Pulitzer winner tells her story

“I found out that the reason I don’t like brussels sprouts is because of my genes,” Amy Harmon, Pulitzer-prize winning national correspondent for The New York Times, said. “Broccoli rabe, too.”

Harmon delivered a talk Monday, “DNA: Telling Science Stories about Ourselves,” in which she described her experience writing the series of articles for the Times “The DNA Age.” The series, which won her the Pulitzer in 2008, examines the impact of DNA sequencing on people’s lives. The lecture was part of the Poynter Lecture series, which aims to bring distinguished journalists to share their work with the Yale community.

In her writing, Harmon said, she strives to use science as a vehicle to tell stories. Her articles, which tend to be long narrative pieces — a dying phenomenon in journalism today, she said — tap into the ways science affects individuals and society.

In order to experience firsthand the implications of genetic testing, the subject of the series, Harmon opted to have her DNA sequenced.

“I spit in a vial and sent it off in a FedEx pouch,” she said.

The results showed she had a gene predisposing her to dislike bitter foods, such as brussels sprouts and broccoli rabe.

But Harmon’s work showed that the consequences of understanding one’s genes run far deeper. Genetic code, Harmon explained, is full of information about an individual’s risk for specific adult-onset diseases such as Huntington’s disease.

“The results showed that I have a very high chance of contracting macular degeneration,” she said, referring to a medical condition that causes blindness in old age. “This is a very personal kind of science.”

While Harmon said she did not regret obtaining the information, she acknowledged many people would rather not know their genetic “future.”

“I’m going to be 81 years old,” said sex therapist and media personality Ruth “Dr. Ruth” Westheimer, who was in attendance. “I don’t think I want to know. I would not go for any of these tests.”

Discussing her interest in the interface between technology and society more broadly, Harmon referenced a recent article — inspired by a personal experience — she wrote about how webcameras affect grandparent-grandchild relationships.

Harmon said she had heard about a woman who babysat her granddaughter by reading books to her via webcams. Investigating this, she found grandparents who used webcams were less likely to visit their grandchildren in person.

“People have to realize there’s a danger to all this technology,” Westheimer said. “I see couples who walk in the street, each one with a cell phone, not talking to each other. That worries me.”

Not only do current technological advancements affect personal health and relationships, but Harmon said they are also changing the landscape of her field: long-form narrative science journalism. Newspaper editors, including those at the Times, are encouraging writers to curtail story lengths to keep pace with blogs and social networking services such as Twitter, she said.

But long-form narrative journalism still occupies an important niche in news reporting — one that readers crave — she said. In fact, one reader e-mailed Harmon saying she became so emotionally invested in one of Harmon’s articles, despite knowing nothing about the topic, that she read through to the very end.

“People will stick around for the end of a long story that moves them,” she said. “That’s good news for a newspaper industry that’s imploding.”

Harmon’s adventurous methods of journalistic research made a positive impression on several audience members interviewed, though Dan Williams ’11 said he wished Harmon had spent more time discussing the content of her articles in addition to her research experiences.

Harmon is currently at work on a reporting project about cancer patients in clinical trials.

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