Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris reports on science issues for NPR's newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Harris, who joined NPR in 1986, has traveled to the ends of the earth 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 and the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis).

In 2010, Harris’ reporting uncovered that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. He covered the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, followed by 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 of the journalism and science industries’ most prestigious awards. The University of California at Santa Cruz awarded Harris the 2010-11 Alumni Achievement Award – the school’s highest honor. 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.

As part of the team that collaborated on NPR's 1989 series “AIDS in Black America,” Harris was awarded a Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, a first place award from the National Association of Black Journalists and an Ohio State Award. In 1988, Harris won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award for his report, “Anti-Noise: Can Technology Turn Noise into Quiet?” which explored a revolutionary technology that uses computer-generated noise to cancel out, not just mask, unwanted noise.

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. Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harris spent the summer of 1980 as a Mass Media Science Fellow reporting on science issues for The Washington Star, in Washington, D.C.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, as well as past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

A California native, Harris was valedictorian of his college graduating class at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology, with highest honors.

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4:17am

Fri January 30, 2015
Shots - Health News

Could This Virus Be Good For You?

Originally published on Fri January 30, 2015 10:46 am

Augustine Goba (right) heads the laboratory at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. He and colleagues analyzed the viral genetics in blood samples from 78 Ebola patients early in the epidemic.
Stephen Gire AP

Viruses are usually thought of as the bad guys — causing everything from Ebola and AIDS to hepatitis and measles. But scientists have been following the curious story of a particular virus that might actually be good for you.

The virus is called GB Virus-C, and more than a billion people alive today have apparently been infected with it at some point during their lives, says Dr. Jack Stapleton, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa.

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3:03pm

Wed January 21, 2015
Shots - Health News

Scientists Give Genetically Modified Organisms A Safety Switch

Originally published on Wed January 21, 2015 7:37 pm

Scientists reprogrammed the common bacterium E. coli so it requires a synthetic amino acid to live.
BSIP UIG via Getty Images

Researchers at Harvard and Yale have used some extreme gene-manipulation tools to engineer safety features into designer organisms.

This work goes far beyond traditional genetic engineering, which involves moving a gene from one organism to another. In this case, they're actually rewriting the language of genetics.

The goal is to make modified organisms safer to use, and also to protect them against viruses that can wreak havoc on pharmaceutical production.

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1:13pm

Tue January 20, 2015
Shots - Health News

The City Might Not Be To Blame For High Asthma Rates

Originally published on Sat January 24, 2015 4:15 pm

Dr. Stephen Teach helps Jeffery Ulmer listen to his daughter Alauna's asthmatic breathing at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Alauna's mother, Farisa, holds her. The District has one of the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the country.
Jahi Chikwendiu Washington Post

Asthma affects children regardless of where they live and whether they are rich or poor. But scientists have long thought that living in poor urban neighborhoods adds an extra risk for this troublesome lung inflammation. A new study suggests that's not necessarily the case.

Asthma is often triggered by something in the environment, so in the 1960s, scientists started looking for places where asthma was especially bad.

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1:00pm

Tue January 13, 2015
Shots - Health News

U.S. Funding of Health Research Stalls As Other Nations Rev Up

Originally published on Tue January 13, 2015 3:03 pm

U.S. funding for medical research by source, 1994-2012. (Data were adjusted to 2012 dollars using the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index.)
American Medical Association

Though the United States is still leading the world in research related to diseases, it is rapidly losing its edge, according to an analysis in the American Medical Association's flagship journal JAMA.

If you look at biomedical research around the globe, the United States funded 57 percent of that work a decade ago. The U.S. share has since dropped to 44 percent, according to the study published online Tuesday.

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2:17pm

Fri January 9, 2015
Goats and Soda

Ebola Vaccine Will Soon Be Tested In West Africa

The windows at Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, where Ebola cases are treated, are streaked with chlorinated water as a disinfectant.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Ebola vaccine developers are on track to start testing their products in West Africa in about a month, the World Health Organization said at a press conference today.

And it's a race against the clock — testing will become more challenging if the number of new Ebola cases continues to drop.

