In remembrance of Sharon Dunwoody 1947-2022

14 February 2022

Sharon Dunwoody, Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a leader in science communication research, died February 4, 2022, after undergoing treatment for cancer in recent months.

Sharon was the first woman Director of the School, serving from 1998-2003, and later served as UW-Madison’s Associate Dean for Graduate Education. She joined the faculty in 1981 and went on to become nationally and internationally renowned for her research and her mentorship of other scholars. She studied the construction of media messages and how people use those messages to guide their thinking and behavior. Sharon’s scholarship helped generations of journalists, students and scientists become better translators of complex ideas to audiences all over the world.

Sharon’s reach in the field was nothing short of incredible. She was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR) and the Society for Risk Analysis. She served twice as head of the AAAS section on General Interest in Science and Technology. She is former president of both MAPOR and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). She was named a Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA) in 2017.

“Sharon was so kind, so soft-spoken, so generous in her manner that it was sometimes easy for people to forget that she was an internationally known star in the field of science communication, a researcher whose studies of communicating uncertainty and scientific ethics were among the best in the world,” said Deborah Blum, a longtime SJMC colleague who now serves as director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. “She was a wonderful mentor and a wonderful friend, and she will be deeply missed.”

Sharon was the first woman to win the Paul J. Deutschmann Award from AEJMC. She was a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Brazil, a visiting journalism fellow at Deakin University in Australia and the Donnier Guest Professor at Stockholm University. She was a Distinguished Alumni Fellow at her beloved BA and PhD granting alma mater, Indiana University.

“Being female never hindered Sharon, and her guts made her women colleagues, certainly me, braver too,” said Michigan State University Professor and longtime SJMC colleague Esther Thorson. “With a person as outstanding as Sharon, it’s tough to name her best attributes. I have to say, however, that her integrity, which was there in absolutely every aspect of her work and her life, and her loving kindness and optimism top my personal list. I benefited from these attributes continuously over the 41 years we were friends, colleagues, and fellow birders.”

In 1986, Sharon helped found UW-Madison’s Science Journalist in Residence program, bringing notable reporters to campus to interact with the university’s leading researchers and engaging with the public on critical scientific questions of the day. Though she retired in 2013, Sharon continued to lead that program and stay active in the School and interested in the lives of her colleagues, students and alumni.

Sharon’s impact was so profound that in 2019, the School created the Sharon Dunwoody Early Career Award to honor outstanding PhD graduates of the school for their accomplishments in research and teaching.

“Sharon was singular in her approach to mentorship,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the School’s James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics. “She never told you what you should do. She helped you see what was possible and how you might chart your course to achieve what you wanted. Sharon made her mark through big ideas and aspirational visions, but also through quiet moments of calm reassurance.”

Kind, patient, wise, thoughtful and generous, Sharon Dunwoody was an embodiment and reflection of the best of us. She leaves an enormous footprint in the field and in our school and an even larger hole in our hearts.

(These notes are adapted from a longer piece published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison)