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Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.

Gina Kolata’s Popular Science

<B>Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York

Times, tests her story ideas out at the kitchen table of her Princeton

home, where her husband and two teenage children are her most important

critics. "I call it my dinner table conversation," she says.

"If I’m sitting at the table and I see their eyes glaze over,

then I know it’s not good."

Sex and cloning were topics that received high marks from her kin,

as well as from critics who read Kolata’s books on those subjects.

U.S. 1 Newspaper first reported on Kolata’s career in 1994, soon after

she co-authored "Sex in America: A Definitive Survey," an

intimate look at what drives the sex lives of Americans, based on

research by scientists at the University of Chicago and SUNY Stony


Kolata’s career got another shot of adrenaline when a Scottish scientist

by the name of Ian Wilmut took a frozen cell from the udder of a dead

sheep and created a baby lamb known familiarly as Dolly. Kolata’s

book was titled "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead"

(William Morrow, 1998). Her latest book tackles another science subject

that most everyone has thought about at one time or another: "Flu:

the story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for

the Virus," (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).

On Wednesday, March 29, Kolata speaks to the Association of Women

In Science on "Reporting on Science" at 6:30 p.m. at the American

Cyanamid Agricultural Research Center. Call 732-235-5048.

A resident of Princeton and a former member of the Princeton Regional

School Board, Kolata started out as a scientist at MIT and moved to

writing because she couldn’t stand long days in the lab. She was raised

in Silver Spring, Maryland, where her father was a diamond setter,

her mother a mathematician. Kolata majored in microbiology at the

University of Maryland (Class of 1969) and enrolled in a graduate

program at MIT, where she hoped to become a theoretical biologist.

An administrative job at Science magazine launched her freelance career,

and when the New York Times hired her as a science reporter, she and

her mathematician husband and two children moved to Princeton in 1990.

Even on emotionally charged issues like cloning, Kolata enjoys finding

the neutral space between divergent views and playing devil’s advocate

when necessary. In the case of cloning, she likes to cite the case

of a mother who desperately needed a kidney for her 15-year-old daughter

and had another baby so she could donate one of the baby’s kidneys

to her older sister. How different is that, ethically, from cloning

a kidney, Kolata asks. "I’m a story teller," she says. "I’m

educating people — I’m not challenging people. I’m not an ethicist

or a scientist. An honest reporter isn’t."

The Web’s impact on medicine is another hot topic that Kolata recently

probed with a colleague, Kurt Echenwald, an investigative reporter.

"We didn’t know ahead of time what the story was going to be,"

says Kolata. "It’s the first time I’ve done that kind of investigative

reporting, the kind that takes a year and a half to get a story."

In the end, the two co-wrote a series on how "how patients are

using the Internet to second guess their doctors," published in

five parts last year.

With a Palm Pilot that contains some 1,300 sources, Kolata says she

rarely gets her leads from press releases or corporate publicity departments.

"There are way too many people pitching me ideas, and most of

them would not be ideas that I would use," she says.

A word of advice for scientists: only contact reporters if it’s something

you would honestly want to read about. "They really should be

judicious in contacting us and telling us what they think is a fabulous

story," she says. "There are people who think that if they

constantly contact us we’ll pay attention. Eventually it’s like the

boy who cried wolf. If you contact a reporter every time there’s a

management change, you’ve lost them."

Intellectual content alone is not enough to get a story to the pages

of the Times — it has to be newsworthy, says Kolata. Preferably,

the story should keep her family from falling asleep in their pasta.

— Melinda Sherwood

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