science Writers workshops and CASW's New Horizons in Science briefings.

The award was established in memory of Ev Clark, a veteran journalist at Business Week, The New York Times and Newsweek, and Seth Payne, his long-time friend and colleague at Business Week and a founder of the award.

The Clark/Payne Award has been presented at the ScienceWriters meeting since 2006 under an arrangement made between the Clark/Payne Fund and the National Press Foundation, which administers the endowment. Former Business Week senior science correspondent John Carey manages judging. The Evert Clark Fund is administered by the National Press Foundation.

For submission instructions, a list of previous winners and more information, see the Clark/Payne Award page.

Five awarded Taylor/Blakeslee University Fellowships for 2015-16

Five journalists who have distinguished themselves as student and professional writers, authors and scientists have been chosen by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to receive prestigious Taylor/Blakeslee University Fellowships supporting graduate study in science writing.

Each will receive a $5,000 award for the 2015-16 academic year, bringing to 146 the number of science writers aided by CASW’s graduate fellowships since 1981.

Chosen from a field of 25 outstanding applicants were:

Diana CrowDiana Crow (@CatalyticRxn) of Brookline, Massachusetts. Crow holds a biology degree from Bard College, where she launched and edited the Bard Science Journal. In Boston, she has freelanced for publications including Scientific American, produced an interview series for the National Science Communication Institute and posted coverage of academic lectures. After also writing grant proposals, working as a lab technician, blogging and organizing science outreach events, Crow will pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a magazine editor by attending the MIT science writing master's degree program.

Hannah FurfaroHannah Furfaro (@HannahFurfaro) of Fresno, California. Furfaro is an award-winning education reporter for the Fresno Bee, having worked as a news reporter for the Ames (Iowa) Tribune, Associated Press and the Bee after earning a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. Her investigative and multimedia journalism has been recognized with awards from two state newspaper organizations and the Inland Press Association. While covering politics and education, Furfaro has found herself pursuing investigative reporting project on agriculture, environment and technology, and decided that these subjects are her passion. She will attend Columbia University's master's program in specialized journalism with a science concentration.

Laurel Hamers

Laurel Hamers (@Arboreal_Laurel) of Madison, Wisconsin. Hamers is a graduate of Williams College who is now working as a media services writer at the American Institute of Physics while also doing freelance writing and blogging. While completing a bachelor's degree in biology with a neuroscience minor, she launched a campus-wide online science publication, which led her to pursue communication internships at the Marine Biological Laboratory and then AIP. "Writing press releases has left me wanting more... to go deeper, to write about science in all its messy complexity," she says, "and for that, I need stronger reporting skills." She will pursue them through the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Amy McDermottAmy Georgianna McDermott (@amesydragon) of Glendora, CA. McDermott is currently completing a master's degree in conservation biology at Columbia University and will also attend the UC Santa Cruz program. She is founder and current editor-in-chief of Hawkmoth, an "indie science magazine" that grew from a blog she launched while doing research in Fiji for the American Museum of Natural History. Developing stories from the experience of field research is her specialty. Having blogged on SciLogs, produced science videos for Columbia's Earth Institute and freelanced for Natural History and other publications, McDemott has decided on a science-writing career.

Kendra Pierre-Louis (@KendraWrites(pictured at upper right) of Astoria, New York. Pierre-Louis holds an economics degree from Cornell University and a master's in sustainable development from the School of International Training's Graduate Institute. She has distinguished herself in work for organizations promoting sustainability and biodiversity, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, a secretariat of the United Nations Environment Programme. As a freelance writer, Pierre-Louis has contributed to Newsweek, the Earth Island Journal and Modern Farmer and authored a 2012 book, Green Washed: Why We Can't  Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. She wants to become a journalist to move from writing for the "green ghetto" of environmental activists to communicating with the public. She will enroll in the MIT Science Writing Program.

CASW's graduate fellowships are underwritten by a grant from the Brinson Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropic organization. They honor the late Rennie Taylor and Alton Blakeslee, science writer and science editor respectively for the Associated Press. More information may be found on this page.


Submit proposals for "Science and Science Writing" New Horizons sessions by March 4

Submissions of 2015 proposals are now closed. Thank you to all who submitted!

