We’re very excited to announce the winners of 2023’s Best of the Northwest Awards!
Journalism Winner: The Vice of Spice: Confronting Lead-Tainted Turmeric
The winning piece for the journalism category was Wudan Yan’s “The Vice of Spice: Confronting Lead-Tainted Turmeric“, originally appearing in Undark. We liked the narrative flow as well as her decision to keep the farmers and their experiences central to the article and were impressed by the huge amount of legwork that went into the piece.
Story Behind the Story: About the piece, Wudan said: “I first began telling the story about spice fraud all the way back in 2016 when I received a fellowship from Michael Pollan’s Food and Farming Fellowship to pursue a story about food fraud – the intentional adulteration of food products for economic gain. The scale of food fraud feels unprecedented, costing the food industry upwards of $1billion/year. I had researched the cancer-fighting properties of turmeric in a past life as an academic scientist and was surprised to learn about lead chromate adulteration of turmeric. In 2016, the FDA had an alert out for a large volume of turmeric that would be detained due to lead coming from India. Thanks to the fellowship, I went to India to investigate. My reporting then didn’t directly lead to a usable story, but my interest in the issue persisted. In 2019, I heard about a Stanford researcher, Jenna Forsyth, who was doing work in Bangladesh about lead in turmeric. Talking more with her, I was impressed that she had a systems approach to solving problems – rare for many scientists. I followed her work, and after three years of the pandemic derailing my travel plans to Bangladesh, I finally got to report it out last year. The work she began is so important in the ongoing fight to reduce lead exposure worldwide and can be applied to many other commodities to root out fraud.”
About Wudan: Wudan is an award-winning narrative journalist, fact-checker, and entrepreneur based in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, California Sunday Magazine, High Country News, MIT Technology Review, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics and beyond. She is a multi-grantee of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and has also received grants from UC Berkeley, the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources, and the International Womens Media Foundation to support her work. Wudan is also the founder and executive producer of The Writers’ Co-op: a business podcast and learning academy for freelance creatives.
Journalism Honorable Mention: The Challenge of Deep-Sea Taxonomy
The honorable mention for the journalism category was Sarah DeWeerdt’s “The Challenge of Deep-Sea Taxonomy” in Nautilus. We thought the piece was really fun and had some great quotes, thought it was an original subject none of us had thought about before, and appreciated the ties Sarah wove in to the larger issue around deep-sea mining. We also thought it did a great job of explaining the importance and problems around type specimens (a tricky subject).
Story Behind the Story: Of the piece, Sarah says: “The idea for this article came from an offhand comment in an interview for a previous piece on the discovery and description of another species of deep-sea octopus. I felt like the draft really came together when I realized that the Casper octopus needed to be a character who would recur throughout, and I restructured the narrative to include glimpses of the animal in each section. It was neat to feel like I was collaborating with this unnamed and mysterious creature of the deep.”
About Sarah: Sarah is a Seattle-based freelance science journalist covering biology, medicine, and the environment.
Institutional Winner: Harsh Mountain Winters Have Made Chickadees Smarter
The winning piece for the institutional category went to Rebecca Heisman’s piece “Harsh Mountain Winters Have Made Chickadees Smarter“, originally appearing in Living Bird (magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). We really enjoyed the writing style, narrative flow, and how Rebecca was able to combine the different fields of ecology and genetics in the piece.
Story Behind the Story: Of the piece, Rebecca says: “I’ve worked with Living Bird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology magazine, on and off for years and always really appreciate the juicy features that the editor there, Gus Axelson, assigns me. Chickadees are such fun birds and the research program I wrote about in this story, with its many layers of field experiments and complementary genetics work, was fascinating to dive into. I really enjoyed chatting with the researchers involved and hearing how the project developed over time.”
About Rebecca: Rebecca is a freelance science writer on the ornithology and bird conservation beat. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington, and has worked with organizations including the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the American Ornithological Society. In 2023, her first book, Flight Paths: How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration, was published by HarperCollins.
Institutional Honorable Mention: Fossil Found: Idaho No. 5 Returns to Idaho Museum of Natural History after 60+ Years
The honorable mention for the institutional category went to Logan McDougall’s piece, “Fossil Found: Idaho No. 5 Returns to Idaho Museum of Natural History after 60+ Years” in ISU News. We thought the piece was really fun and original, full of good quotes, and a great peek into the fascinating work museums do behind the scenes collecting, cataloguing, and working with specimens.
