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.

A nationwide trial is underway to see if the drug hydroxychloroquine can prevent disease in people exposed to the novel coronavirus. A second trial will test to see if the drug can prevent severe disease in people who are already showing COVID-19 symptoms.

The trials are being run by David Boulware, an infectious disease scientist at the University of Minnesota.

"My normal research is doing clinical trials in Africa for fungal meningitis of the brain," Boulware says.

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.

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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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There are rare chemical elements, and then there is tennessine. Only a couple dozen atoms of the stuff have ever existed. For the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has the convoluted story of one of the latest elements to be added.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The path of a total solar eclipse passed over a major observatory in Chile this afternoon. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca was there. He saw the eclipse from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory from where he joins us now live.

Hey, Joe.

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

KELLY: I'm well. Thank you. And I'm thinking, I have actually - I have seen a couple of total solar eclipses. I have never seen one from an observatory, which I'm guessing is a pretty darn good place to see one.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a mole stuck in the ground on Mars - not the small, furry animal but a probe on NASA's Mars InSight lander called the mole. It's a probe that was supposed to go 15 feet beneath the Martian surface, but it got stuck after only going one.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

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.

Big, important scientific breakthroughs are built of small, incremental experiments. And the partial government shutdown is already interfering with some of that research.

Scientists often depend on the government for grant funding, expertise and — in some cases — even regulatory approval. With the shutdown, some researchers are missing those key elements of scientific collaboration. Here's how some scientists say the shutdown is affecting their work.

Sometime early in 2019, the Chinese civilian space program plans to land a six-wheeled rover on the moon's far side — the side we never see from Earth.

The Chinese haven't released the exact date the landing is to occur, but they have announced the location. The probe, known as Chang'e 4, is targeted for Aitkin Basin, a giant impact crater near the Moon's south pole.

In addition to a variety of cameras, the rover carries ground-penetrating radar that can peer beneath the lunar surface.

In 2003, Jay Siegel was up for a new challenge. Siegel was a tenured professor of chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, but he took a job at the University of Zurich.

"When I first moved, people said, 'Oh, you're crazy to leave San Diego; it's a paradise. Why would you go to Europe? Blah, blah blah,' "recalls Siegel. "And after 10 years people were saying, 'Oh, man, that was the smartest thing you ever did. Zurich is wonderful.' "

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