A roundup of news about KSJ alumni. Stay in touch with your classmates by sending us notes (and pictures!) — about career and family updates, books and articles published, shout-outs to fellow alumni. And join our private Facebook page.
August 14, 2018
“The Great God of Depression,” the gripping story of the improbable collaboration between a brain scientist and an acclaimed author to come to terms with their shared mental illness, is a five-part podcast that can be found at Radiotopia’s Showcase page (or wherever you get your podcasts).
The series is itself a collaboration between two KSJ alumnae: Pagan Kennedy (2010-11), the main writer and narrator; and Karen Brown (2012-13), producer and editor. Here’s Karen’s account of how the story came together:
“Pagan and I met at a Knight-MIT food boot camp during her fellowship year, and then stayed in touch through my fellowship year and beyond. Pagan is a print journalist, nonfiction book author, and occasional novelist, while I’m mostly a radio reporter and audio documentarian. But I’ve done a lot of print freelancing and she is a voracious audio consumer. So it seemed natural that we’d eventually stumble on a joint project that would make use of our complementary skills and interests: a long-form narrative podcast.
“Pagan came up with the story idea itself, based on the experience of a neurologist in her book group named Alice Flaherty. Alice was a newly minted doctor at Mass General in 2004 when William Styron became her patient; he was suffering from a depression relapse, 15 years after the episode he wrote about in ‘Darkness Visible’ [a memoir that became the classic book about depression]. At the time, Alice was herself recovering from a psychotic break, sparked by the devastating loss of a twin pregnancy. Styron and Alice developed an intense friendship and doctor-patient relationship that lasted until Styron’s death from pneumonia in 2006. Before he died, Styron gave Alice permission to talk and write about his case publicly. As she never got around to publishing the story herself, she decided to trust Pagan with it — and fully participated in the podcast.
“When Pagan asked if I wanted to collaborate on the project as the audio expert, I was thrilled. We put together a podcast proposal to shop around different audio networks, and got a hit with Radiotopia at PRX; we signed a contract with the Radiotopia Showcase series. The executive producer put us in touch with a sound designer and studio assistants.
“From that point, we gathered archival sound of Styron and doing interviews with his surviving family, professional connections, and others to weigh in on the intersection of creativity and depression and Styron’s legacy around the stigma of mental illness.”
Karen is a longtime public radio reporter, print journalist, essayist, and audio documentarian, with a specialty in mental health issues. In addition to two decades at New England Public Radio, she has contributed to NPR, The New York Times, American RadioWorks, and other national outlets. Besides “The Great God of Depression,” her recent work has focused on the biology of stress and resilience, trauma-informed communities, and dying well.
Pagan is a contributing writer at The New York Times and the author of 11 books. She has been a columnist for the The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and The Village Voice. She has won numerous awards including an NEA fellowship, a Smithsonian fellowship, and two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships.
Rebecca Perry (2001-02) has been awarded a 2018-19 Fellowship in Aerospace History from the Society for the History of Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Energized after the Knight fellowship,” she writes, “I entered MIT’s program in History | Anthropology | Science, Technology, and Society, and in 2014 received a Ph.D. in the history of technology, with a focus on the history of computing and computer graphics.” A researcher at the University of Virginia, she’s writing a book on computer graphics researchers at NASA/JPL, and co-editing The Handbook of the History of Technology for Oxford University Press.
Here’s what alumni are writing: a compendium from Federico Kukso (2015-16).
Aleszu Bajak (2013-14): “The Dangerous Belief That Extreme Technology Will Fix Climate Change,” HuffPost.
Dan Falk (2011-12): “Why Some Scientists Say Physics Has Gone Off the Rails,” NBC News; “Enrico Fermi and the Chain Reaction That Changed Everything,” Undark.
Teresa Firmino (2008-09): “Portuguese Physicist Advances Explanation For Two of the Great Mysteries of the Universe,” Publico (in Portuguese).
Gideon Gil (2014-15): “Pioneering Surgery Makes a Prosthetic Foot Feel Like the Real Thing,” STAT.
Courtney Humphries (2015-16): “The ‘Global Chemical Experiment,'” Harvard Magazine.
Sascha Karberg (2008-09): “Lucrative Prostheses: Kneeling in Front of the Shop,” Der Tagesspiegel (in German).
