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James T. Grady James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public

February 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 6

Credit: Niles A. Jaeger
Credit: Niles A. Jaeger

Cheryl Hogue

Sponsored by ACS

Stuart F. Brown is a gearhead with a B.A. in English literature. "I want to know how everything works. That's my driving impulse," Brown says.

Brown, who calls himself "a mechanical, machine-loving person," wins this award for a series of articles about the biotechnology industry he wrote for Fortune magazine.

He describes his reporting on that sector as an "opportunity for fun, industrial-and-scientific tourism." But it required a lot of research on his part.

"I really didn't know anything about life science, but I knew it wasn't going away," Brown says. "I looked up a relative who does biochemistry, and she told me how DNA works." The relative also provided Brown with lots of material to read on the subject.

In his articles, Brown approaches biotechnology as a manufacturing technology challenge. The articles meld creativity with the written word with curiosity about how things work, along with a nose for the financial.

Maria-Alda Gilles-Gonzalez, associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, says, "Authors who attempt to interpret chemistry for the general public often sacrifice rigor in the name of accessibility." But, she says, Brown doesn't water down scientific concepts or forego accuracy.

"Brown explains very simply some quite sophisticated scientific concepts, such as the overexpression of foreign genes in different types of mammalian cells, alternative types of fermentation, processes for protein purification, and some of the reasons for protein inhomogeneity and instability," Gilles-Gonzalez says.

Peter Petre, Fortune senior editor-at-large, says, "Writers who cover manufacturing for general audiences are only now developing ways to tell the story."

Petre continues, "Few writers are as good as Brown at what might be called the poetry of objects—the ability to convey vividly the ticklishness of a chemical process, the contained violence of laser welding, the sweep of a stealth aircraft's wing—that is at the heart of great technology writing."

Before working for Fortune, Brown, 54, reported for a dozen years at Popular Science, covering aviation, space, military hardware, manufacturing technology, and transportation. The single criterion for articles in Popular Science during his tenure there, Brown says, was that they had to focus on an interesting subject. "Marvel was enough," he says. "I got to write a lot of fun stuff."

He parlayed his professional experience and love of mechanics into a gig writing about technology for Fortune, starting in 1996 as a freelancer and then joining the staff in 1998. In 2001, he won the American Association of Engineering Societies' Engineering Journalism Award for the article, "How To Build a Really, Really, Really Big Plane." That year, he also received an award from the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers-USA for distinguished literary contributions furthering public understanding of that field of engineering.

He left the Fortune staff in August 2006 and currently freelances for the New York Times, Scientific American, and Fortune.

Brown will be honored at a reception on Monday, March 26, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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