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1:19pm

Wed January 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

Scientists Hit Antibiotic Pay Dirt Growing Finicky Bacteria In Lab

Originally published on Thu January 8, 2015 12:39 pm

You don't want to run into methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. A potential new antibiotic could help fight this bug.
CDC

Scientists say they have discovered a natural compound from bacteria that may prove to be a potent new antibiotic. This news comes at a time when many current antibiotics are losing their oomph — germs become resistant to them.

The new compound is especially intriguing because it appears that it might not lose its germ-killing potential, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

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3:38am

Wed January 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Bed Of Mouse Cells Helps Human Cells Thrive In The Lab

Originally published on Wed January 7, 2015 12:35 pm

Dr. Richard Schlegel and postdoctoral fellow Nancy Palechor-Ceron use a microscope to look at human epithelial cells growing on mouse fibroblasts at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Lauren Wolkoff/Georgetown University

A drug that is used worldwide to treat malaria is now being tested as a treatment for cervical cancer. This surprising idea is the result of a new laboratory technique that could have far-reaching uses.

Our story starts with Dr. Richard Schlegel at Georgetown University Medical Center. He's best known for inventing the Gardasil vaccine to protect women from cervical cancer.

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4:19pm

Fri January 2, 2015
Shots - Health News

Researchers Create Artificial Organs That Fit In Your Hand

Originally published on Mon January 5, 2015 4:16 pm

Postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Foulke-Abel holds the gut-on-a-chip inside the lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Richard Harris NPR

Great balls of cells! Scientists are developing mock human organs that can fit in the palm of your hand.

These organs-on-a-chip are designed to test drugs and help understand the basics of how organs function when they are healthy and when they are diseased.

For instance, you have your gut-on-a-chip being developed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It's a high-tech approach to dealing with a scourge of the low-tech world.

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5:11am

Fri December 26, 2014
Research News

Solving The Mystery Of Why Rock Ants Avoid Right Turns

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:15 am

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Delivery drivers plan their route with as many right turns as possible. Left turns - they're just a hassle. But get this - there is a species of ant that prefers left turns. And this got NPR's Richard Harris curious.

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4:00pm

Thu December 11, 2014
Shots - Health News

Unexpected Joint Pain Seen In Test Of Experimental Ebola Vaccine

A shipment of experimental Ebola vaccine is opened at a hospital in Geneva.
Mathilde Missioneiro AP

Two potential Ebola vaccines are currently being tested in people, to see if they're safe and to figure out the best dose.

Both trials have encountered some of the typical travails of vaccine research.

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4:54am

Wed December 10, 2014
Shots - Health News

Scientists Often Skip A Simple Test That Could Verify Their Work

Originally published on Wed December 10, 2014 5:34 pm

When the wrong cells take over, scientists' experiments can be derailed.
Chris Nickels for NPR

There's a simple test that scientists could use to make sure the cells they're studying in the lab are what they think they are. But most of the time, academic scientists don't bother.

That omission is a problem. One study found that between 18 percent and 36 percent of all cell lines have been misidentified. And this kind of mistaken identity is one reason that many results from experiments run in scientific labs can't be reproduced elsewhere.

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5:11am

Tue December 9, 2014
Shots - Health News

Mistaken Identities Plague Lab Work With Human Cells

Originally published on Wed December 17, 2014 7:55 pm

Georgetown's Robert Clark says it's very difficult to say precisely how many experiments have been spoiled by contaminated cell lines.
Phil Humnicky Courtesy of Georgetown University

There's a major flaw in many medical research studies that seems so basic that you'd think scientists would be smart enough to avoid it.

It turns out that cells studied in the laboratory often get mixed up. A researcher who thinks she is studying breast cancer cells might in fact be using melanoma cells.

It's a surprisingly common problem — even in some of the top scientific labs.

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11:26am

Tue November 25, 2014
Shots - Health News

How Can Vultures Eat Rotten Roadkill And Survive?

Originally published on Wed November 26, 2014 3:31 pm

You might wonder why 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year, yet there are some animals that seem to be immune from even the nastiest germs.

We're talking here about vultures, which feast on rotting flesh that is chockablock with bacteria that would be deadly to human beings. In fact, vultures have a strong preference for that kind of food.

