Merritt Science Communications Award
The annual Richard Merritt Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Science Communications recognizes a Duke graduate or undergraduate student who has produced an outstanding article, video or other media focused on explaining a scientific topic or research finding during the previous calendar year.
A cash award of $750 will be awarded to the winner each spring.
2020: Meredith Schmehl
Which Weighs More, a Pound of Stone or a Pound of Styrofoam?
The 2020 Merritt Award winner is Meredith Schmehl, a PhD student in the Department of Neurobiology, for her Scientific American article that takes a common riddle and turns it on its head, leading readers to a surprising conclusion.
While one might expect the answer to be that both weigh the same, Schmehl takes readers through research that reveals that a pound of Styrofoam insulation actually feels heavier to a person than a pound of stone, when compared side-by-side, and the theories behind why this phenomenon exists.
The judges found the topic intriguing and enjoyed the element of surprise in the counterintuitive answer. Both the topic and the writing appealed to a wide audience, explaining scientific topics in an approachable manner while simultaneously conveying difficult concepts. The judges also appreciated that the article wrapped up by tying the research to a real-world application—how these concepts might be applied to recommendation-making algorithms for consumers.
Honorable Mention: Jessica Wang
The committee also recognized Jessica Wang, a junior majoring in environmental sciences, with an Honorable Mention for her YouTube video “Sieyken: A Community at the Brink of Change.”
The judges thought that the video was beautifully framed and shot. Ambitious and tightly edited, the video showcased the impact of climate change on a community, providing a powerful message and documenting the effects on the ecosystem and people for the historical record.
2019: Madeline Go
Duke Conservation Tech: Open Tag Project
The 2019 winning entry is a rich video that beautifully weaves together graphic animation, still photography, drone and underwater footage and original interviews to share how a team of Duke students designed (and re-designed) a low-cost, open-source tracking tag to facilitate diving animal research in developing areas.
The judges were impressed with the variety of skills Ms. Go, an undergraduate majoring in biology, brought to the project. The resulting piece not only clearly explains the design process and engineering challenges, but tells a well-paced and visually compelling story—and does a great job conveying the Duke Conservation Tech team’s passion for their work.
2018: Aaron Reuben
States May Be Intentionally Poisoning Each Other With Toxic Air
Judges felt that the well-structured and beautifully written “States May Be Intentionally Poisoning Each Other With Toxic Air” stood out amongst a strong group of contenders to earn the top prize of the 2018 Merritt Award. Written by Aaron Reuben, a graduate student in clinical psychology, the long-form piece was originally published on the Vice website Tonic that covers wellness, science and big-picture health issues. The piece explored the implications of a study finding that most air polluting facilities across the United States have been systematically sited at state downwind borders, where the particles, soot, and heavy metals they pump out will be carried to neighboring states. The judges felt the article flawlessly weaved a wide range of scientific research and sources together with vibrant characters that brought what otherwise could be a dry topic into the human realm.
The committee also recognized Alex Rudee as a runner-up for his strong submission “What Happens When the Saguaros Disappear?” It was published as a blog post by the National Parks Conservation Association. The piece explores how climate change is slowly diminishing one of the Southwest’s iconic plants while bringing in insightful viewpoints from local Native American cultures.
2017: Brenda Yang
Are Our Scientific Heroes Too Heroic?
Judges selected the thought-provoking "Are Our Scientific Heroes Too Heroic?" from among several strong entries to be the winner of the 2017 Merritt Award. Originally published in the guest blog on ScientificAmerican.com, the article was written by Brenda Yang, a PhD student in psychology and neuroscience. Her article is a meditation on how the manner in which stories of scientific success are told may change the performance of students studying science. Judges praised Yang's inspiring and self-reflective work, which included references to her experiences as a teacher and a student.
The committee also recognized Matthew Scult's "Training the Brain's Motivation Center." The article also appeared on ScientificAmerican.com. It presents an engaging first-person look at neurofeedback research in the Adcock Lab at Duke.
2016: Rosa Li
Young Daredevils: Children Are Just as Willing as Teenagers to Take Risks
From among several strong entries, the judges selected “Young Daredevils” as the winner of the 2016 Merritt Award.
Originally published on Slate.com, the article was written by Rosa Li, a PhD student in psychology and neuroscience, and featured her own research. The judges praised the entry as a well-written, solidly reported, compelling and highly accessible piece that provides an excellent model for other researchers who wish to share their work with the general public.
The committee also recognized two excellent submissions as runners-up:
- The Worm Turns, by biology PhD student Sheena Faherty. The article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Building Batteries from the Microstructure Up, by civil engineering PhD student Andrew Stershic. The article was originally published in DEIXIS, the annual magazine of the U.S. Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship program.
2015: Lambrou and Latner
EbolaChat, a video by undergraduate students Anastasia Lambrou and Joshua Latner, was selected as the winner of the inaugural Merritt Science Journalism Award.
The judges cited the entry as a creatively produced, accessible and compelling video that met its goal of educating high-schoolers and other members of the general public about Ebola thanks to the team’s sound understanding of how to communicate clearly about a complex scientific topic.
The committee also recognized two excellent submissions as runners-up:
- Can Humans Hibernate? Ask the Dwarf Lemur, a Scientific American blog post by biology graduate student Sheena Faherty
- Engineering Low-cost Methods to Assess Water Safety in South Africa, a series of posts on the Duke Global Health Institute Diaries from the Field Blog by biomedical engineering major Brittany Davis
How to Enter
Any type of media (text, video, infographic, animation, etc.) focused on explaining scientific research to a general audience:
- Personal blog entries, video uploads, or other publicly accessible creations
- Written stories must be at least 500 words long; stories in combined or other formats are also eligible
- Must be produced by a current undergraduate or graduate Duke student
- Must have been published or broadcast during the previous calendar year (Jan. 1 to Dec. 31)
NOT Eligible: Research reports or journal articles intended for a primarily scientific audience.
The award committee, comprising Duke research communications leaders, will evaluate each entry based on:
- Clarity in explaining the science/research, and
- Ability to engage a lay audience in the subject matter
The 2020 submission deadline is Sunday, March 1.
Use our online form to submit your entry.
For questions about the award, please contact Minnie Glymph, communications director for the Pratt School of Engineering.
Richard Merritt was a longtime writer and media relations specialist for Duke University and Duke Health, with 25 years of service at the time of his death in 2013. He truly loved telling the story of Duke scientific research and did much to advance the university through his contributions over the years. The Richard Merritt Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Science Communications was established by his family, friends, and colleagues to honor his memory. For more information or to contribute, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.