Softer sciences, harder stories

November 25, 2015

This week, I have a story that published in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) that’s science-related but not really scientific. In fact, it’s a lot more emotional than my usual science stories: finding chemists and other scientists among the wave of incoming “migrants” to Europe.

Help for Refugee Researchers
Volume 93 Issue 47 | pp. 23-24 | Latest News
Web Date: November 23, 2015
European universities and governments are trying to find ways to connect migrants from Syria and beyond to the scientific community

The number of scientists among the refugees is most likely small, making it even harder to find people among the masses — Germany has accepted tens of thousands. Most are coming from Syria, but others are arriving from Serbia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I live in Sweden, which was sixth on the list of places people were heading — until last month. A sudden surge in numbers as people heard that Sweden would be a good place to be. And today, the Swedish government tightened its rules, so that the welcome is no longer as warm.

Conditions European-wide were already set to change with the events in Paris on November 13. We shall see. In the meantime I hope to follow up with a few more installments in the next month or so. If you have met any scientists who have become refugees or sought temporary visas, in Europe, the US or elsewhere, please let me know if they might be willing to speak to me.



Observing a UN meeting in Geneva.

An earlier and very short policy piece of mine published back in October marked my entrée to science-related but not exactly science reporting. I had the chance to go to the UN meeting on the management of chemicals:

Volume 93 Issue 40 | p. 28 | Concentrates | Issue Date: October 12, 2015

Attending the meeting was an immersion-like learning experience. The first day was overwhelming, filled with incomprehensible UN jargon. But several days in, after picking up many of the alphabet-soup acronyms and getting a handle on some of the rules governing how the discussion unfolded, I could finally see the attraction of watching international-level negotiations. Much like a sporting event, it became fascinating to watch all the parties jockeying to win, so to speak, in pushing their goals forward. We shall see if I have a chance to do this kind of reporting again.  I will look forward to it with interest and trepidation.

Bees and Frogs

November 23, 2015

About five years ago, I scrambled around the granite outcrops of Mallorca with Jaime Bosch, a biologist trying to figure out how to save the native toads that live on the Spanish island. Already threatened, the midwife toads were now looking down the barrel of a fungal infection known to kill amphibians around the world.

Last week, an editor at Nature, where I had published that story in 2010 [“Emergency medicine for frogs,”], called me up and asked me to write about the results of the experiment Bosch led with a team of researchers — they finally seem to have saved the frogs!  It’s not often that environmental news is good, it seems. But this result was.


A male midwife toad (top) carries fertilized eggs on his hindquarters. Copyright Naomi Lubick (2010)

Wild toads saved from killer fungal disease
News | 18 November 2015
Nature News

I’ll let you get the details from the story itself, but I wanted to emphasize that one of the co-authors would be keen to see landscape-wide applications of nonhazardous antifungals that could help frogs, similar to spraying pesticides on crops to protect them.

While that sounds hopeful and potentially interesting, I confess I feel skeptical. A few weeks before, I had the chance to write about the widespread application of agricultural chemicals can possibly do, with unintended consequences: Neonicotinoids were a promising new class of nonhazardous pesticides, now applied to all sorts of crops’ seeds prophylactically to protect them from possible pests.

Pesticides: Study finds most neonicotinoids in beehives come from flowers on crop margins

Nevertheless, Bosch and other researchers emphasized that it’s time to think outside the box, to “get creative” on solutions to chytrid — the situation is so dire as to possibly require some extreme methods. Just as people think that the situation for bees is dire enough to block what they think of as extreme agricultural practices. Interesting conundrums.

Slug hunt

October 19, 2015

Solar-powered sea slugs.

A relatively common and yet totally bizarre type of marine slug (genus: Elysia) eats the chloroplasts from certain seaweeds and incorporates them into their skin, where they can photosynthesize their own food. Fantastic!

