Matthew D. LaPlante on His Improbable Path to Science Journalism

Matthew D. LaPlante
Tuesday, June 25, 2019

I nearly dropped out of high school, and science was to blame.

It’s not that I didn’t like it. I was, in fact, quite taken by it. I had a telescope in my window and a microscope on my desk. I made sketches of the animals I saw in the hills near my home. And I loved making things explode.

I loved science. I just wasn’t very good at it — or so I came to believe. That’s what comes of spending hours upon hours trying to remember the names of elements in the periodic table, bones in the human body or orders of mammals — with nothing to show for it but bleary eyes and failing grades.

I scraped by. Enough to graduate, at least. I enlisted in the military, then found my way to college, where I worked desperately hard to avoid any science classes. There is a field of scholarship called “liberal studies,” I learned, that allows you to do a curricular two-step around subjects at which you struggle. Oh, how I danced.

I found a job in journalism. I wrote about sports, then crime, then war. I remained fascinated by science, but I still didn’t feel as though I understood it. Not enough to report on it, at least. To me, it might as well have been sorcery.

Over the past few years, though, I have come to find myself in a rather implausible role. I’m a science communicator. As a co-writer of several books, I’ve partnered with doctors and researchers to help make science accessible to general readers. As the host of a research-themed public radio program, I interview biologists, ecologists, computer scientists, chemists, geologists and mathematicians.

Courtesy of BenBella Books

I mentor science graduate students at Utah State University, where I am now a faculty member in the journalism department. And, this year, my first solo book — “Superlative: The Biology of Extremes” — hit bookstores nationwide. It is about organisms that have evolved in extreme ways and the scientists who research those amazing life forms.

None of this was by design. And none of it might ever have come to pass if it were not for a dream I had in the summer of 2013, and a phone call I got late the following year.

First, the dream: I don’t recall the details, but I clearly remember the question I had when I woke, in the middle of the night: “What is the oldest living life form?” And since answers to such questions are usually quite easy to come by, I rolled over, opened my laptop, and asked the internet.

It turns out there is no good answer for this question; scientists simply aren’t sure. But one candidate organism caught my attention and my imagination, for it was just hours south of my home in Salt Lake City. It was an aspen clone, possibly tens of thousands of years in age. Interconnected via its root structure, it is thought to be greater than 100 acres in size, which means it also contends for the title of the world’s largest known living organism. Also, it was dying—and nobody was quite sure why, although some researchers had resolved to find out.

I was awed by the clone, which folks call “Pando.” So I spent the next few months visiting this one-tree forest and, with the assistance of an undergraduate journalism student named Paul Christiansen, learning from the scientists who are studying it. The resulting article by me and Paul was published in Salt Lake City Weekly a few months later.

It began:

There was a boy named Gary here, in 1984. He carved his name into the bark of an aspen tree…

What followed was, I reasoned, a decent story about ecology. And so I submitted it for consideration for a 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in the small newspaper category. That is what led to the phone call from AAAS; the story was a winner.

The Pando aspen grove in Fish Lake National Forest, Utah. 
Credit: J. Zapell

The awards were presented at the next AAAS annual meeting, which was held in February 2015 in San Jose, California, just minutes from where I nearly failed out of high school. That’s where I met Laura Helmuth, then the science editor for Slate and now in a similar role at The Washington Post, who was one of the AAAS Kavli judges. “This is a great story,” she said. “Have you thought of making it a chapter in a book?”

None of this made me start thinking of myself as a science writer; in fact, I still feel a little strange about identifying myself in that way. But over the next few years, encouraged by the success of the article, stoked by the AAAS Kavli award, and buoyed by the wonder I felt when I first stood in the shade of one of the world’s largest and oldest life forms, I took on other science reporting projects. I also began looking for excuses to visit other organisms that were superlative—the biggest, fastest, loudest, deadliest and whateverest of living things—and interviewing researchers who study them.  

I ran with cheetahs in Ethiopia. I looked for whales off the coasts of Oregon and California. I trekked through the rainforest to spot poison dart frogs in Colombia. My resulting book is an ode to awe and a tribute to researchers who study life at the extremes.

To evolve to be superlative, these organisms had to solve challenges other organisms had not yet solved. In doing so, they may help humans overcome our own challenges. For example, the African bush elephant, the largest land animal, is affected by cancer much less frequently than us. The fastest bird, the peregrine falcon, has solved an aeronautics problem that still can cause planes to fall from the sky. The smallest known life-forms in the world may help us understand what genetic material is absolutely essential to life, while the animal with the largest genome decoded so far, the axolotl, may help show us ways to bypass pieces of genetic code that have always been thought necessary for life.

The axolotl, a large aquatic salamander native to Mexico. 
Credit: Shutterstock

When I see my book on bookstore shelves, in the section labeled “science” and close to work by writers like Mary Roach, Neil Shubin, and Ed Yong, I still feel like a fraud. Not so deep down, I’m still that kid who couldn’t remember the difference between gallium and germanium, cetaceans and pinnipeds, or the trapezoid and trapezium.

But, as it turns out, there was a place in science for that kid. There’s a place in science for anyone. And I’ve come to believe that we need to do a better job of making sure everyone knows that.

The easier it is for young people to conclude that they are simply bad at science, after all, the easier it will be for them to conclude it is not important and opt out of the debate on crucial issues. That is to say nothing of those who are easily swayed into believing that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to global challenges like climate change.

Those who struggle at science are not fools or lost causes. They are potentially our best translators and our greatest ambassadors. And I suspect there are a lot of them out there, frustrated and bleary-eyed, but not lost. Not yet.

Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism at Utah State University and the host of UnDisciplined, a research-themed program on Utah Public Radio. His next book, “Lifespan,” is a collaboration with Harvard geneticist David Sinclair about the state of aging research. Twitter: @mdlaplante

Associated homepage image credit: Keith Johnson