Selected work


Recents and Favorites

The Devastating Allure of Medical Miracles, WIRED, February 2019. The product of 9 months of intense reporting, this story pulls aside the operating room curtain to reveal an experimental field with serious lapses in transparency, ethics, and patient care that, despite creating astounding levels of patient suffering, have gone otherwise unreported. Especially in the US, two decades of glowing press and publicity about these experimental transplants— as well as the field’s infrequent, incomplete, and out-of-date publications in medical journals —  have consistently conveyed an impression of success rates around 80 percent and few serious complications among the 30 patients given hand transplants in the US. (About 100 have occurred worldwide.) In fact, things have gone badly for a third of those 30 US patients, with three patients (10 percent of the total) dead of causes clearly or possibly tied to their transplants, seven with their transplants removed, and at least ten with serious, life-changing side-effects or complications. For the first time, this story reveals the cost of  these complications and the lack of transparency about them, tallied in immeasurable pain and suffering,  death, debility, and experiences of abandonment, betrayal, and moral horror.

Climate Change Enters Its Blood Sucking Phase, The Atlantic, Feb 21, 2019. In northern New England, an climate-driven explosion in populations of moose ticks is decimating moose populations. They do so by literally sucking the life out of young calves during their first winter. In April 2019, I went into the snow of far northern Vermont with two young state field biologists to find the most recent calf to succumb — and in one of the most gripping pieces of reporting I’ve ever done, witnessed a grim necropsy that was done with such respect and care and sheer, unexpected beauty that it somehow gave me hope.

What Does It Mean When a Clinical Trial Fails Early?  Mosaic and The Atlantic, April 17, 2018.  (A: Probably not what you think.) I first wrote about neurologist Helen Mayberg’s innovative depression treatment— inserting two humming electrodes deep into the brain —  in 2006, when it was being hailed as the most promising advance in depression treatment in decades. Two year later, in 2008, a device company started a 200-patient FDA clinical trial; which they quietly killed “for futility” in 2013; and stayed silent on until October 2017, when they finally published the paper. Why did the trial fail, and what did it mean? I started asking those questions one day in April 2016. In this story, published exactly two years later, I describe the weird world I found. Read of it in either Mosaic or The Atlantic.

The Touch of Madness, Pacific Standard, Oct 1, 2017.  What if we listened to what it feels like to be mad, instead of telling people their experiences are just sound and fury meaning nothing? So asks Nev Jones, a brilliant young scholar whose life and future unraveled when she became psychotic in the first year of her doctoral program in philosophy. From that pit of despair and delusion she emerged to tell a story of how culture shapes madness — and become a powerful, extraordinarily articulate advocate for changing how we all view the mad.

A Sane Person’s Privacy Nightmare. Slate, Sept 25, 2017. On the potential privacy nightmare posed by the emerging healthcare sector that wants to use data gathered from smartphone use to spot mental-health crises early and intervene before they get bad. The idea has huge potential for good — and for privacy disasters that could make the recent Equifax leaks look minor.

Survival of the Prettiest. New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sept 18, 2017.  I review five new books on Charles Darwin, including one on coral reefs and — most prominently and at greatest length — ornithologist Richard Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty, which I found a rich, riveting, and wonderfully funny book, “both seductive and mutinous.” [PS: This book was later nominated for and one of two runners-up the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.]

What My Uncle, A Fighter Pilot, Might Have Thought of McCain’s “No” Moment. Slate, July 31, 2017. John McCain’s Yes-No hero drama on the ACA was less heroic than cruel. I suggest another script for his next act.

The Smartphone Psychiatrist – The Atlantic, July/August 2017. Why Tom Insel quit the most powerful position in psychiatry — the directorship of the National Institute of Health — to try the smartphone as a way to bring mental-health care into the 21st century.

Why There’s New Hope About Ending Blindness – National Geographic. My September 2016 cover story on four experiments attempting to cure blindness.

The most terrifying childhood condition you’ve never heard of.  Spectrum, July 6, 2016.  A story of regression, mystery, and love.

Beautiful Brains: How adolescence, astonishingly, is actually an adaptive thing. National Geographic, November 2011.

The Fault in Our DNA, The New York Times Book Review, 10 July 2014.  My review of Nicholas Wade’s “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book,” A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, and Sharon Moalem’s much more constructive and entertaining look at rare genetic condictions, Inheritance: How Our Genes Changes Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes.

The F.D.A. vs. Personal Genetic Testing. The New Yorker, 27 Nov 2013. How 23andMe came a cropper.

Play That F**king Little Sixteenth NoteNeuron Culture. The best thing I ever learned from a teacher.

Genetics: The Rite Of Passage. Slate, 27 October 2013On the humbling of genetics, and how the field is like Michelangelo’s David.

The Social Life of Genes, Pacific Standard, Sept 2013. Our genomes, it appears, react with particular sensitivity to social experience, and for good reason. Winner of the 2014 AAAS/Kavli Award in Magazine Writing. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2015.

Clues in the Cycle of Suicide, New York Times, 24 June 2013. It may seem perverse that the period of spring and early summer should contain what Kay Redfield Jamison calls “a capacity for self-murder that winter less often has.” Yet it does.

Restless GenesNational Geographic (cover story), January 2013. How genes, culture, and time made us explorers. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2014.

The Beauty of the Teenage Brain, National Geographic (cover story), September 2012.  Believe it or not, adolescence is adaptive. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2013.

A Depression Switch?, New York Times Magazine – An experimental brain surgery works remarkably well, raising questions about the nature of depression. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2007.

Buried Answers  New York Times Magazine. The autopsy’s death is killing us. Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. 2006.

The Gregarious BrainNew York Times Magazine.  A simple genetic deletion reveals much about the nature of human sociability.

Other Favorites

Christine Kenneally’s “Invisible History of the Human Race”,  Cover review, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 16 Oct 2014.

Having hounded the researcher mercilessly, the activists attacked Dreger too. The bad news is that this was hard on ­Dreger. (More on that momentarily. For now, I’ll just note they called her son a “womb turd.”) The good news is that from this mess emerged not only a sharp, disruptive scholar but this smart, delightful book.

Terrible Twos Who Stay Terrible, New York Times, 16 Dec 2013.  “Dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.”

If Intelligence Is the Norm, Stupidity Gets More Interesting, New York Times.  Maybe we should stop thinking about the genetics of intelligence, and think about the genetics of stupidity instead.]

David Dobbs on science writing: ‘hunt down jargon and kill it’, The Guardian, 19 April 2013. On writing.

The F.D.A. vs. Personal Genetic TestingThe New Yorker online, 27 Nov 2013. How 23andMe came a cropper.

Why Autopsy Gandolfini? Death Is Certain; Its Cause Is Not, Nautilus, 21 June 2013. Why would you autopsy someone when you know how they died? Because there’s a good chance you don’t.

How Play Made Us Great, New York Times, 22 April 2013.

Social Environment Steers the Effects of Trauma, New York Times. Maybe the ‘trauma’ in ‘traumatic event’ is not the event, but the social response to it.

A Musician Who Performs With a Scalpel, New York Times. A musical surgeon tries soothing post-surgical pain with Mozart. It works.

Trial and Error: On the Fallibility of Science, New York Times Magazine.  Most new scientific findings are wrong. What this means.