Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

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The Salt
10:16 am
Tue September 16, 2014

A Scientist's Journey From Beer To Microbiology To Bourbon-Making

Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va., where hops grow in his garden. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 11:18 am

If you have been following the various posts about beer on The Salt, you may have noticed a pattern: Many of the folks making beer have a scientific background. There's good reason for that. People don't make beer. Yeast does. Well, OK β€” it's a partnership.

And sometimes, it's a two-way street between the brewery and the lab.

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Shots - Health News
10:17 am
Fri August 8, 2014

Investors Pump Prospects Of Unproven Ebola Treatments

Tobacco plants grown at an Owensboro, Ky., biotechnology firm were used to help produce an experimental serum used to treat two Americans infected with Ebola.
AP

Originally published on Fri August 8, 2014 10:24 am

Interest in drugs that might be used to treat Ebola virus has hit a fever pitch, but the buzz isn't simply about fear of Ebola, or about saving lives in poor nations of West Africa. It's also about money.

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Shots - Health News
10:32 am
Tue July 8, 2014

Smallpox Virus Found In Unsecured NIH Lab

Not something you'd want to find: Smallpox viruses infect a cell.
Science Source

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 9:10 am

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled "variola" β€” in other words, smallpox.

Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.

The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.

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Shots - Health News
2:41 pm
Thu June 5, 2014

Quick DNA Tests Crack Medical Mysteries Otherwise Missed

Doctors used a rapid DNA test to identify a Wisconsin teen's unusual infection with Leptospira bacteria (yellow), which are common in the tropics.
CDC/Rob Weyant

Originally published on Sat June 7, 2014 6:07 am

Researchers are developing a radical way to diagnose infectious diseases. Instead of guessing what a patient might have, and ordering one test after another, this new technology starts with no assumptions.

The technology starts with a sample of blood or spinal fluid from an infected person and searches through all the DNA in it, looking for sequences that came from a virus, a bacterium, a fungus or even a parasite.

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Shots - Health News
1:39 pm
Thu May 29, 2014

Measles Hits Amish Communities, And U.S. Cases Reach 20-Year High

Measles was brought to Ohio's Amish communities by people returning from mission trips to the Philippines.
Chuck Crow The Plain Dealer/Landov

Originally published on Thu May 29, 2014 3:34 pm

Members of Amish communities in Ohio traveled to the Philippines for heartfelt reasons: They were there on service projects to help less fortunate people. Unfortunately, they came home with unwelcome hitchhikers: measles viruses.

Those travelers hadn't been vaccinated against this highly contagious disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. As a result, they have triggered an outbreak of more than 130 cases, primarily among their unvaccinated friends and relatives in Amish communities.

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Shots - Health News
11:06 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Experimental Malaria Vaccine Blocks The Bad Guy's Exit

Red blood cells infected with the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Plasmodium is the parasite that triggers malaria in people.
Gary D. Gaugler Science Source

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 3:46 pm

For the first time in decades, researchers trying to develop a vaccine for malaria have discovered a new target they can use to attack this deadly and common parasite.

Finding a target for attack is a far cry from having a vaccine. And the history of malaria vaccines is littered with hopeful ideas that didn't pan out. Still, researchers in the field welcome this fresh approach.

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Shots - Health News
11:32 am
Thu May 15, 2014

Medicine Needs More Research On Female Animals, NIH Says

Sex can matter, whether you're looking at drug side effects, the response to treatment, or the progression of a disease.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 12:22 pm

Many potential new drugs look like they could be big winners β€” at least when judged by how well they work in mice or other lab animals. Over the years, there have been a number of promising cancer "cures," possible Alzheimer's treatments, and candidate drugs for holding back the ravages of various degenerative diseases.

But, time after time, these great promises fade away once the potential treatments are tried in people. There are lots of reasons for that. Humans aren't rodents, for starters.

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Shots - Health News
1:59 pm
Fri April 25, 2014

Family Tree Of Pertussis Traced, Could Lead To Better Vaccine

False-color transmission electron micrograph of a field of whooping cough bacteria, Bordetella pertussis.
A. Barry Dowsett Science Source

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 4:51 am

Whooping cough was once one of the leading killers of babies around the world. Now that it's largely controlled with a vaccine, scientists have had a chance to figure out how the disease came into being in the first place.