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12:01pm

Mon November 24, 2014
Shots - Health News

Merck Partners With NewLink To Speed Up Work On Ebola Vaccine

A 26-year-old man receives an injection in September of an experimental Ebola vaccine being tested by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline.
NIAID

It's now Goliath versus Goliath in the quest for an Ebola vaccine.

Until now, the two leading candidates for a vaccine to protect against the Ebola virus were being led by global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on the one hand, and a tiny company in Ames, Iowa, that was virtually unknown, on the other.

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5:13am

Thu November 13, 2014
Global Health

Swiss Health Officials Try New Ways To Combat Ebola

Originally published on Thu November 13, 2014 7:54 am

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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3:35am

Tue November 11, 2014
Goats and Soda

Medical Experts Look For New Ways To Test Ebola Drugs

Originally published on Tue November 11, 2014 8:06 am

Nurses assist a new patient at an Ebola center in Liberia's Lofa County. As drug trials get underway, patients may receive experimental medicines.
Tommy Trenchard NPR

Medical experts are meeting today and tomorrow at the World Health Organization in Geneva to figure out how to test potential Ebola drugs in Africa. In addition to determining which experimental drugs should be the highest priority, the experts are sorting through some difficult ethical issues.

In short, they're trying to figure out how to design tests that will provide the fastest and most trustworthy answers — and yet minimize the need for comparison groups who won't be offered the experimental treatments.

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4:40pm

Tue October 28, 2014
Shots - Health News

Blood Test For Ebola Doesn't Catch Infection Early

Originally published on Wed October 29, 2014 8:48 am

Magnified 25,000 times, this digitally colorized scanning electron micrograph shows Ebola virus particles (green) budding from an infected cell (blue).
CDC/NIAD

In an ideal world, health care workers returning from West Africa would get a quick blood test to prove they aren't carrying the Ebola virus. A test like that would likely put to rest some of the anxiety surrounding these doctors, nurses and scientists.

Unfortunately, even the best blood test in the world can't do that.

The test uses a technology called PCR, for polymerase chain reaction. It can detect extraordinarily small traces of genetic material from the Ebola virus.

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6:19pm

Tue October 21, 2014
Shots - Health News

Ebola Vaccine Could Start Testing In Africa By January

Originally published on Wed October 22, 2014 10:22 am

Patients in a clinic line up to get a smallpox shot on Feb. 24, 1962, in Leopoldville, Congo. Health workers used vaccination campaigns to finally eradicate smallpox by 1980.
AP

The World Health Organization says that efforts are on track to distribute an experimental Ebola vaccine in West Africa in January.

Two potential vaccines are now being tested for safety in people, and Russia is developing another one. While quantities will be limited, scientists say even a relatively small supply of vaccine can help bring the epidemic under control.

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1:06pm

Wed October 1, 2014
Shots - Health News

Experimental Drug Jams Ebola Gene To Fight The Virus

Originally published on Thu October 2, 2014 11:46 am

A man stands above a new Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. Health workers in Liberia, the hardest-hit nation, have turned people away from treatment units because of shortages of beds and staff.
Pascal Guyot AFP/Getty Images

Plans are afoot to test drugs to treat Ebola in West Africa — and those studies could have far-reaching benefits far beyond this rapidly expanding epidemic.

That's because some of the drugs are based on nascent technologies that can be used to treat other infectious diseases — and even inherited ailments, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

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5:59pm

Tue September 30, 2014
Global Health

CDC Announces First Case Of Ebola Diagnosed In U.S.

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 6:46 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

5:06am

Tue September 30, 2014
Goats and Soda

Tests Of New Ebola Drugs Could Take Place As Early As November

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 1:46 pm

Some potential new Ebola drugs will be tested at treatment centers like this one run by Doctors Without Borders near Monrovia.
John Moore Getty Images

Health officials are gearing up to test drugs and vaccines against Ebola in West Africa, and they hope to start within two months. That's an ambitious timeline for a process that often takes years. The challenge is to move forward as quickly as possible while minimizing the risks that come with unproven drugs and vaccines.

Right now there are no proven medications. But researchers have been working methodically for years on vaccines that could protect people from the Ebola virus — and drugs that could treat the sick.