And while their existence was news to me, they weren’t the news in a story I recently wrote for Hakai Magazine, a new oceans-focused online publication. These slugs are often described in biology textbooks, according to one of my sources. The news instead was how they find their food: chemical signals that the seaweeds make as defense actually become an advertisement to the slugs.

It was such a short story, I couldn’t include everything I wanted to, including quotes from the helpful biologists with whom I spoke. Turns out I never really read a biology textbook that would have had Elysia in its pages — I don’t think of myself as a biology or ecology science writer — which meant that I interviewed quite a few people about this, as I really wanted to get this story right and it seemed complex.

“Slugs on the Hunt”
September 30, 2015

An aside: a slug is also the short one- or two-word “handle” for a news story. I kept getting confused on this because at first, I thought they were snails, and then the slug became something like “slug: slug”…


Detecting dark matter from the moon (and other tales)

August 21, 2015

Earlier this summer, I met up with physicist and science writer Sabine Hossenfelder (read her blog here: at an astrophysics conference here in Stockholm. We both heard Glenn Starkman give a talk about some very strange ways to search for dark matter — as someone obsessed with earthquakes, I got excited about the technique that required seismometers on the Earth’s moon to measure any shaking that could have been triggered by a kind of “macro-sized” dark matter, for which most folks in the business are not searching.

Our discussion over fika afterward eventually led to Sabine’s and my jointly written feature in New Scientist, published earlier this week:

19 August 2015
Strangely familiar: Is dark matter normal stuff in disguise?
Dreaming up new particles to explain the universe’s missing mass has got us nowhere. Great clumps of quarks stuck together in weird ways could do the trick

WIMPzillas, quarks, the Higgs boson — these are not my usual subjects. Sabine did most of the heavy lifting for this piece, and it was really great to work with her and our editor at New Scientist, Daniel Cossins.

Series on Poynter – results from my first Scripps project

July 13, 2015

I’m pleased to post the first results from one of my projects as a Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism, a 9-month professional sabbatical that allowed me to work at the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the academic year 2014-2015. I went there seeking to find out more about the business of journalism, and ended up looking into business plans for nonprofit and for-profit entities, in science and more mainstream reporting.

I spent some time speaking to fellow reporters about their work and some experiments in reporting in the current journalism market landscape. Four case studies were the result, and I condensed these for Poynter — I think of these “chapters” as short explorations of four journalists’ experiences, what my editor there called “adventures,” with nonprofit and, in one case, for-profit journalism.

Adventures, indeed: it takes bravery and guts to go down these paths, and it might take some time to reap the rewards — I hope my sources do so, and soon, so I might get more advice from them in the near future as I look for models in journalism I might want to pursue.

Installment #1 of 4:
“How Matter Succeeded in Spite of Itself”

With thanks to Jim Giles.

Bolder in Boulder

August 28, 2014

I’m setting off this month on an adventure at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I will be one of five Scripps Fellows in the Environment, at the Center for Environmental Journalism.

Our cohort is great (check out our projects and brief bios here:  I’m already totally overwhelmed by the opportunity to take academic courses while pursuing some ideas about the future of journalism as a business and my own reporting project.  I’ll try to post some notes here now and then about the process.

Scents of home for coral and fish

August 24, 2014

A photo of coral larvae ready to bud in pink, snapped by coral reef biologist Danielle Dixson of Georgia Tech, just before harvesting for experiments…

Back in March 2013, I had the chance to visit Heron Island, home to a research center (and eco-resort) at the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef.

Among the assorted visitors was Mark Hay, a biologist at Georgia Tech, who was visiting another coral reef researcher working on the island at the time. (I also ran into Ken Caldeira, a geoscientist at Stanford University, on the pier after his monthlong season on a nearby island, but I digress.)

Hay and I talked for the entire trip back to the mainland at the end of our stays on Heron Island, and he told me he would have some interesting and potentially newsworthy results in press soon. He hinted that it would have something to do with smells and how coral found the best place to settle.

The result of that conversation was published last week as a Science NOW:



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