Story Behind the Story: Of the piece, Logan said: “My introduction to the missing fossil was via email. Leif Tapanila sent me the note over the summer with the subject “story idea: Missing Idaho shark found, in Copenhagen.” I was immediately intrigued about where this story could go before even reading it. It was fascinating to learn more about these prehistoric sharks and how a fossil from East Idaho could go from Pocatello to Copenhagen and make its way back again.”
About Logan: Logan McDougall is the Executive Director of College Relations for Idaho State University’s College of Science and Engineering, overseeing the College’s marketing, advertising, and public relations efforts. Before joining Idaho State, he served as the Public Information Officer for the City of Pocatello. At the City, he chaired the Flag Design Ad-hoc Committee, which helped to raise a new flag for Pocatello after the City was publicly shamed for having the worst flag in North America in a TED Talk by podcaster Roman Mars. After a worldwide effort, the group was able to hoist a new one in 2017, and their work became the subject of a TEDx Talk by Logan titled “How Designing A Flag Defined Pocatello.” He has also served as a Project/Social Media Manager for a local marketing firm and as an Anchor/Producer and Multimedia Journalist for KPVI News 6. Logan enjoys spending time with his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters, Addie and Cameron. He also likes to spend time outdoors mountain biking and hiking and lifting weights while listening to heavy metal cranked to 11.
Multimedia Winner: Quest for Clean Water: Season 12, Episodes 2-4
The winner in the multimedia category was Rachel Robertson’s “Quest for Clean Water: Season 12, Episodes 2-4” in Engineering Out Loud. We really thought the decision to follow one lab over time was really interesting and gave a great behind-the-scenes look at how science works. We also especially liked the final episode with the students talking about where they wanted to go in the future.
Story Behind the Story: Of the piece, Rachel said: “The idea to follow a research project over several years was an idea from one of my colleagues (Jens Odegaard). I was not convinced it would work but I was willing to take the risk. In my first interview with Bahman Abbasi I was blown away by his passion and commitment, and especially his confidence in the project. I will never forget our last interview when he admitted to me (and the world) that at first he was NOT confident his research would work! His entrepreneurial spirit and hard work paid off and I was lucky to be a bystander.”
About Rachel: Rachel is a multi-media content creator including print and web stories, podcasts, and videos for the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. In her role as the Strategic Multimedia Marketing Manager, Rachel manages the video production for the College and is the executive producer and host for the podcast, “Engineering Out Loud.”
Multimedia Honorable Mention: Cracking the code of addiction
The honorable mention in the multimedia category was “Cracking the code of addiction” in Lab Notes podcast by Rachel Tompa and Rob Piercy. We thought the piece was lovely to listen to with great interviews. We also thought it did a great job explaining tricky concepts and adding context where needed.
Story Behind the Story: Of the piece, Rachel said: “We came to the topic of addiction by wanting to explain some interesting but very fundamental neuroscience happening in a new team at the Allen Institute. When the head of that team, Karel Svoboda, told us that what they study — the biology of reward — plays a role in human addiction, we knew we had a good angle to tell the story of this team’s work. During our interview with him, Karel told us a brief anecdote about coming across someone who was overdosing on the sidewalk in downtown Seattle and how he called 911 and waited with them until the EMTs arrived. It was such a poignant story told by someone who was new to Seattle and hadn’t seen the very visible manifestation of opioid addiction where he’d lived before, and it was also so closely related to his work. That ended up being the cold intro to our episode.”
About the creators:
Rachel is an award-winning science and health writer, editor, and podcaster. A molecular biologist turned writer, she’s been telling science stories since 2007. She spent 15 years working as an institutional writer and editor, translating the complex science of a cancer center and of a life sciences research nonprofit into engaging stories, and is now a freelance writer and editor. Rachel has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco, and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. You can see her work at www.racheltompa.com.
Rob Piercy joined the Allen Institute in 2014. Rob serves as Executive Director of Communications & Engagement and leads all aspects of the Institute’s internal and external communications strategy. He also co-hosts the Allen Institute’s podcast Lab Notes. Previously, Rob spent nearly two decades as a television journalist, working as a news anchor and reporter at TV stations across the West. His reporting has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow Award for Writing, a Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Political Journalism, and numerous Emmy awards. A native of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, Rob received his B.A. in communications from the University of Washington.
This year’s awards were judged by James Gaines, Bryn Nelson, and Starre Vartan. The Best of Northwest Awards recognize and celebrate outstanding writing published by our members each year.