Yaba-daba – my “Social Life of Genomes” story won a AAAS award.


A good day (so far). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today announced that “The Social Life of Genes” (Pacific Standard, Sept/Oct 2013), my article on how the genome responds to social life, won the 2014 AAAS/Kavli Science Journalism Award for best magazine work in 2013 — a distinction I’m tickled to be honored with. This comes atop the story’s inclusion in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, edited by Deborah Blum.

I’m deeply grateful to Pacific Standard’s editor Maria Streshinsky for so enthusiastically embracing this story, and the rest of the staff there, particularly deputy editor John Gravois and associate editor/fact-checker Michael Fitzgerald, for supporting it so well.

As to the award: I join some humbling company. Winners in the magazine category the last few years include Hilary Rosner, Steve Silberman, Adam Rogers, and Gary Wolf, all superb writers who won with amazing stories. Winners in other categories include Hilary Rosner (again) and other peers I greatly admire and respect, such as Carl Zimmer and George Johnson. A real pleasure to be chosen. I look forward to escaping the Vermont winter this February to accept the award at the AAAS meeting in San Jose.

The relevant section from the AAAS press release is below. Full announcement, with winners in other categories, is here, where you’ll find great stories on submarines, fish, fear, cancer, the ubiquitous microbiome, and the slow death of the world’s largest organism. My hearty congratulations to all, and I look forward to seeing you at the AAAS,

David Dobbs explained how a growing body of research with diverse species, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans, suggests that social life can affect gene expression at a scale and breadth not previously suspected. Sawyer called the piece a “fascinating, entertaining trip through studies of gene expression and how scientists came to learn what they know about how genes interact with our social environment.” Dobbs also explored some of the more speculative questions raised by the research, including just how quickly a person’s gene expression may change in response to social isolation and other environmental factors. The story is rich in detail, including an opening description of how researchers kidnap “foster bees” from switched colonies, vacuuming them up, shooting them into chilled chambers and freezing their gene activity. Peggy Girshman, executive editor of Kaiser Health News, said Dobbs used “clear and creative prose” to lay out “complex issues in ways a layperson could really grasp, not always easy to do.” Dobbs said he welcomed the encouragement by the judges as he works on a book which deals with similar themes. “Writing rigorously and engagingly about behavioral science is terrifically challenging,” Dobbs said, “and this story in particular took an enormous amount of work.”

Cited: “The Social Life of Genes,” Pacific Standard, Sept/Oct 2013.