That story is told in a study published online this week in the journal mBio. And it turns out that whooping cough arose quite late in human history.

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Shots - Health News
11:58 am
Thu April 17, 2014

First Embryonic Stem Cells Cloned From A Man's Skin

This mouse egg (top) is being injected with genetic material from an adult cell to ultimately create an embryo β€” and, eventually, embryonic stem cells. The process has been difficult to do with human cells.
James King-Holmes Science Source

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 9:20 am

Eighteen years ago, scientists in Scotland took the nuclear DNA from the cell of an adult sheep and put it into another sheep's egg cell that had been emptied of its own nucleus. The resulting egg was implanted in the womb of a third sheep, and the result was Dolly, the first clone of a mammal.

Dolly's birth set off a huge outpouring of ethical concern β€” along with hope that the same techniques, applied to human cells, could be used to treat myriad diseases.

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Shots - Health News
2:51 pm
Fri April 11, 2014

Ebola Drug Could Be Ready For Human Testing Next Year

In this colored transmission electron micrograph, an infected cell (reddish brown) releases a single Ebola virus (the blue hook). As it exits, the virus takes along part of the host cell's membrane (pink, center), too. That deters the host's immune defenses from recognizing the virus as foreign.
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Science Source

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 5:13 pm

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is terrifying because there's no drug to treat this often fatal disease. But the disease is so rare, there's no incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to develop a treatment.

Even so, some small companies, given government incentives, are stepping into that breach. The result: More than half a dozen ideas are being pursued actively.

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Shots - Health News
9:24 am
Tue April 8, 2014

How Mouse Studies Lead Medical Research Down Dead Ends

I'm not trying to lead you astray. It's just that scientists are not skeptical enough about their mouse studies.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 5:59 am

Most experimental drugs fail before they make it through all the tests required to figure out if they actually work and if they're safe. But some drugs get fairly far down that road, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, based on poorly conducted studies at the outset.

Medical researchers reviewing this sorry state of affairs say the drug-development process needs serious improvement.

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Shots - Health News
12:49 pm
Sun April 6, 2014

Simple Blood Test To Spot Early Lung Cancer Getting Closer

An artist's illustration shows lung cancer cells lurking among healthy air sacs.
David Mack Science Source

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 10:32 am

One of these days, there could well be a simple blood test that can help diagnose and track cancers. We aren't there yet, but a burst of research in this area shows we are getting a lot closer.

In the latest of these studies, scientists have used blood samples to identify people with lung cancer.

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Shots - Health News
1:22 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

Custom Chromo: First Yeast Chromosome Built From Scratch

The research team used yeast chromosome No. 3 as the model for their biochemical stitchery. Pins and white diamonds in the illustration represent "designer changes" not found in the usual No. 3; yellow stretches represent deletions.
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 4:03 pm

Using the labor of dozens of undergraduate students, scientists have built a customized yeast chromosome from scratch.

It's a milestone in the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, where organisms can be tailored for industrial use. In this case, the near-term goal is to understand the genetics of yeast, and eventually the genetics of us.

This was quite an undertaking. Yeast have about 6,000 genes packed in 16 tidy bundles called chromosomes. Each chromosome is an enormous molecule of DNA packed in proteins.

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Shots - Health News
11:14 am
Wed March 26, 2014

Fewer People Are Getting Infections In Hospitals, But Many Still Die

iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 5:24 pm

Hospital-acquired infections continue to be a big problem in health care, with 4 percent of patients getting a new infection while hospitalized, a study finds. And 11 percent of those infections turn deadly.

It's the first time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has attempted to catalog all hospital infections, not just the infections with germs on their watch list. Researchers surveyed 183 hospitals nationwide, emphasizing smaller community hospitals.

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Shots - Health News
2:40 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Never Mind Eyesight, Your Nose Knows Much More

Your schnoz deserves more respect.
epSos .de/Flickr

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 5:14 am

The human eye can distinguish more than 2 million distinct colors. But scientists studying smell now say they have their vision colleagues beat: The human nose, they say, can distinguish more than a trillion different smells.

Yes, trillion with a T.

That new figure displaces a much more modest estimate. Until now, smell researchers have been saying the human nose can distinguish about 10,000 smells.

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