Eli Kintisch (2011-12): “Why Atlantic Fish Are Invading the Arctic,” Vox.
Federico Kukso (2015-16): “200 years of ‘Frankenstein’: A Myth That Reflects Very Current Fears,” La Nación (in Spanish).
George Musser (2014-15): “What Is Spacetime?” Nature.
Valeria Román (2004-05): “The Argentine Scientist Who Studied the Brain of Albert Einstein: ‘Geniuses Do Not Exist, We All Have Some Talent,’” Infobae (in Spanish).
Angela Saini (2012-13): “Racism Is Creeping Back Into Mainstream Science — We Have to Stop It,” The Guardian.
Fabio Turone (2016-17): “Italian Research ‘Condemned to Steer by Sight,’” Research Europe.
Lauren Whaley (2016-17): “Q&A: Dr. Emily Dossett on the Disturbing Lack of Mental Health Care for Moms in the Safety Net,” Center for Health Journalism.
Mark Wolverton (2016-17): “Before Launching Probes to Venus, NASA Had to Figure Out Exactly Where It Was,” Air & Space Magazine; “The General Is a Robot: Artificial Intelligence Goes to War,” Undark.
June 22, 2018
In 1587, a band of settlers — 115 men, women, and children — founded the first English colony in the New World, on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. Three years later, their governor returned from a resupply mission to England only to find that they’d vanished with barely a trace. What happened to them? The answer is a mystery to this day.
Andrew Lawler (1998-99) reports that he’s “spent the last couple of years at archaeology digs, in archives, and mucking around in the occasional Carolina swamp” to find out. The results are in the June issue of National Geographic and in his new book, “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke,” just published by Doubleday.
“What surprised me the most,” Andrew writes, was “how the story of the settlers became an American myth wrapped up in our conflicting ideas about race, immigration, and gender. Who knew a 400-year-old mystery could be so strangely relevant?”
As part of his book tour, Andrew will be at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28. Other stops are listed on his Facebook page. “I would enjoy meeting other Knight alumni!” he writes “And if anyone visits Asheville, N.C., be sure to let me know. I’m happily freelancing here and thinking about the next book.”
Also newly published this month: “Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine,” by Kevin Begos (2003-04), from Algonquin Books. The book is the result of a 10-year journey — from the Caucasus Mountains, where wine grapes were first domesticated 8,000 years ago, to Israel, Greece, Italy, and France, and finally to America, where vintners are learning to make distinctive wines from a new generation of local grapes. Kevin unearths a “world of forgotten grapes,” reads the note for his book on Amazon, and brings alive the research of the archaeologists, geneticists, chemists — even a paleobotanist — “who are deciphering wine down to molecules of flavor.”
Undark, the KSJ program’s science magazine, published a “What I Left Out” essay based on “Tasting the Past,” the tale of an octogenarian Israeli historian whose passion for ancient technology led to some startling discoveries about the history of winemaking.
And one more book, this one for children: “Dinosaurios del Fin del Mundo” (“Dinosaurs of the End of the World”), by Federico Kukso (2015-16), from Penguin Random House — a beautifully illustrated exploration of the most recent dinosaur discoveries in Patagonia. You can find it on Amazon, Google Play, and iBooks.
May 31, 2018
At 6:25 a.m. on May 22, an exultant Luke Timmerman (2005-06) reached the summit of Mount Everest. After writing about advances in cancer research for 15 years, and climbing mountains almost that long, he decided to combine the two passions in a fund-raising effort for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his hometown of Seattle, “and to support science itself at a moment of tremendous possibility.”
Luke chronicled the climb on Twitter and on his website, the Timmerman Report. On May 25 he reported, “Safe and sound now at Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu, after two-day descent from the world’s highest mountain. Time for a shower, a shave, and a big celebration with teammates.” And on May 31 he tweeted a picture of Safeco Field with the caption “Sweet home Seattle.” As of that day, he’d raised $338,460 toward a goal of $375,000.
“The Most Unknown,” a documentary by the Peabody Award-winning Ian Cheney (2014-15), is opening in June in theaters from Anchorage to Cambridge, and will be released on Netflix in August. The 85-minute film follows nine scientists around the globe in their efforts to answer some of science’s supreme questions, like the nature of consciousness and how life began. It’s the first feature-length documentary from Motherboard, Vice Media’s tech-culture channel. (You can watch a trailer here.)
