Friday, December 13, 2013

Karen Klinger

Jersey Girl, science journalist--Go hug a friend. You may find yourself writing their obituary one day.

Karen Klinger, former science writer for the San Jose Mercury News from 1978 to 1987 and a NASW member, died Dec. 16 of cancer. She was 66.

Klinger grew up in New Jersey. She was very bright, with an undergraduate degree from Penn and a master’s from Stanford. Fluent in French, she once served on the copy desk at Agence France Presse.

She was tall and trim. Her Irish genes were expressed in dark hair she wore over her shoulder, a fair complexion, and startling light blue eyes.

She was adventurous and courageous, traveling the world usually alone. One year she camped in the Serengeti and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. She came back with an amazingly efficient parasite that made her the queen of several departments at the Stanford Medical Center for weeks.

She went sky diving. When I asked her why she would jump out of an airplane at 6,000 feet, I got the same stupid answer you get from mountain climbers.

Most of all, she was a superb science writer. She always did her homework and you could see subjects relax early in the interview when it was obvious she knew what the hell she was doing. The scientists at Stanford--not an easy crowd--trusted her and fed her stories.

It was in the editing that things often fell apart. Sometime during the process the Jersey Girl in Klinger came out. She was pathologically incapable of walking quietly into compromise and she could cry on cue. As one editor kindly put it, editing Klinger was “trying.”

But in the end the stories were first class.

She was one of the first to report on the AIDs epidemic in San Francisco, even before it had a name. 

She was indefatigable. She covered the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in 1980 on crutches after knee surgery (she slid into third base in a softball game), convincing her editors they were a mere inconvenience. Her stories were extraordinary.

When major stories broke, the Merc editors were wise enough to turn her loose. They also sometimes teamed her with Elias Castillo, a general assignment reporter.

Castillo was a preternatural reporter; Klinger a splendid writer. Since they also had something of a love-hate relationship, they were a perfect team on breaking non-science news.

Outside the office Castillo, his wife Cathy, and Klinger became seemingly inseparable friends. I eventually made it a quartet.

We spent many evenings in the Castillo’s hot tub, Chardonnay in hand, lamenting the decline of American journalism (we were ahead of our time) and the editors we thought were idiots, who to Klinger, was most of those she knew.

Once, when my two young sons were visiting from Philadelphia, the four of us took them camping in Yosemite, at a lake in Tuolomne Meadows. The two, now grown men, still talk about the trip.

There was a dark side. She had an alcohol problem not then properly addressed. And she was capable of getting into predictably disastrous love affairs.

She won a Vaneevar Bush fellowship to MIT in 1985, and when it was over, stayed in Massachusetts, no doubt to the relief of her editors in San Jose.
She freelanced for several years and became a community organizer and a volunteer at the Cambridge Community Television Network, winning several awards.

One day, about 10 years after she left California, she walked into the press room at an AAAS meeting in Boston. I had not seen her in that time. She had filled out some, the angles of her face softened and rounded. She seemed happy. She had become a beautiful middle-aged woman.

I never saw her again. None of her friends from her California days knew she was sick, and we only found out she died months afterward when I stumbled on a brief obit on the Internet.

I feel badly about that.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Chinese Are Coming. The Chinese Are Coming

While Congress Diddled--The United States is losing ground as the leader in biomedical research and within the next five years will be second to China in the funds it spends for R&D, according to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Collins, speaking at a Festival of Science at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said research funding flattened out in 2003. With Congress unable to settle on a budget for the past three years--and with sequestration of funding potentially doubling next year--the US, once the unchallenged-leader in research is losing ground while several other countries are increasing their R&D spending.
“All of us are hopeful that the panel led by [Senators] Patty Murray and Paul Ryan will come up with a compromise that will let at least the sequester go away,” he said.
Collins was the keynote speaker at a conference that kicked off Maryland’s Accelerating Innovation and Discovery in Medicine (ACCEL-Med) program in which the medical school asked a panel of world-famous scientists to act as advisors and consultants on where Maryland’s research efforts should be.
The five advisors included Nobel laureate Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins Medical Institution; Rita Caldwell of the University of Maryland at College Park; Philip Needleman, former president of the St. Louis Science Center, Ralph Snyderman, chancellor emeritus at Duke University, and Elias Zerhouni, Collins’ predecessor at NIH.
Three groups of medical school researchers presented what their departments were working on, and the panel, sitting on tables to the side, made initial comments on the presentations. The presenters came from the Institute for Genomic Sciences, the department of pharmacology and the department of surgery,
Collins emphasized the economic benefits of the research as well as medical impact on human health, pointing out that the cuts to research budgets, particularly at NIH, were “shortsighted.”
Collins, one of the leaders in the effort that led to the mapping of the human genome, used genomic research as an example. He said the project may have produced 400,000 jobs directly and 7 million indirectly, and generated $965 billion in economic growth.
Starting in 2012, funding for biomedical research has declined 20 percent even before sequestration. But in the years early in the decade, when funding doubled, facilities were build around the country and an increasing number of young scientists were trained, he said.
The result now is that more scientists and labs are asking for grants at the same time the funding for grants has declined. Once, Collins said, NIH could grant 25-35 percent of projects. Now it is down to 15 percent. Only one out of seven grants now is funded.
“You could say we are still the largest supporter of science in the world, and you would be right--but only barely,” he said.
Medical school dean E. Albert Reece, said one of the purposes of the meeting and the new program was to make sure what money came in was spent in the best way.
“The purpose of ACCEL-Med is to increase the pace and scope of clinical and basic science research that will impact and improve human health and well-being.”
“Advances do not come by accident or from serendipity,” he said. What he hoped it would lead to was innovation and discovery.
“We have asked some of the best minds in the world to help us direct our endeavor, to tell us what we should be thinking about.”
The presentations included:
  Institute for Genomic Sciences--Projects included the use of genomic sequencing of the microbiome, the complex community of organisms that live in association with humans; the microbiomes in the vagina, and tracking diseases in human populations through history via genome sequencing.
  Pharmacology--Research included both cancer drugs and why the body often learns to resist the treatments, and drugs used in brain science.
  Surgery--discussed the 72-hour operation in 2012 that gave a young gunshot victim a transplanted face and the role of vascularized bone in transplants; the advances in pediatric cardiac surgery using stem cells; basic research in hyperparathyroidism and the work uncovering its cause, and other advances in artificial hearts and lungs.