November 10, 2011

Noted science writer Kolata always open to new discoveries

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New York Times science writer Gina Kolata smiles during her recent Discovery Lecture.

Noted science writer Kolata always open to new discoveries

At the beginning of her Discovery Lecture last week, award-winning New York Times science writer Gina Kolata had to set a few things straight.

“I’m not trying to educate you. I’m not an advocate. I’m not trying to persuade you of anything,” she said.

On the contrary, Kolata sees herself more as an entertainer. “I want to engage you in such a way that you won’t forget it,” she said.

And yet, “the way you discover these things in journalism is the same way that scientists discover things,” Kolata said. “You have to be ready for the discovery when it comes to you, so you know it’s there.”

In researching a 2007 series about the nation’s top disease killer, for example, she found that only 10 percent of heart attack patients get to the hospital within the “golden hour,” when they are most likely to be saved. And many of those who make it to the hospital in time don’t get optimal care.

Rather than simply listing the statistics, Kolata chose to hang out at the coronary care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“I had to tell a story that would make you remember this,” she said.

There she found Keith Orr, one of millions of heart patients who stop taking their medications because they feel fine. He’d arrived at the hospital minutes earlier in the grip of a second, massive heart attack.

Her story, “Lessons of Heart Disease, Learned and Ignored,” included a riveting photograph of the terrified man who thought he was going to die.

“When you tell a story like this … and you see this guy’s face, it sort of stays with you,” she said.

After reading more examples of her work, Kolata was peppered by questions from the audience: How are you addressing the current anti-science climate in this country? Do you think health care reform will be overturned?

“That’s not my job,” she insisted. Journalists must be careful not to display their opinions, for “if we told you what we thought, you wouldn’t trust us anymore” to report in an accurate, dispassionate and even-handed way.

But, asked another, don’t the editors tell you what to write about?
Her response was emphatic: “I have never, never in my 25 or so years at the Times had anybody say, ‘You can’t write about this.’”

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to