Ian, who was advised on the project by Werner Herzog, is known for documentaries like “King Corn” (2007) and “The Search for General Tso” (2014) — and “The Measure of a Fog,” his six-part exploration of climate change for Undark in 2016-17.
In The New Yorker, Sarah Larson calls “The Most Unknown” “gorgeous” and “amiable,” and adds that “Cheney’s goal isn’t so much to inform as to inspire, and it’s vicariously exciting to watch his subjects step out of their own research and into that of their peers.”
From Moscow, Olga Dobrovidova (2014–15) reports that she’s been working as a freelance and staff writer and teaching science journalism at ITMO University, in Russia’s first graduate program in science communication. She has translated two books into Russian: “A Field Guide for Science Writers” and Matt Shipman’s “Handbook for Science Public Information Officers” — “the first books on science journalism and scicomm published in our language,” Olga writes. And she is the freshly minted vice president for science journalism at AKSON, the Russian science communicators’ association.
Olga is one of several KSJ alumni who will be featured at the European Conference of Science Journalists in Toulouse, France, on July 8. She’ll speak on a panel moderated by Mićo Tatalović (2017-18) about the challenges facing science journalists in Eastern Europe. Others are Tom Zeller (2013-14), editor in chief of Undark, on a panel about nonprofit and philanthropic journalism; Tatalović and Maryn McKenna (2013-14), on preserving freelance and staff writers’ independence; Aleszu Bajak (2013-14), on data visualization; and Richard Hudson (1991-92) and Adam Rogers (2002-03), along with several Undark staffers, at a Kavli workshop on science editing led by KSJ Director Deborah Blum.
Rosalia Omungo (2016-17) has been elected to the Kenya Editors’ Guild, the foremost body for senior journalists in Kenya. “The guild hopes to reclaim its rightful place in Kenya’s media landscape,” she writes, “most importantly by pushing for the entrenchment of media freedom.”
The New York Times’ Pam Belluck (2007-08) won a New York Press Club award in science, medicine, and technology feature writing for “Zika’s Legacy: Catastrophic Consequences of a Continuing Crisis.”
April 23, 2018
Ibiba DonPedro (2001-02), an award-winning journalist and activist in Nigeria, has just published four books on the country’s Niger Delta region. The books, she writes, “capture the different facets of the region’s tragic narrative, especially the discord and disruptive impact of the production of crude oil on the lives of the people of the region, as well as the environment” — and decry the “deeply flawed federal structure” that allows privileged groups “access to oil wealth and lifestyles of opulence and waste while the people of Niger Delta communities live in squalor and deprivation.”
“In all this despair and misery, however,” Ibiba continues, “is a message of hope that captures the boundless capacity of the human spirit, of youth, men, and women when they stand firm to create the space within which to reclaim their humanity against soul-destroying odds.”
The books are “Oil In Water,” “Out of a Bleak Landscape,” “Scavengers and Real Avengers of the Niger Delta,” and “Contested Grounds.” They’re available at Patabah Books in Lagos and at the Ikeja and Lagos airports.
Erich Hoyt (1985-86) has made Library Journal’s list of best reference titles of 2017 with his 22nd book, “Encyclopedia of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises” (Firefly Books). The book grew out of Erich’s 2015 article for Hakai magazine on the revolution in whale and dolphin research since the 1970s.
Erich is founder and co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, which works with regional groups to identify habitats for the 130 species of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, pinnipeds, sirenians, otters, and polar bears. (Its e-atlas, along with downloadable papers and reports, can be found at marinemammalhabitat.org.)
And he continues to direct whale research in Kamchatka and the Commander Islands, in Russia, working with 15 Russian collaborators who started as students in a program he co-founded in 2000. Papers on their pioneering work with Russian killer whales, Baird’s beaked whales, and humpback whales are posted at his ResearchGate site.
After his fellowship, Erich taught writing at MIT as visiting lecturer, and met his future wife, Dr. Sarah Wedden, then on a NATO postdoc at Harvard Medical School. They moved to Scotland in 1989, then — with their four children — to the Dorset coast of England in 2013.
