Former Washington Post reporter wins top chemistry reporting award

October 07, 2002

For more than 30 years, in newspapers, magazines and books, Boyce Rensberger has clearly illuminated the beauty, wonder and vital significance of chemistry -- from ozone-destroying reactions in the upper atmosphere to the biochemistry of cell biology, the molecular mechanics of muscle tissue, and the chemical properties of soap.

Rensberger is the 2003 recipient of the American Chemical Society's James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. Established in 1955, this annual award is the highest honor the Society gives for public communication about chemistry. Named after two former managers of the ACS News Service, the award aims to recognize, encourage and stimulate outstanding reporting that promotes the public's understanding of chemistry, chemical engineering and related fields.

Rensberger has been described as having the uncommon ability to avoid "dumbing down" complex information while simultaneously shunning technical jargon that only scientists would recognize. Throughout his career, he has upheld his strong sense of duty to the general public to describe science in a simple yet meaningful way.

"Increasingly, I'm coming to see that what the public lacks is not an interest in science -- surveys show they are very interested -- or even more science facts," Rensberger says. "What they need is a better understanding of how science is done, how you need to have solid evidence before you consider something to be true, or even possibly true."

Rensberger began his science-writing career in 1966 as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. From there he went to The New York Times, where he served as a reporter from 1971 to 1979. In 1973 he took leave to spend a year in East Africa studying human evolution and wildlife conservation as an Alicia Patterson Fellow.

After leaving The Times, Rensberger worked as a freelancer and also became head writer of a PBS science series for children, "3-2-1-Contact!" In 1984 Rensberger joined the staff of The Washington Post, where he served as science writer and science editor. There he created the paper's acclaimed monthly supplement, "Horizon: The Learning Section." Rensberger has also written four science books for a general audience, most recently Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell.

Currently, Rensberger is director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, co-director of the Science Journalism Program at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and a teacher in MIT's new graduate program in science writing. In each of these roles he has tutored scores of young writers, setting demanding standards for the next generation of science journalists.

Born in 1942, Rensberger received a B.S. in zoology and journalism from the University of Miami and an M.S. in mental health communications from Syracuse University. He lives with his wife in North Reading, Mass., in what he describes as a "very old house with a vegetable garden too big to keep properly weeded."

Rensberger will be honored at a luncheon at the National Press Club Nov. 15; he will receive the $3,000 Grady-Stack award, a gold medal and bronze replica at the Society's spring national meeting next March in New Orleans.

Past Grady-Stack winners include last year's winner, former Washington Post reporter Curt Suplee, National Public Radio correspondent Joseph Palca, Don Herbert ("Mr. Wizard"), Malcolm Browne of The New York Times, and noted science author Isaac Asimov.

American Chemical Society

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