Bender ‘16 wins opportunity to travel and report alongside New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof


Katya Tolunsky, Staff Writer

Maddie Bender ’16, a senior at Yale University, recently won the New York Times 2020 win-a-trip contest to travel with NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof and report alongside him. Kristof is a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a regular CNN contributor and an op-ed columnist who focuses on human rights abuses and social injustices.
Bender is inspired by Kristof’s mission of telling overlooked stories to make people care, she said. “I think that people often like to look away at injustice that doesn’t directly impact themselves, and Kristof’s work forces us all to fix our gaze on injustice and do something about it,” Bender said.
Kristof’s contest is open to all undergraduates and graduate students. To enter, you have to submit a short essay and fill out a brief application about why you should be taken on this trip and a topic you are passionate about, Bender said. In her application, Bender wrote about neglected tropical diseases, a topic she finds fascinating, she said.
It has not yet been decided where she and Kristof will travel to, Bender said. “We might go to Zimbabwe to look at neglected tropical diseases,” she said, “Or we might go to Native American reservations and I will report on issues such as health care, as well as people’s emotional and physical health.”
Bender is an experienced science writer who is majoring in ecology & evolutionary biology and classics. By middle school, Bender knew that she was passionate about science, she said. Bender was on the Science Olympiad team in both the Middle Division (MD) and the Upper Division (UD) and became the team’s co-president her senior year.
She began her journalistic pursuits by writing for The Record before eventually becoming the Features Editor. “I really explored journalism in high school, so much so that when I was applying to college I knew that I wanted a place with a good school paper,” Bender said. “And moreover a place that hopefully had a science section because that was something that I knew I wanted to try.”
When Bender got to college, she joined Yale’s school newspaper, the Yale Daily News. Bender fell in love with writing for the science and technology section and eventually became its editor her sophomore year, she said. “I like to write about science broadly, but especially biology, biotech, and things in technology that I find interesting,” she said. “I like to take scientific studies and unpack them and make them both accessible and understandable to people who haven’t been working in that field.”
Bender interned at CNN Health during the summer after her sophomore year of college and worked for “Wow in the World,” a NPR science podcast for kids last summer. As a senior, Bender has been writing weekly for the science and tech section at Vice, an online publication. Bender said that while writing for Vice is a lot of fun, it can be hard to balance with her school work.
Bender’s favorite part of engaging with science is how it brings people together and promotes the spread of ideas and discussion, she said. “Science is not just one person in a lab doing research.”
A few weeks ago, Bender started her own weekly online newsletter called “Bioknowledgey” where she publishes science research, specifically preprints. A preprint is a version of a scientific paper that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal. Often they are studies of unclear scientific value; nonetheless, they are fun and fascinating discoveries, Bender said. “An example of a preprint study I read was one of how frogs sound louder when they are on top of the water versus when they are immersed in the water. That’s not anything anyone needed to know, but it made me so happy that someone took it upon themself to research that,” she said.
Bender was inspired to start the newsletter not only to share the joy that these scientific studies bring her, she said, but also to allow people to feel removed from the pandemic . “I wanted to provide a small escape where people don’t have to read about COVID-19 all day,” Bender said.
Despite having known of Kristof’s annual win-a-trip contest for a few years, Bender felt that it was out of her reach and didn’t bother to apply, she said. “It’s so easy to psych yourself out by looking at past winners,” Bender said. She was prompted to apply over winter break after being admitted into the Yale School of Public Health, a graduate program where she will pursue a Masters of Public Health in epidemiology of microbial diseases. “I thought I could combine my public health application with my essay for this contest, and I did just that,” she said.
One day in March, Bender received an email from Kristof’s assistant notifying her that she was one of the finalists. After a few phone calls and sending in some references, she eventually got a phone call from Kristof himself saying “Congratulations! You won!” Bender was ecstatic when she found out, she said.
“I get to learn from Kristof and shadow him a bit, but I also get to conduct my own interviews and be a full-fledged reporter,” Bender said. Through her reporting, Bender hopes to explore issues of public health, she said. “I am the kind of person to always put in a health angle, but I would say that reporting is more about people than topics.”
Bender sees a lot of parallels between Kristof’s journalism and the kind she aspires to write, she said. “On a call with him, I asked what he sees as the distinction between traditional reporting and news writing and opinion writing. He responded and said essentially that his style of opinion writing is like reporting that has something to say,” Bender said. “I think there are issues that as a science journalist I’d like to talk about, like antibiotic resistance or disparities in access to medical care, that Kristof has written about and require doing the kind of reporting he does in order to make people care.”
Kristof has visited places in Africa and overlooked communities in the US with past winners of the contest, Bender said. “It’s all about looking at under-reported communities, topics, and areas.” Bender is excited about all potential locations for the trip, she said.
Bender believes that although she will learn a lot from observing Kristof, she will also be able to conduct her own independent research and make her own mistakes in a controlled fashion, she said. “The whole thing is a dream experience for a journalist.”