Best Australian science writing revealed in 2019 UNSW Bragg Prize and Book Launch night

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The winner of the 2019 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, Arwyn Stone, with UNSW Science Dean Professor Emma Johnston AO. Photographer: Maja Baska.

UNSW Bragg student science writing prize winner Arwyn Stone rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest stars of science writing at the 2019 Bragg Science Prize Book Launch on 7 November. The winners celebrated their achievements and discussed the most exciting Australian science stories of the year, which delved into the dark side of tech, sex education revelations, animal welfare and much more.

Award-winning astronomer and Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, launched the The Best Australian Science Writing 2019 at the NSW State Library. The annual anthology of nonfiction science writing, which was edited by science journalist and author Bianca Nogrady this year, is now onto its 9th edition and contains all the winning and shortlisted pieces from Australian science communicators.

The winner of the 2019 UNSW Bragg prize was Melissa Fyfe, feature writer for Good Weekend magazine, for her article ‘Getting Cliterate’. The piece tells the largely untold story of Melbourne urologist Professor Helen O’Connell, who almost single-handedly discovered that medical textbook descriptions of the clitoris were far from accurate. Fyfe’s article celebrates both the “coming out” of the clitoris and the woman behind the ground-breaking discovery, whose research has answered some fundamental questions about women’s bodies.

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L-R: Runner-up Dr Cameron Muir, Bragg prizewinner Melissa Fyfe and runner-up Jackson Ryan. Photographer: Maja Baska.

The two runners-up were Dr Cameron Muir, author and postdoctoral fellow at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, for his moving essay ‘Ghost species and shadow places’ describing the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the seabirds of Lord Howe Island, and CNET Science Editor Jackson Ryan, whose article ‘How CRISPR could save 6 billion chickens from the meat grinder’ revealed how genetic engineering could make the egg industry more humane.

The winner of the 2019 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, Arwyn Stone from Abbotsleigh School in NSW, received the prize for her essay on “not-so-smart technology”, titled ‘The science (or lack thereof) behind period and fertility trackers’, published by Careers with STEM earlier this year. Arwyn’s essay will be published in print next year in The Best Australian Science Writing 2020.  

Arwyn’s piece received many accolades from the competition judges. “Arwyn has chosen a topic about which she is obviously passionate, and presents her arguments beautifully using powerful and persuasive language,” said Bianca. 

Teacher and Computing education specialist Stephanie Schwarz described Arwyn’s essay as “an imaginative and persuasive piece of writing about an important but rarely talked about issue that potentially affects half the population. The piece is punchy, direct, informative, and makes a strong argument for the theme.”

Professor Harvey-Smith was also a big fan. “Arwyn’s article demonstrated an in-depth understanding of science and new advancing technologies,” she enthused. “It was a well deserved winning article. Well done, Arwyn!” 

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Bragg student prizewinner Arwyn Stone addressed the audience about pressing issues that are arising with next-gen tech. Photographer: Maja Baska.

Addressing the audience, Arwyn spoke about a hot topic for today’s high school students and tomorrow’s school-leavers: the jobs of the future. “No-one can see into the future,” said Arwyn. “I’m sure that the careers advisers of 1980 weren’t predicting that over 3 million people would be employed as on-demand taxi drivers by Uber. And they couldn’t have predicted that people would find successful careers in filming themselves reacting to other people’s videos!” 

“But nearly everyone agrees that we should be focusing on subjects that will be useful and enhance our understanding no matter what future we create. And this is why science continues to be so important because it allows us to further our understanding of the world around us. Awards such as this one are a great way to encourage more students to think critically about how science can influence their lives – and to highlight the amazing opportunities that studying science creates.”

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The runner-up student winners were also recognised for their stand-out essays. Runner-up Phoebe Adam from Presbyterian Ladies College Croydon, NSW, was praised by the judges for her thoughtful essay ‘Driverless cars: are we there yet?’, which explored the hype around autonomous vehicles. “Phoebe’s piece successfully punctures some of the hype surrounding the promise of driverless cars,” said journalist Deborah Smith, one of the judges. “She highlights a number of technological and ethical challenges that need to be overcome and uses strong and detailed examples, including a personal story about her aunt, to make her case that she is not yet willing to trust this technology.”

Fellow student runner-up William Flintoft from Melbourne Grammar School couldn’t attend, but got plenty of credit for his punchy essay ‘Errare humanum est’ on the implications of automation and Artificial Intelligence.  “This piece grabbed my attention from the very beginning,” said judge Stephanie Schwarz, who said it was clear that William had done his research and thought about this important issue thoroughly.

The prizewinning essay for last year’s UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, ‘i-Care’ by Preethika Mathan, will also be published in The Best Australian Science Writing 2019. Read all about Preethika’s inspiring story here.

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Bragg Student Prize runner-up Phoebe Adam with Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith and Colin Adam. Photographer: Maja Baska.

The prizes were presented by UNSW Science Dean Professor Emma Johnston AO and the three prizewinners took part in a panel discussion with The Best Australian Science Writing editor and journalist Bianca Nogrady about the inspiration behind their essays and what they took away from the experience. The writers discussed how the pieces are as much about the scientists as the science itself and how moved they were to learn their stories.

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Arwyn described how exciting it was to hear from so many brilliant science writers. “I’m loving reading The Best Australian Science Writing, but I think being able to hear from some of the authors themselves makes reading their stories even more interesting,” Arwyn said, “ especially after finding out the impact that writing their pieces had on them.”

Professor Harvey-Smith, who is the author of two books (When Galaxies Collide and the recently published children’s book Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime), shared how she fell in love with science communication because it has helped her make astronomy and astrophysics accessible for everyone. 

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Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith with her copy of The Best Australian Science Writing 2019. Photographer: Maja Baska.

She also highlighted the diversity of the entries and how important it is to read about untold (and sometimes marginalised) stories in science. There’s no doubt that this year’s winners have shed light on issues of major importance in a way that will make us think, feel and act on what we’ve learned. 

You can buy copies of the anthology soon from NewSouth Publishing and learn more about submitting an entry in 2020 here.

Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.

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