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Joe Palca

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

Palca began his journalism career in television in 1982, working as a health producer for the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. In 1986, he left television for a seven-year stint as a print journalist, first as the Washington news editor for Nature, and then as a senior correspondent for Science Magazine.

In October 2009, Palca took a six-month leave from NPR to become science writer in residence at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Palca has won numerous awards, including the National Academies Communications Award, the Science-in-Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Chemical Society's James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Prize, and the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Writing. In 2019, Palca was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in journalism.

With Flora Lichtman, Palca is the co-author of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (Wiley, 2011).

He comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he worked on human sleep physiology.

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET

The Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it was taking the lead on a national effort to facilitate the use of plasma from recovered patients to treat patients infected with the coronavirus.

The FDA program involves the Mayo Clinic and the American Red Cross, with funding from the federal government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

When our bodies are invaded by a virus, our immune systems make particular proteins called antibodies to help fight off infection.

Scientists working to quell the COVID-19 pandemic think it will be possible to figure out which antibodies are most potent in quashing a coronavirus infection, and then make vast quantities of identical copies of these proteins synthetically.

In an unusual move, the Food and Drug Administration today announced that is making it easier for doctors to try an experimental treatment for COVID-19 patients that uses plasma from people who had the disease and recovered.

There is scant evidence it works in people infected with the coronavirus, but the approach has been tried for other illnesses.

The federal government is now adding supercomputers to its tool set in the hunt for ways to stop COVID-19.

While health officials in the United States wait to see just how bad a public health challenge COVID-19 will pose, they still have to deal with an all-too-familiar challenge: flu.

It's been a bad flu season. Not the worst ever, but bad.

"It started very early this year," says Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collecting statistics about flu.

Viral infections can be very hard to treat. Just ask anyone who has a bad case of the flu.

But that's not deterring research groups around the world from looking for an effective therapy against the new coronavirus, although they know it won't be easy.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Right now scientists are trying to accomplish something that was inconceivable a decade ago: create a vaccine against a previously unknown virus rapidly enough to help end an outbreak of that virus. In this case, they're trying to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that has already infected tens of thousands of people, mainly in China, and given rise to a respiratory condition now known as COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

2020 could be a banner year for the U.S. space program. If all goes well, two commercial companies may be able to send astronauts into space. This country hasn't been able to do that since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Also next year, a new six-wheeled rover is supposed to head off to Mars. And hundreds of small satellites are scheduled to go into orbit. And that will provide global Internet coverage. Here to talk about the year ahead in space is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

The Year In Science News

Dec 26, 2019

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, astronomers have known about black holes for a long time, but they never had a picture of one until this year. We asked NPR science correspondent Joe Palca what were the three biggest science stories of the year, and here's what he said.

There's a mole on Mars that's making NASA engineers tear their hair out.

No, they haven't discovered a small, insectivorous mammal on the red planet.

The mole vexing engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is a scientific instrument known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — or just "the mole" — carried on NASA's InSight probe that landed on Mars a year ago.

It's not easy to treat viral infections. Just ask anyone with a bad cold or a case of the flu.

But scientists in Massachusetts think they may have a new way to stop viruses from making people sick by using what amounts to a pair of molecular scissors, known as CRISPR.

It's a gene editing tool based on a molecule that occurs naturally in microorganisms.

Tiny satellites are taking on a big-time role in space exploration.

CubeSats are small, only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. As the name suggests, they're cube-shaped, 4 inches on each side, and weigh in at about 3 pounds. But with the miniaturization of electronics, it's become possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny package.

It's hard for doctors to do a thorough eye exam on infants. They tend to wiggle around — the babies, that is, not the doctors.

But a new smartphone app takes advantage of parents' fondness for snapping pictures of their children to look for signs that a child might be developing a serious eye disease.

The app is the culmination of one father's five-year quest to find a way to catch the earliest signs of eye disease, and prevent devastating loss of vision.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Locusts are not just a biblical plague. They're swarming around the world. Still. Again.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the desert locust situation is serious in Yemen and at the Indo-Pakistan border.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many medical tests require blood drawn with a needle. But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, some engineers in California have turned to another bodily fluid for doing these tests - sweat.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A telescope now under construction promises to revolutionize astronomy. It's being built atop a mountain in Chile, in the Andes. It's called the LSST. It is a survey telescope taking wide-angle views of the sky. And this telescope is expected to spot rare events that previously have been hard or impossible to find. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca toured the telescope's construction site.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it was an inspiring moment for people around the world.

But another kind of explorer is responsible for much of the modern enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Since the days of Apollo, the greatest adventures in space have been these robots that have gone all over the solar system," says Emily Lakdawalla, a self-described planetary evangelist at the Planetary Society.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Much of South America experienced a solar eclipse this week. NPR's Joe Palca went to Chile to see it in its totality. And because half of the world's major telescopes are in Chile, he decided to stick around and see what researchers are studying. And Joe Palca is with us now from 17,000 feet.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: OK. So where are you right now, exactly?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Later today, an eclipse will sweep across the Pacific Ocean and then pass over parts of Chile and Argentina. One thing that makes this eclipse special is that it's going to pass directly over a major observatory in Chile. And you know who is there right now at that observatory? Our own Joe Palca.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. I'm going to try to pronounce this - the observatory is called Cerro Tololo, correct?

PALCA: That's right. It's the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are human cancer genes in plants. Scientists didn't put them there. They were there to begin with. NPR's Joe Palca recently went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he spoke with a scientist who's exploring those genes.

Small drones can do big jobs: Firefighters can use them to find hot spots in blazes, environmental monitors can find the source of hazardous chemical leaks. One just delivered a human kidney for transplant surgery.

But it takes lots of power to spin four helicopter blades fast enough to keep a quadcopter-type drone in the air. Most can only stay aloft for about 30 minutes.

A team of astronomers led by an undergraduate student in Texas has discovered two planets orbiting stars more than 1,200 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers already knew of about 4,000 exoplanets, so finding two more might not seem like huge news. But it's who found them and how that's getting attention.

Is there an efficient way to tinker with the genes of plants? Being able to do that would make breeding new varieties of crop plants faster and easier, but figuring out exactly how to do it has stumped plant scientists for decades.

Now researchers may have cracked it.

Modifying the genetics of a plant requires getting DNA into its cells. That's fairly easy to do with animal cells, but with plants it's a different matter.

Opportunity lost.

NASA has officially declared an end to the mission of the six-wheeled rover on Mars. Opportunity lost power in a dust storm last June, and all efforts to make contact have failed.

"Our beloved Opportunity remained silent," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said Wednesday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "With a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude," he added, "I declare the Opportunity mission as complete."

Many vaccines and some medicines, such as insulin, have to be delivered by injection. That's a pain, both for patients and for health care providers. But two groups of researchers are trying to put some of these medications in pill form to avoid the needle.

Scientists have evidence that a mountain 3 miles tall, in the middle of a crater on Mars, may be made largely from dust and sand.

To get the data for that surprising conclusion, the researchers MacGyvered a navigation instrument on the NASA rover Curiosity, and turned it into a scientific instrument.

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