In São Paulo, Brazil, Nira Worcman (1988-89) helps lead an active MIT Sloan club, and nowadays she is spreading the word about the school’s Inclusive Innovation Challenge, which awards more than $1 million to global entrepreneurs using technology to drive economic opportunity for workers. (Registration ends on May 1.)
After her Knight year, Nira did her master’s in the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU, and continued to write for Brazilian and American publications, including Technology Review, Popular Science, and Super Interessante. She returned to São Paulo and worked in public relations, then became head of communications at Roche in Latin America and later at Bristol-Myers Squibb. She is an associate director at the Brazilian P.R. agency Art Presse and a senior consultant at Sherlock Communications, an agency specializing in international clients in Brazil and Latin America.
March 9, 2018
Rosalia Omungo (2016-17) has been promoted to managing editor/TV at KBC, Kenya’s national broadcasting system, putting her in charge of special projects, including health, environment, science, and features.
“It is exciting as well as challenging,” she writes from Nairobi, “because of the perception that KBC has been biased towards government. But we are progressing. We already have a project to encourage an in-depth investigative report per month, as well as a weekly talk show on environment and health.” In particular, she’s overseeing coverage focusing on the availability of health care as the national government moves toward universal and affordable coverage. And she is fostering partnerships with institutions and organizations to help train reporters and gain reporting grants.
Rosalia’s tribute to the late Harvard scholar Calestous Juma, a prominent global advocate for sustainable development in struggling countries, appeared on the KBC website in December.
February 8, 2018
“A bunch of new things are happening to me,” writes Yves Sciama (2013-14) from just outside Grenoble, France, adding (with a wink emoji), “Some of them may actually have some influence on our beloved profession — which tends to be very nationally insular.”
On Jan. 29, Yves was elected president of AJSPI, the French science journalists’ association, whose board includes KSJ alumna Chloé Hecketsweiler (2016-17), of Le Monde. He has been instrumental in organizing two important conferences: the 2018 European Conference of Science Journalists in Toulouse, France, and the 2019 World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Another board member and instrumental figure in the WCSJ2019 conference is Fabio Turone, also 2016-17.)
Yves encourages fellow alumni to join him at the Toulouse conference, this coming July 8. “The focus of the conference will be on the independence of both science and journalism, and we will talk a lot about conflict of interest and other such issues.” The meeting will include a Kavli workshop on science editing that will include sessions on fact-checking, vetting science stories, and more.
For the world conference in 2019, Yves is a member of the governing board and chair of the all-important program committee. (KSJ’s director, Deborah Blum, had that position for the 2017 conference in San Francisco.) He’s already drafted several Knight fellows to work with him: Iván Carrillo (2016-17), Maryn McKenna (2013-14), and Jane Qiu (2017-18).
“Our times call for a science journalism with a little more teeth,” Yves writes. “I want to push for a more interconnected and investigative vision of our profession, and help colleagues find new tools and ideas to challenge science more.
“But my passion fundamentally remains journalism, and I already look forward to two years from now, when the conferences are over and it will be time at last to head back to my utmost pleasure: reporting.”
“American Eclipse,” by David Baron (1989-90), is a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing. The book, subtitled “A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World,” tells the story of the total solar eclipse that crossed the American West in 1878, attracting many of the era’s great scientists — including Thomas Edison and the Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell — to the frontier. You can read a chapter David left out of the book in Undark. “American Eclipse” is also an Amazon top science book of 2017.
Maryn McKenna (2013-14) also has an Amazon top science book of 2017: “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.” You can read an excerpt from that book in Undark.
“Big Chicken” is also one of Smithsonian.com’s 10 best science books of 2017; a ScienceNews favorite science book of 2017; and a favorite food and farming book of 2017on Civil Eats, among other honors. And at the Harvard Book Store on Feb. 27, Maryn will be discussing the book with Nicholas Evans and signing copies. More “Big Chicken”-related events can be found here.
