|T H E N I H C A T A L Y S T||M A Y - J U N E 1 9 9 8|
|THE PRESS MEETS NIH|
|The Knights of the Press Table: (left to right): Anita Manning, Ken Garber, Leight Hopper, and Mike Stobbe|
With thanks to the largess of the nonprofit Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, four journalists had the opportunity for three weeks in March to put NIH under the microscope. To the pleasant surprise of people at both ends of the viewing, the experiment was a success.
The four journalists were selected from a competitive field of applicants vying for the opportunity to visit NIH as foundation-funded Knight Center Fellows. The writers' reasons for wanting to come to NIH, the publications they work for, and what they plan to write in the wake of their NIH experience vary. The four who came were Ken Garber of The Ann Arbor Observer, an upscale, monthly southeastern Michigan tabloid; Leigh Hopper of a 125-year-old Texas daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman; Anita Manning of USA Today, a daily national newspaper with a circulation just hitting seven digits; and Mike Stobbe, formerly of the Florida Times-Union, the daily newspaper of Jacksonville, Fla.
Garber came to get the inside view of cancer and other research in the NCI labs of Steve O'Brien and Ira Pastan. Garber, who has written extensively about biomedical research at the University of Michigan, says his biggest surprise about NIH scientists was "how small their offices are!" Otherwise, he says, "the environment seemed very similar to academic medical research at Michigan." Like all three of his fellow participants in the Knight program, Garber was impressed with how open, friendly, and accommodating NIH scientists were. "Everyone was great. They made themselves available on short notice and gave lots of their time to talk about their work." Garber says he really appreciated "how open and transparent the work being done at NIH is. That is special to NIH. Anyone who has ever done a story on a biotech company knows how hard it is to get anything more P[ublic] R[elations] fluff out of people."
Garber says he really appreciated "how open and transparent the work being done at NIH is. That is special to NIH. Anyone who has ever done a story on a biotech company knows how hard it is to get anything more than Public Relations fluff out of people." Garber says that in his visits in the cancer labs, he gleaned "a lot about how molecular biology and genetics are used in the lab to solve problems. . . What I got to see is how scientists creatively use these tools to perform experiments, answer questions, and get concrete results in the lab." He is hoping to write up what he culled from the experience--but not for the Ann Arbor Observer. He hopes to sell a couple of features, on a freelance basis, to a national magazine.
Hopper says the most surprising thing about her experience-mostly at NIAID-- "was how interested I became in infectious diseases and the immune system. I didn't realize how intriguing all this is on the molecular level." She adds that at the outset, she didn't appreciate the significance of NIH research or the caliber of its scientists. "Way down here in Texas, I just didn't have a sense of the role NIH plays throughout the world," Hopper says. "I have been telling people I got to meet 'the rock stars of science!' "
Hopper says that much of what she learned will not appear in print but was useful in deepening her understanding of the research process, including details such as what the different fractions of blood look like coming out of a centrifuge or "what acquiring a chimp for research entails." Her time in Steve Holland's lab in NIAID showed her "why a scientist may spend nearly all of his or her career looking at one virus. . . . I came away with enormous respect for what they do. Now, when I interview a researcher on the phone . . . I have a better sense of the kind of person who does this type of work," says Hopper. "In general, at NIH, it's someone who's not in it for the money, or personal glory, but simply for finding answers." Hopper plans to write stories on tuberculosis research at the Texas--Mexican border, a Biosafety Level-4 laboratory being considered for Texas, and the Tropical Diseases Center in Galveston.
Manning, like her colleagues, was surprised at how willing scientists were to speak to the journalists. She observed that more senior scientists seemed more comfortable dealing with the press. "It has to do with . . . practice and fear," Manning suggests. "Many scientists rarely, if ever, speak to a journalist, and most, I think, suspect we are out to misquote them or make them look foolish in some way. Those who have been interviewed frequently are less nervous and realize . . . that they have much to teach us." Manning concludes that for this reason, "having this three--week opportunity to talk with scientists, to get to know them a bit and let them know us, will be invaluable for all parties involved."
Like Hopper, Manning was impressed by NIH scientists' motivation--and motives: "how completely dedicated, not to say obsessed, they are to find the solution to the puzzles they're facing." She says she "also was very touched to realize that they don't always have the tunnel vision I suspected they had--most of the researchers I met were well aware of the ultimate goal of helping sick people." Manning has already published one story on NIH's new Biosafety LevelŠ4 lab and plans other features on genetic counseling and families that participate in vaccine trials.
NHGRI's Rick Morgan, who was Manning's main host at NIH, took a combination of approaches in tutoring her on viruses and their modification and application in gene therapy research. The week before her visit to the lab he gave her background reading, which they discussed exhaustively. Then, he says, "I decided that the best way to 'educate' her on what we do was to stick her in the lab." Manning gowned up and assisted Morgan in an HIV-p24 ELISA in the Biosafety Level-2/3 Room. "She worked with me for nearly a full day harvesting cell--culture media, setting up the ELISA, which is a very tedious procedure, but is visually interesting, as it . . . has the blue--yellow color reaction when the ELISA is developed."
Stobbe, on returning to Florida after his NIDDK stint, landed a job as health--care reporter for the Tampa Tribune. He says his experience at NIH prepared him well for the package of stories on diabetes, insurance coverage, and health research funding he'd completed for the Jacksonville paper just before he left. And he was confident that NIH experiences would equip him well for his new post. "It was an opportunity I never had before to sit down with researchers and to learn how the federal government funds, plans, and does science research. I can't tell you how important it was for a journalist who covers this stuff."
Summing up an NIH perspective of the Knight program, NHGRI's Morgan says "these types of visits are incredibly valuable for the journalist and for NIH. They demystify the scientific process and are an excellent way to help journalists understand the subjects that they are reporting on." Howard Bray, who directs the Knight Center, sees the journalism program's NIH debut as "very successful. The Knight Center expects to award the fellowships again next year."
Return to Table of Contents