Reflections on two decades as science correspondent

Reflections on two decades as science correspondent

First Person

Dr. Wahrman’s world changed as science and Judaism and newsprint came together for her — right here.
Dr. Wahrman’s world changed as science and Judaism and newsprint came together for her — right here.

Twenty years ago, scientists announced the cloning of a lamb they called Dolly.

This feat — the production of an exact replica of an adult mammal — was unprecedented, and it suggested the possibility of human cloning.

Some people reacted with trepidation, as the power to clone was viewed as “playing God.” Some speculated that the first people to be cloned might be celebrities, such as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — even back then those two were high enough on the popular radar to appear on such a list.

As a biology professor and observant Jew I wondered how Jewish law and tradition would view human cloning. I was inspired to dig deeply into the Jewish side of cloning, and I wrote an essay called “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh: The cloning of sheep and humans.”

The article was published in the Jewish Standard on March 7, 1997; it was my first publication in the print media, and opened a floodgate for me, giving me a place to express my views on science and Judaism. It was a new avocation for me. Although I had published scholarly articles before, writing about science for a broader audience was a new experience, and I loved it.

Rebecca Kaplan Boroson, then the editor of the Jewish Standard, encouraged me to write more, and sent me out on assignment the very next week to cover a symposium for Jewish women called “It Takes a Jewish Village.” I was such a novice that my hands shook as I conducted those first interviews. But I was hooked; I continued to write on many different topics, and soon I was appointed science correspondent by science enthusiast Rebecca Boroson and by visionary publisher James Janoff. The Jewish Standard was proud to be the only Jewish newspaper with a science correspondent.

In the two decades since, scientists still have not cloned humans (not even Hillary or Donald) but I still am exploring science and Judaism as part of the Jewish Standard staff. My 20 years as correspondent opened doors I never imagined, and provided opportunities for me to enlighten, educate, and inform myself and the community.

As a Jewish science correspondent, I explore issues from a unique perspective. For instance, in one of my early articles I wrote about the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp, explaining the science of comets, but also exploring traditional Jewish sources revealing how our prophets viewed comets as “swords of angels.”

In subsequent pieces I wrote about many other topics, including new reproductive technologies, teen smoking, the new drug Viagra, and genetically modified plants and animals. For Rosh Hashanah, I wrote “Honey: Healthy or hazardous.”

Many of my articles also appeared in other publications, including the newspaper Allgemeine Judische Wochenzeitung, which translated them into German. For example, my in vitro fertilization article became “Mame, Tate, Petrischale” (Mother, Father, Petri dish) in German. I wrote about topics of the day and new breakthrough research in schizophrenia, aphasia, ADD/ADHD, neuroplasticity, and the new HPV vaccine.

In my years as correspondent I got to interview some extraordinary people. I was inspired by Jewish bioethicist Rabbi David Feldman and the visionary founder of Sharsheret, Rochelle Shoretz, both of whom gave so much to the community. Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt’s work, and her courage in exposing Holocaust denial, has spanned decades. It was my privilege to work with her on a William Paterson University Holocaust program and subsequently write about her work. I wrote about Chabad Rabbi Ephraim Simon, who is a remarkable, selfless man who became an altruistic kidney donor. I met patent attorney Barry Schindler when I interviewed him for a story in 2007. He deals with legal and bioethical issues in the pharmaceutical industry, and he continues to visit my bioethics classes at William Paterson University and share his expertise with my students.

The brilliant and articulate author Walter Isaacson was a pleasure to interview, as his breadth and profound depth of knowledge in so many areas was exciting to experience. I spoke with him and wrote about his book on Albert Einstein. I met and interviewed Professor Avram Hershko, Israel’s first Nobel laureate in science (2004) and Professor Ada Yonath, Israel’s first female Nobel laureate (2009). I also would add to this list of remarkable people two young people I met in 2010, siblings Sarah and Jeffrey Yourman, who inspired me with their pluck and optimism in the face of serious medical challenges.

