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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 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 forScience Magazine.

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

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.

This Sunday night, we headed back to Mars: NASA's MAVEN spacecraft fired its six main engines, slowing down enough so it could be captured by the gravity of the red planet and go into orbit. MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is a distinctly un-sexy name for a project as cool as a sojourn to Mars. But whatever it's called, the probe is on a mission that should be of interest to everyone who likes living on Earth. You can describe the point of the mission in one...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBjIYB5Yk2I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8cF5QPPmWU We have pocket watches, pocket cameras and now — with smartphones — pocket computers. So why shouldn't doctors and scientists around the world have pocket microscopes? Bioengineer Manu Prakash and his team at Stanford University have designed a light microscope that not only fits in your pocket but costs less than a dollar to make. And here's the coolest part: You put the microscope together yourself, by...

Some people dream of climbing Mount Everest or riding a bicycle across the country. Mike Davidson's dream has been to create the perfect toothbrush, and now he thinks he's done it. The saga of this brush tells a lot about the passion and persistence to take an idea and turn it into a product. Shots first introduced you to Davidson in 2012. At the time, Davidson thought his toothbrush would be ready for the market the following June. That turned out to be wishful thinking. The new target date...

Almost every time reporters go out on assignment, they run across something unexpected that they just can't fit into the story they're working on. When science correspondent Joe Palca and producer Rebecca Davis were in Boston reporting on a boy with a rare form of cancer, they found themselves in the office of Jahrling Ocular Prosthetics , a business dedicated to making artificial eyes. Joe and Rebecca spoke with Joyce and Eric Jahrling, two of the four Jahrlings who work at this family firm,...

Every so often, a scientific paper just begs for a sexy headline. Consider this study in the current issue of Science : " A Method for Building Self-folding Machines ." A bit bland, you'll no doubt agree. A Real-Life, Origami-Inspired Transformer is how the journal's public affairs department referred to it. Now that's more like it. Transformers are those toys (and movies about toys ) that can change on their own from one thing into another ... say a car into a killer robot. Graduate...

Astronomers have a mystery on their hands. Two large radio telescopes, on opposite sides of the planet, have detected very brief, very powerful bursts of radio waves. Right now, astronomers have no idea what's causing these bursts or where they're coming from. And nothing has been ruled out at the moment — not even the kind of outrageous claims you'd expect to see in tabloid headlines. Australian Recordings Inspire Curiosity And Doubt The first report of these "fast radio bursts" appeared in...

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Next month, the European Space Agency's Rosetta space probe will catch up with a comet, which it has been chasing across the solar system for a decade. Once there, the Rosetta probe will take pictures, make measurements and drop a probe down to the comet's surface. Last January, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reported that for more than two years the spacecraft had shut off most of its instruments...

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: Events unfold. Plots unfold. And this summer, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been telling us how science unfolds. It's series we're creatively calling Unfolding Science. (SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG) BLOCK: Today, Joe tells us about large biological molecules called proteins that have to fold and unfold properly to keep us alive. JOE PALCA, BYLINE: When we talk about food, protein is a kind of...

Scientists from many areas of biology are flocking to a technique that allows them to work inside cells, making changes in specific genes far faster — and for far less money — than ever before. "It's really powerful, it's a really exciting development," says Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for a different technique that also lets scientists modify how genes work. But, Mello says, this new genetic tool – known as CRISPR for...

There are smartphone apps for monitoring your diet, your drugs, even your heart. And now a Michigan psychiatrist is developing an app he hopes doctors will someday use to predict when a manic episode is imminent in patients with bipolar disorder. People with the disorder alternate between crushing depression and wild manic episodes that come with the dangerous mix of uncontrollable energy and impaired judgment. There are drugs that can prevent these episodes and allow people with bipolar...

Transcript TESS VIGELAND, HOST: From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'M Tess Vigeland. Let us contemplate the American teenage girl, perhaps the very first one. Apparently, there's been some scientific debate about who she is and whether she hails from the same gene sequence as what we think of as the first Americans, American Indians. And when I say gene sequence, we're not talking about Skinnies from Urban Outfitters. NPR's science...

When Bryan and Elizabeth Shaw learned that their son Noah had a potentially deadly eye cancer, like a lot of people, they turned to their religious faith to help sustain them. But faith is also impelling Bryan Shaw to create software to detect eye cancer in children as soon after birth as possible. The Shaws are Christians, and their faith is extremely important to them. When they were at their bleakest, "Bryan would pull out the Psalms and say, 'This is how King David suffered in the Psalms,...

A scientist's ambitious plan to create an early detection system for eye cancer using people's home cameras is coming along. Last fall, we told you about Bryan Shaw's scheme . He believes parents' cameras can reveal whether their baby has leukocoria , a white glow coming from the pupil when you shine a light in their eyes. This so-called white eye can be an early sign of retinoblastoma , a rare form of eye cancer. Children with the disease develop tumors on their retinas at the back of their...

Transcript AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. On the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, scientists are doing something astonishing. They're creating a white dwarf star - not a whole star but enough of one to study in minute detail. As part of his series, "Joe's Big Idea," NPR's Joe Palca introduces us to the astronomer behind this exotic project and explains why he's determined to learn all he can about this interesting stellar object. JOE...

Removing all the dangerous bacteria from drinking water would have enormous health benefits for people around the world. The technologies exist for doing that, but there's a problem: cost. Now a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks he's on to a much less expensive way to clean up water. MIT's Rohit Karnik is a mechanical engineer who works on water technologies. He says it's relatively easy to make membranes that can filter the bacteria out of water. But making...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0rGMRdZiOY There's only one thing better than having a good idea, and that's having a good idea that really works. Earlier this year, I reported on some students at Rice University who had designed a low-cost medical device to help premature infants breathe. The key to making the medical instrument affordable was an unlikely component: a simple aquarium pump that you could pick up at a pet store. Turns out the innovative instrument — aquarium pump and all — not...