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11:57am

Wed September 24, 2014
Shots - Health News

After The NIH Funding 'Euphoria' Comes The 'Hangover'

Originally published on Fri September 26, 2014 11:02 am

When Richard Larson co-wrote a scientific paper about the perils of up-and-down funding for the National Institutes of Health, he noted that the research cycled between states of "euphoria," and a "hangover" far greater than you'd expect.

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4:11am

Wed September 17, 2014
Shots - Health News

Top Scientists Suggest A Few Fixes For Medical Funding Crisis

Originally published on Thu September 18, 2014 8:02 am

Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner, cancer biologist and director of the National Cancer Institute.
Manuel Balce Ceneta AP

Many U.S. scientists had hoped to ride out the steady decline in federal funding for biomedical research, but it's continuing on a downward trend with no end in sight. So leaders of the science establishment are now trying to figure out how to fix this broken system.

It's a familiar problem. Biomedical science has a long history of funding ups and downs, and, in the past, the system has always righted itself with the passage of time and plumper budgets.

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4:19pm

Tue September 16, 2014
Shots - Health News

Breast Cancer Patients Seek More Control Over Research Agenda

Originally published on Tue September 23, 2014 11:23 am

Coalitions of patient advocates now help steer research funding toward particular projects.
Lilli Carré for NPR

The federal government has poured more than $3 billion into breast cancer research over the past couple of decades, but the results have been disappointing. The disease remains a stubborn killer of women.

So the National Breast Cancer Coalition is trying something bold: The advocacy group has decided that it's not simply going to lobby for more research dollars. Instead, its leaders are sitting down at the table with scientists studying the disease and telling them how they'd like that money to be spent.

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11:08am

Tue September 16, 2014
The Salt

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

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 2:18 pm

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

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 — it's a partnership.

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

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3:38am

Tue September 16, 2014
Shots - Health News

Too Few University Jobs For America's Young Scientists

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 8:21 pm

Victoria Ruiz (left), a postdoctoral fellow in immunology, works with Brianna Delgado, a high school student that she mentors, at the Blaser Lab, inside NYU's Langone Medical Center in New York, NY.
Ramsay de Give for NPR

Imagine a job where about half of all the work is being done by people who are in training. That's, in fact, what happens in the world of biological and medical research.

In the United States, more than 40,000 temporary employees known as postdoctoral research fellows are doing science at a bargain price. And most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don't actually exist.

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4:52am

Mon September 15, 2014
Shots - Health News

Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 9:09 am

Tom Murphy, 56, in his home in Gainesville, Va., was diagnosed with ALS four years ago. An experimental drug seems to have slowed the progression of his disease, he says, though most ALS patients aren't as lucky.
T.J. Kirkpatrick for NPR

There's a funding crunch for biomedical research in the United States — and it's not just causing pain for scientists and universities. It's also creating incentives for researchers to cut corners — and that's affecting people who are seriously ill.

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4:58pm

Tue September 9, 2014
Shots - Health News

When Scientists Give Up

Originally published on Wed September 10, 2014 3:29 pm

Randen Patterson left a research career in physiology at U.C. Davis when funding got too tight. He now owns a grocery store in Guinda, Calif.
Max Whittaker/Prime for NPR

Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right — attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.

But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.

So, he's giving up on science.

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3:29am

Tue September 9, 2014
Shots - Health News

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 6:43 pm

Leif Parsons for NPR

Ten years ago, Robert Waterland got an associate professorship at Baylor College of Medicine and set off to study one of the nation's most pressing health problems: obesity. In particular, he's been trying to figure out the biology behind why children born to obese women are more likely to develop the condition themselves.

Waterland got sustaining funding from the National Institutes of Health and used it to get the project going.

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4:10pm

Thu August 21, 2014
Africa

Why Ebola Is Making It Harder To Provide Good Health Care

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 11:28 pm

Protective equipment is in short supply. Here, a Liberian burial team carefully disinfects its gloves before disposing of them.
John Moore Getty Images

The Ebola virus has killed more than 1,300 people in West Africa, but the indirect deaths caused by this epidemic are likely to be far worse. Right now, it's the rainy season. And that means it's high season for malaria.

"Probably 85 percent of the fevers right now are malaria," says Laura Miller, health coordinator in Sierra Leone for the International Rescue Committee. "But more of those cases will go untreated than usual."

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