Sarah Schwartz SM '15 has won the first Obermayer Prize, awarded by MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and its Program in Science, Technology, and Society, for exemplary writing on the history of the process of innovation. Schwartz won the $1,000 prize for her piece, “Solving the Impossible Problem: John Clark Sheehan’s Quest for Synthetic Penicillin”, written as part of her work within the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. Schwartz, who graduated in October, is currently a journalist at <i>Science News</i> in Washington.
Schwartz’s writing is “a clear and engaging account of a story in which persistence — perhaps simple stubbornness — proved to be the key to a major discovery,” said professor of science writing Thomas Levenson, one of the judges for the Obermayer prize and director of the science writing program, who also served as Schwartz’s thesis advisor when she investigated gene patents.
The Obermayer Prize was established in 2015 by a generous gift from Arthur Obermayer PhD ’56. The prize offers awards in up to three categories: writing by MIT graduate students and recent alumni aimed at the public; writing for academic audiences by MIT graduate students and recent alumni; and writing in any form by MIT undergraduates.
Obermayer, whose doctorate is in chemistry, is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the former CEO of Moleculon, Inc. He is fascinated by the way innovation occurs and has amassed a significant private collection of archival material documenting the history of innovation, such as work helping understand why it took five years from the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight to the world’s ultimate recognition of their work. Along those lines, Obermayer says the common thread in his collection is to “show why some innovations take so long to be accepted while others receive an immediate opportunity. I want to show what things were like before a given innovation and how it was presented to the world.”
He proposed this prize to encourage the MIT community to think about how innovation takes place, what factors can inhibit or advance that process, and to foster more and better discussion of innovation in the public sphere.
Students submit entries in March, and the prize is awarded each year by a jury composed of a member of MIT’s science writing faculty, one from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and an alumni representative.