My full-time position as professor involves scientific research and scholarship, teaching, and administrative service, all of which helped to enhance my skills as correspondent. For instance, as head of the Holocaust and Genocide Center at WPU for many years, I had the opportunity to oversee and run educational programs on the Holocaust. I expanded my writings to include Holocaust-related issues. My expertise in genetics, reproductive biology, and biotechnology led to my reporting in 1997 on the newly discovered BRCA genes, which are associated with elevated risk of breast cancer and occurence in Ashkenazi Jews. I revisited that topic many times in the last two decades as science advanced to practical clinical applications, including screening and surveillance.

Similarly, writing and reporting opened doors to scholarly and interdisciplinary experiences that enriched my accomplishments as professor. As correspondent, I covered controversial issues such as abortion, genetic screening, embryonic stem cells, and the vaccine controversy. Studying science in the context of the Jewish faith opened the door for me to explore the emerging field of bioethics. I developed one of the first graduate courses in bioethics, and I continue to update it and teach it every year at WPU. I supervise student projects in bioethics and continue research and writing in the field.

Some stories I covered touched me profoundly. I wrote an essay, “Torahs in Space,” celebrating Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s 2003 Columbia space shuttle mission. Days later, in “Seven Heavenly Souls,” I mournfully reported on the tragic loss of the shuttle and its crew.

Over the years as a Jewish Standard correspondent I had the opportunity to travel to Israel, where I visited the prestigious Israeli research centers at Technion, the Weizmann Institute, and Hadassah Medical Center. I met Israeli researchers and wrote about scientific breakthroughs in nanotechnology, embryonic stem cell research, robotics, reproductive medicine, satellite technology, and energy, as well as other cutting-edge areas.

My first book was inspired by and emerged from my writings on science and Judaism. Called “Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide,” it addresses issues in Jewish bioethics and biomedical sciences. In 2002, shortly after the book was published, the Jewish Standard named me a Newsmaker of the Year for “stirring the community’s interest and/or emotions for years as science correspondent of this newspaper… [and leading] us through the thicket of modern science as it relates to Jewish law.” I won other awards and recognition for journalism, including the Simon Rockower Award of the American Jewish Press Association, and awards from the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.

Last year, again inspired by the needs of the broader community, I wrote a book to inform and enlighten the public on how to stay healthy and avoid infectious disease. “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” addresses the scientific issues, clinical research, historic and cultural roots of hand washing, and compelling bioethics issues related to the topic. The book provides insight and handy tips on how to reduce risk of disease in the home, workplace, school, and, most critically, in health care settings.

Two decades — 20 years! — as science correspondent have sped by. Some of the then-new developments I wrote about years ago, such as genetic screening, have become routine parts of medical practice. Many reproductive technologies that emerged in the past few decades help couples conceive. Other discoveries I reported on years ago, such as clinical use of embryonic stem cells and genetic engineering, have not panned out yet, but scientists still hold out hope for them. Up-and-coming advances in genetic technology, including new “Crispr/Cas 9” gene editing technology, eventually will lead to genetic treatments to cure diseases.

And medical science is crossing the threshold toward more effective cancer treatments and cures using immunotherapy.

The bioethics and religious issues will become only more complex as politicians and society set priorities and make critical decisions about health insurance, access to medical care, status of the embryo and fetus, medical privacy issues, global climate change, and the role of science in society. We may be on the cusp of greatness and monumental advances in diagnosis and treatment with science guiding the way, or conversely, at the edge of an abyss, where scientific advances are ignored, rejected, or out of reach for most citizens. Let us hope that society entrusts critical decisions to leaders with vision, good judgment, and selfless ethical and moral compasses.

As for me, here’s to another 20-plus years of writing on science and Judaism. It is impossible to imagine where science will take us going forward. Perhaps I will be covering travel to other planets, to the depths of the oceans, or deep into the workings of the brain, and delving deeper into the mysteries of the genetic code. Or maybe I’ll be writing about the use of self-driving flying cars on Shabbat.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck, the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent, is professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey and the author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World.”

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