“I want to make stories that help women and everyone better understand their own bodies.”
Rachel E. Gross has long been fascinated with science, religion, and the way the two intersect. The science part seems almost preordained. The California native grew up around a dad who was a theoretical physicist, a stepmom who was a molecular geneticist, and a mom who was a family practice medical doctor.
And Gross learned early on about religion’s cultural sway. She recalls that her high school — Los Alamitos, in Orange County — “once made it into Science Magazine for cancelling its AP Environment class, because it had too much climate change in it.” She can remember people handing out anti-evolution pamphlets in front of her AP Biology class. “I think that was a very obvious introduction to religion influencing science, and how they can interact together,” she says.
Gross began writing for her high-school paper and later went to UC Berkeley, where she majored in English and rhetoric. At Berkeley, she covered the Research and Ideas beat for the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. There, she delved into any science story that piqued her interest, from research on fluorescent zebrafish to DNA testing for students. After graduating from Berkeley, Gross attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She then became a writer for Moment, a prominent independent Jewish magazine based in Washington, D.C.
At Moment, if there was an opportunity to do a science story, Gross took it. She wrote an article exploring whether test-tube meat could be kosher. She interviewed “comedian-slash-scientist” Adam Ruben. Slowly and surely, she developed a science and religion beat.
Eventually, Gross moved to Slate, where her editor, Laura Helmuth, encouraged her to chase what she found interesting. “If it was wacky enough, or if I saw the super interesting argument in it, she would greenlight it,” Gross says. “Working with her was an incredible gift.”
Most recently, Gross worked as the online science editor for Smithsonian magazine, where she helped other writers hone stories about new scientific discoveries and underappreciated women in science.
This year, as a Knight Science Journalism fellow, Gross plans to tackle her biggest project yet: a broad, research-driven exploration of the cultural history of the female reproductive system. (“My tagline is ‘the science of vaginas,’” she says.) The idea came to her while she was working on a story about the history of sperm: In 1694, Nicolaas Hartsoeker posited that sperm are actually tiny, fully-formed humans, or “homunculus.” His idea persisted for decades.
“They assumed the female was a passive receptacle, and that the male was the life force,” Gross says. “It just stuck with me. After that piece I kept thinking of the cultural and sometimes religious assumptions that shape a burgeoning field of science.”
Today, Gross argues, reproductive science might be one of the most politically charged fields in science. It’s not just about what we know about the female reproductive system, she says, “it’s about how we came to know it, and also what we don’t know.”
Ultimately, Gross says, “I want to make stories that help women and everyone better understand their own bodies.”