Q&A with Communications Award Winner Amy Maxmen

Posted 12 July 2022

Science writer Amy Maxmen has won the ASTMH Communications Award for the last two years, 2020 and 2021. 

The award recognizes news content that enhances the public's understanding and appreciation of tropical medicine research, clinical practice and/or policy. Entries are judged on scientific accuracy, initiative, originality, clarity of interpretation and value in fostering a better understanding of the field of tropical medicine by non-science audiences.

In 2020, Ms. Maxmen won for her article in Nature, Exclusive: Behind the front lines of the Ebola wars, which focused on the WHO’s efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year, she won again for another Nature feature, Inequality's Deadly Toll: A century of research has demonstrated how poverty and discrimination drive disease. Can COVID push science to finally address the issue? That article reported on how poverty and discrimination drive disease using the spread of COVID-19 among agricultural workers in California as an example.

Our judges were impressed by Ms. Maxmen’s ability to explain complicated issues by focusing on a single community and reporting from the field. With this year’s Communications Award opening July 14, we asked her what makes a great science story and why the ASTMH Communications Award is important to journalists.

What makes a good science news story a great science news story?
A good science story reveals why or how an important phenomenon happens in a way that makes the concepts simple to understand. A great science story places the phenomenon or finding into context. In the case of infectious diseases, such a story might discuss the political or social systems that fuel the spread of a pathogen. And the best science stories do both of these things while drawing the reader in with elements of a narrative, such as characters confronting a challenge. 

Why should a science/health reporter care about the ASTMH Communications Award?
Because our aim is to have an impact by changing research, policies or practices. An award from ASTMH means that a reporter has identified a truly important problem in the field of infectious diseases—particularly as it pertains to social injustice—and suggested solutions that research agencies or policy makers could act on.
What has receiving the ASTMH Communications Award meant to you as a journalist?
The ASTMH awards have been truly gratifying to me because I work at the science journal, Nature, and therefore adhere to a somewhat narrow view of what science is and is not. However, the feature stories selected by ASTMH delve into how social, political, economic and historical factors contribute to the spread of diseases ranging from COVID to tuberculosis to Ebola. Therefore, the ASTMH awards endorse the idea that these topics are, indeed, relevant to scientists. In addition, long feature stories require a huge amount of time, not only from me but from my editors and the art team—and these pieces may get the same amount of clicks online as a quick, short story with a punchy headline. Awards like this help me to make the case for in-depth pieces that have impact potential.