Special case-study sessions on challenges for scientists and science writers were highlights of the 2013 and 2014 New Horizons in Science briefings. CASW welcomes proposals for "Science + Science Writing" sessions for New Horizons at ScienceWriters2015. Proposals should be submitted by March 4, 2015. A joint NASW-CASW committee will review proposals and notify organizers by May 1.

Guidelines and a submission form may be found at the CASW submission site. Examples of recent S+SW sessions include "From Haiti to the Hajj," a 2013 discussion of communication issues in epidemics, and two 2014 sessions: "Navigating a Minefield," about genetically modified crops, and "Lessons in the Communication of Science from the BICEP2 story," reflecting on coverage of the BICEP2 collaboration's big March 2014 announcement (photo).

Record registration for ScienceWriters2015

For the fourth time in its history, CASW's New Horizons in Science briefing will be held in the Boston area in 2015. The 53rd annual presentation of emerging research and science issues will be hosted by the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of ScienceWriters2015.



Registration closed at more than 800 for the ScienceWriters2015 conference, which includes a full day of workshops organized by the National Association of Science Writers, the CASW New Horizons in Science program and field trips, tours and other activities organized by our hosts.

The return to Cambridge is historic for CASW's flagship program, which was launched with an event at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963. In a celebration of CASW's 50th anniversary at Yale University in 2010 (video), longtime Executive Director Ben Patrusky told the story of the remarkable first event, held in cooperation with both Harvard and MIT:

"It offered an extraordinarily eclectic mix of topics, setting the tone and template for all briefings to come. It featured talks, 18 in all, on subjects ranging from molecular biology and electron microscopy to earth, space and atmospheric science, to human evolution and the role of biology in culture, to biophysics and the brain, to the growing interdependency between science and engineering—the "new engineering," as it was then called.

"... You may recognize some of the names of some of those (the eminences) who briefed: [evolutionary biologist] Ernst Mayr, [astronomer] Fred Whipple, [astrophysicist] Thomas Gold, [geophysicist and oceanographer] Athelstan Spilhaus, [biophysicist] Bert Vallee, [biochemist] Howard Shachman, [anthropologist] William Howells and, dare I say it, [physicist] Fred Singer. There were tours, too, including a memorable visit with B. F. Skinner in his lab at MIT."

(The full program  may be downloaded here.)

Patrusky, who took over the New Horizons program in 1974 and directed it for three decades, noted that the early New Horizons briefings were invitation-only affairs: 56 journalists attended the first year, after which the invitation list was limited to 40 for several years until CASW decided to issue an open invitation to science writers. Attendance leapt again after the New Horizons program was joined with the professional development workshops of the National Association of Science Writers, and some 600 writers are expected to attend ScienceWriters2015. The NASW workshops will be held at the conference hotel, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, after which the New Horizons briefings will be presented on the MIT campus. Special "Science + Science Writing" New Horizons sessions, first introduced at the 2013 meeting, will bring scientists and science writers to the stage together.

October 2015 will mark the first time the combined meeting is held in the Boston area. Patrusky brought New Horizons back to the Boston area twice: in 1982, when Harvard University hosted the 20th annual event, and in 1998, when the 36th New Horizons in Science briefing was hosted by Boston University. The Hyatt in Cambridge also served as the conference hotel in 1998.

Student journalists enjoy a taste of science writing at New Horizons 2014

As this year's New Horizons in Science briefings opened in Columbus Oct. 19 as part of ScienceWriters2014, a group of bright young science-writers-in-the-making pulled out their pens, recorders and laptops with particular purpose.

These were the participants in the second New Horizons Newsroom, a CASW project designed to provide student science writers an unusual opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder on science stories with professional mentors and editors.

Charlie Petit, a veteran science writer and CASW officer, donned a green eyeshade (at newsroom kickoff, right) and corralled the greenhorns' talent and enthusiasm as the Newsroom chief. He emerged impressed.

"Hurrah for the reporters who worked the New Horizons Newsroom!" Petit said afterward. "Science journalism tends to be self-propelled and its own main reward. These reporters had no course grade at stake, we didn't pay them a nickel to write, but they cranked out fine copy for us and, er, mostly made deadline. We had some fun, and the ScienceWriters2014 meeting and its archives are the better for it."

