In Memoriam: Sharon Begley Talks Science Journalism With Alan Alda

Earl Lane

Sharon Begley, a 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winner and one of the world's most respected science journalists, died Jan. 16 at 64 from complications of cancer. In a 43-year career at Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and STAT, Sharon wrote about science with a gift for storytelling and the doggedness of an investigative reporter.

In a conversation last summer with Alan Alda for his “Clear + Vivid” podcast, Begley discussed her decision to become a science writer, some of the stories she has covered and how she was trying to keep up with the huge output of research on the novel coronavirus. “It’s like a firehose that we’re all trying desperately to drink out of,” she told Alda.

Sharon Begley       
Courtesy of Ned Groth

It was during the summer that Begley, a never-smoker, learned that she had lung cancer. Five days before her death, she finished work on a story about an increasing proportion of lung cancer patients who, like her, were never smokers. As usual, the story was a cleared-headed look at the relevant statistics, efforts to understand how never-smokers’ disease differs from that of smokers, and whether screening guidelines need revision.

As Eric Boodman of STAT wrote in his obituary about Sharon: “No matter what she was writing about — genome editing or Alzheimer’s, dinosaurs or the death of Lady Di — she was a master, drawing you in and keeping you riveted. Her journalism was as rigorous as any peer-reviewed journal (and sometimes more so), but also vivid, funny, and fast-paced. Yet she had none of the ego you might expect in someone so brilliant. She was a virtuoso who didn’t act like one. She didn’t want to be fussed over.”

Sharon's 2019 AAAS Kavli award recognized a trio of stories for STAT on how fierce loyalty to the prevailing hypothesis on the origin of Alzheimer’s disease likely has hampered progress toward a cure. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, one of the judges, said her reporting offered “an important window into how the institution of science really works.”

Alan Alda is himself a AAAS Kavli award winner. He shared a 2010 award with Graham Chedd, Larry Engel and Jared Lipworth for "The Human Spark," a PBS series that asked basic questions about what makes us human and how our ancestors evolved with a spark of ingenuity and intelligence that set them apart from other species. The Kavli Foundation provides support for Alda's "Clear + Vivid" podcast.