Meera Subramanian (2016-17) has completed four stories for her InsideClimate News series Finding Middle Ground: Conversations Across America. In Georgia, she met fifth-generation peach farmers whose crop failed after a too-warm winter. In West Virginia, she spoke to people who were trying to reconcile the effects of a devastating local flood with what their preachers were telling them about biblical end times. Up in Wisconsin, a father-daughter team of dogsledders had different explanations for the ongoing changes in their weather-dependent sport. And West Texas — a land of oil and gas, cows and cotton — is embracing wind energy and the steady jobs and income it provides. Meera’s series will continue through 2018.
Here’s what alumni are writing: a compendium from Federico Kukso (2015-16).
Marcia Bartusiak (1994-95): “Astronauts’ pre-flight peeing ritual and other marvels of space station life,” The Washington Post.
Richard L. Brandt (1991-92): “How do governments shape the course of innovation?” MIT Spectrum.
Dan Falk (2011-12): “In ‘Life 3.0,’ Max Tegmark Explores a Robotic Utopia — or Dystopia” and “‘River of Consciousness’: Oliver Sacks’ Final Essays on Attention, Memory, and Life,” Undark.
Teresa Firmino (2008-09): “Martin Rees: I am a technological optimist but a political pessimist,” Público (in Portuguese).
Daniela Hirschfeld (2009-10): “Uruguayans who modify the human genome,” El Observador (in Spanish).
Sascha Karberg (2008-09): “CRISPR is not always genetic engineering,” Der Tagesspiegel (in German).
Federico Kukso (2015-16): “Large Millimeter Telescope: The cathedral of Mexican astronomy,” Agencia SINC (in Spanish).
Robin Lloyd (1998-99) and Steve Mirsky (2003-04): “Tech honcho wants innovation for the bottom billion,” Scientific American. Robin is also a regular contributor to Undark.
Steve Nadis (1997-98): “What planets beyond our solar system may harbor life?” MIT Spectrum.
Annalee Newitz (2002-03): “Google raters at Leapforce settle legal complaints over abuse, wages owed,” Ars Technica.
Adam Rogers (2002-03): “How did President Trump do on his physical? It’s complicated,” and many other pieces for Wired.
Valeria Román (2004-05): “Two Argentine biologists create a mini-machine that NASA astronauts now use to study DNA,” Infoba (in Spanish).
Yves Sciama (2013-14): “France brings back a phased-out drug after patients rebel against its replacement,” Science.
Meera Subramanian (2016-17): “Finding Middle Ground: Conversations Across America,” InsideClimate News.
Mark Wolverton (2016-17): “How can we measure damage?” MIT Spectrum. “Dismantling doomsday: Daniel Ellsberg on the risk of nuclear apocalypse,” Undark. “Counting down to the apocalypse: Lisa Vox’s ‘Existential Threats,’” Undark.
January 18, 2018
Jeanne Lenzer (2006-07) has been getting all sorts of attention for her new book “The Danger Within Us: America’s Untested, Unregulated Medical Device Industry and One Man’s Battle to Survive It.” You can hear her on NPR’s “Fresh Air“; read her scary essay “Can Your Hip Replacement Kill You?” in The New York Times; and enjoy “The Case of the Green Hairy Tongue,” a chapter she left out of the book, in Undark.
Two prestigious journalism awards for Iván Carrillo (2016-17), from the National and Mexican Councils for Science and Technology (CONACYT and COMECYT, respectively). The first is for “Axolotl: A God in Danger of Extinction,” in National Geographic Latin America; the piece explored the rapid disappearance of the axolotl salamander from the wetlands around southern Mexico City. A cult favorite of biologists, and historically venerated by the Aztecs, the axolotl is known for its friendly facial features and strange lizard-like legs.
Iván won the COMECYT award for “A Bridge of Life,” in Newsweek en Español, a fascinating and powerful story about an acquaintance who was one of the first recipients of a kidney transplant through a pioneering global exchange program. The story was based on Iván’s KSJ research project — which he also turned into a video documentary, “The Journal of Thirst.”
For his Spanish public TV program “El Cazador de Cerebros” (“The Brain Hunter”), Pere Estupinyà (2007-08) recently scored some big-name interviews: Edward O. Wilson from Harvard and Edward Boyden from the MIT Media Lab. “We’ve English-version interviews with Jennifer Doudna (gene editing), Shinya Yamanaka (iPS stem cells), and Karl Deisseroth (optogenetics) too,” Pere adds.