Charlie Petit hands out Newsroom assignments at New Horizons in Science 2014

The Newsroom project was launched at ScienceWriters2013 as a way to give local journalism students a taste of professional science writing and provide coverage of New Horizons science on the CASW website, producing seven spot-news stories and two Storify curations of social media commentary. During the pilot experiment, six University of Florida students and two CASW Traveling Fellows contributed coverage of the 2013 science presentations. CASW board members and other senior science writers served as mentors and editors to help the students tackle tough science topics.

Six universities participate

This year, the Newsroom contributors grew to nine, drawn from six universities: Ohio University, host university Ohio State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Florida and the University of Rochester. In addition to Petit, their work was supported by 14 professional science writers acting as mentors and editors. The work posted to the newsroom page (which is still growing at this writing) also expanded in variety as the reporters did additional research.

Bethany Bella of Ohio University's E. W. Scripps School of Journalism brought a video camera and tripod and tracked down New Horizons presenters for recorded interviews. "It was probably the most memorable experience in regards to my professional career, if not one of the best experiences of my entire life," she reflected afterward. "When I look back on this years from now, this weekend was the beginning of my life as a science writer."

Bethany (at far left in top photo, with fellow OU students Cassie Kelly, Kelly Fisher and Olivia Miltner) was one of several students who took advantage of the National Association of Science Writers' professional development workshops on Oct. 18 and the opportunities for networking with professional writerst. Newsroom participant Crystal Garner from the University of Southern Mississippi, who won a travel grant to support attendance at the full ScienceWriters2014 meeting, is shown in the photo below (second from left) socializing with new colleagues at the NASW-CASW awards night.

University of Florida journalism student Andrew Kays (shown in photo at left taking notes as Patrusky Lecturer Don Johanson talks with reporters after his lecture on human evolution), a veteran of the 2013 Newsroom, was supported by small travel grants from UF and CASW. CASW Executive Director Rosalind Reid said she is encouraging New Horizons host universities to "pay it forward" as UF did, by supporting students who might participate in future newsroom activities.

"Our host universities make their faculty, facilities and staff available and provide fantastic hospitality each year to ake this meeting possible," she said. The Newsroom is one way we can provide training, mentoring and career networking for student journalists; it's also a way to maximize the educational benefit for students from the host university and elsewhere."

ScienceWriters2014 awards nightNewsroom stories will be updated and archived on the newsroom page, where this year's mentors and editors are listed. Writers who contributed were:

  • Bethany Bella, Ohio University
  • Debamita Chatterjee, University of Rochester
  • Kelly Fisher, Ohio University
  • Crystal Garner, University of Southern Mississippi
  • Andrew Kays, University of Florida
  • Cassie Kelly, Ohio University
  • Kara Manke, MIT
  • Olivia Miltner, Ohio University
  • Karam Sheban, Ohio State University

Knowing the human story key to living with nature, says Johanson

In the second Patrusky Lecture at CASW's New Horizons in Science, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson traced the sweep of knowledge about the human family tree, insisting that human survival may depend on understanding the journey that brought Homo sapiens into existence.

The lecture, called "The Human Evolutionary Journey" and given on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Johanson's discovery of the fossil hominid Lucy, traced the discoveries that have extended the human family back more than 6 million years. Among these is a recent finding of an Ardipithecus fossil with a divergent great toe in Ethiopia near the Lucy site (photo, left)—one of many finds that may shed light on the paths early hominids took to walking upright.

Many species of the genus Homo are now known to have evolved from prehuman species in Africa, Johanson noted, Don Johanson explains the unusual toe joint found in an Ardipithecus fossiland current work is filling in gaps to explain how modern humans developed their characteristic cognitive complexity, linguistic flexibility and capacity for culture and cooperation.

Johanson (@drdonjohanson, #Lucy40) spoke on Oct. 19, 2014 as part of the 52nd New Horizons in Science briefings in Columbus, Ohio. Don Johanson answers science writers' questions after his presentationCASW President Alan Boyle (above right, with Johanson) presented a crystal sculpture and certificate commemorating the lecture. The speaker was surrounded by writers with questions after the talk.

A video recording of the lecture may be viewed on the PATRUSKY LECTURES PAGE


Subscribe to RSS - CASW