Transcript DAVID GREENE, HOST: Scientists may have filled in a gap in one the fundamental theories of physics. We've always been told that magnets have two poles, north and south. But theory suggests there should be something called a magnetic monopole, a magnet that has either a north pole or a south pole but not both of them. So far no one has found this elusive magnetic monopole. As part of his project, Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca brings us the story of scientists at Amherst College in...

Transcript ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission is back in business. For the past 31 months, the spacecraft has effectively been asleep. Most of its instruments were shut off to save energy, including the radio for communicating with Earth. Mission managers can now start preparing Rosetta for a rendezvous with a comet later this year. NPR's Joe Palca has more. JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Rosetta went into hibernation in June 2011. There was an automated timer on board that...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0rGMRdZiOY Good ideas don't only come from experts. An innovative engineering program in Texas has been proving that college undergraduates can tackle — and solve — vexing health challenges in developing countries. Two engineers at Rice University in Houston are tapping the potential of bright young minds to change the world. Big Problems, Simple Solutions Rural hospitals in the developing world have lots of problems. Some are huge: lack of electricity, lack of...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1jbEvhFzQM Three engineering undergrads at Rice University gave a teenager with a rare genetic disease something he'd always wished for: the ability to turn off the light in his room. It may not seem like much, but for 17-year-old Dee Faught, it represents a new kind of independence. Dee can't operate a light switch because he can't reach far enough from his wheelchair. He has a disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta , also known as brittle bone disease. In...

Bryan Shaw never expected to write a research paper about a rare eye cancer. He's a chemist who works on how metals and proteins interact . But life has a funny way of interrupting the best-laid plans, and now Shaw may be on to a powerful new way to detect retinoblastoma in newborns. Such early detection could mean children with the disease would have a better chance of keeping their eyes and staying alive. Shaw's scientific odyssey begins in May 2008, when he and his wife, Elizabeth, had a...

After traveling for more than two years and some 1 billion miles, NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter is back where it started. Almost. At 3:21 p.m. ET Wednesday, the Juno space probe will be 347 miles away from Earth, just above the southern tip of Africa. (As an aside, at around 11:30 a.m. ET, it was more than 90,000 miles away.) It's not that Juno got homesick — the return to Earth was a necessity. To send it on a direct path to Jupiter would have required a more powerful rocket than the United...

Try to imagine someone who is supremely calm while at the same time bursting with energy, and you've got a pretty good idea of what Jim Olson is like. He's a cancer researcher, physician, cyclist, kayaker and cook, not always in that order. He approaches each activity with incredible passion. But to really understand Olson, you have to watch him in action with patients. My remarkable visit with him, a part of my series, " Joe's Big Idea ," begins on the top floor of Seattle Children's...

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things a doctor has to tell patients is that their medical problems are iatrogenic. What that means is they were caused by a doctor in the course of the treatment. Sometime these iatrogenic injuries are accidental. But sometimes, because of the limits of medical technology, they can be inevitable. Now, a medical researcher in Seattle thinks he has a way to eliminate some of the inevitable ones. James Olson is a physician at the Seattle Children's Hospital...

There's a hole in the sun's corona. But don't worry — that happens from time to time. "A coronal hole is just a big, dark blotch that we see on the sun in our images," says Dean Pesnell , project scientist for NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory . "We can only see them from space, because when we look at them [through] a regular telescope, they don't appear." That's because you have to look at wavelengths of light that the human eye can't see. As the name suggests, coronal holes are holes in...

Trypophobia may be moving out of the urban dictionary and into the scientific literature . A recent study in the peer-review journal Psychological Science takes a first crack at explaining why some people may suffer from a fear of holes. Trypophobia may be hard to find in textbooks and diagnostic manuals, but a brief Web search will show that plenty of people appear to have it. There's even a website, trypophobia.com , that explains the problem like this: "Have you ever felt anxious when you...

Imagine winning the World Series, the lottery and a Nobel Prize all in one day. That's pretty much how scientists and engineers in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., felt one year ago when the 1 ton, six-wheeled rover named Curiosity landed safely on Mars. Within minutes, the rover began sending pictures back to Earth. In the past year it has sent back a mountain of data and pictures that scientists are sorting through, trying to get a better...

Transcript ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. A program such as ours is timed to the exact second, and occasionally, there are small holes when our mix of news and features doesn't quite fill up our two-hour slot. So NPR's Joe Palca offered to come to our rescue with some short math and sciencey hole-filling stories, stories about what else - holes. JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Today, we're going to talk about doughnut holes, those round things you buy...

The big idea behind Joe's Big Idea is to report on interesting inventions and inventors. When I saw the headline "An Environmentally Friendly Battery Made From Wood," on a press release recently, I figured it fit the bill, so went to investigate. The battery is being developed at the Energy Research Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. I really wasn't sure what a wood battery would look like. I knew you could make a battery out of a potato and wires, so I figured maybe they...

It used to be that if astronomers wanted to get rid of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, they had to put their telescopes in space. But a technology called adaptive optics has changed all that. Adaptive optics systems use computers to analyze the light coming from a star, and then compensate for changes wrought by the atmosphere, using mirrors that can change their shapes up to 1,000 times per second. The result: To anyone on Earth peering through the telescope, the star looks like the...

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