Nell Greenfieldboyce

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

With reporting focused on general science, NASA, and the intersection between technology and society, Greenfieldboyce has been on the science desk's technology beat since she joined NPR in 2005.

In that time Greenfieldboyce has reported on topics including the narwhals in Greenland, the ending of the space shuttle program, and the reasons why independent truckers don't want electronic tracking in their cabs.

Much of Greenfieldboyce's reporting reflects an interest in discovering how applied science and technology connects with people and culture. She has worked on stories spanning issues such as pet cloning, gene therapy, ballistics, and federal regulation of new technology.

Prior to NPR, Greenfieldboyce spent a decade working in print, mostly magazines including U.S. News & World Report and New Scientist.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins, earning her Bachelor's of Arts degree in social sciences and a Master's of Arts degree in science writing, Greenfieldboyce taught science writing for four years at the university. She was honored for her talents with the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists.

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Shots - Health News
5:48 pm
Mon October 20, 2014

When Reassuring Isn't: The Rush To Test Cruise Passenger For Ebola

The cruise ship Carnival Magic floats behind a catamaran off Cozumel, Mexico on Oct. 17. The ship skipped a planned stop there Friday, the cruise line says, after Mexican authorities delayed granting permission to dock.
Reuters/Landov

Originally published on Mon October 20, 2014 8:08 pm

Here's a question about the fine line between a prudent response and worrisome overkill: Is the sight of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovering over a cruise ship to pick up a blood sample (which is to be tested for Ebola) a sight that should inspire feelings of reassurance, or a nagging sense that something is not quite right?

The question is still in the air after the weekend's effort to airlift a few milliliters of blood from a passenger who was on board what is now being called the Ebola Cruise.

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Shots - Health News
5:33 pm
Fri October 17, 2014

U.S. To Temporarily Halt Funding For Controversial Virus Research

Avian influenza, or bird flu, causes an infectious and contagious respiratory disease. In the lab, several scientists have made the H5N1 strain more contagious, a controversial line of research.
James Cavallini ScienceSource

Originally published on Fri October 17, 2014 6:07 pm

The federal government will temporarily stop funding any new studies that could make three high-risk infectious diseases even more dangerous. The government is asking all scientists involved in this research now to voluntarily halt their current studies.

The unusual move comes after a long controversy over experiments with mutant forms of a bird flu virus.

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Global Health
4:18 pm
Fri October 17, 2014

Why Won't The Fear Of Airborne Ebola Go Away?

Ebola Virus, Transmission Electron Micrograph Of The Ebola Virus, Rna Virus, Cause Of Hemorrhagic Fever.
BSIP UIG via Getty Images

Originally published on Mon October 20, 2014 4:24 pm

How many times do top officials have to say that the Ebola virus is not airborne?

A lot, apparently.

Here is President Obama Thursday: "This is not an airborne disease. It is not easy to catch."

And the day before: "It is not like the flu. It is not airborne."

And Friday, a reporter asked the inevitable question about airborne Ebola when Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, held a press briefing about nurse Nina Pham's transfer to the National Institute of Health.

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Science
1:03 pm
Wed October 8, 2014

Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe's Ancient Art

A stencil of an early human's hand in an Indonesian cave is estimated to be about 39,000 years old.
Kinza Riza Courtesy of Nature.com

Originally published on Wed October 8, 2014 6:13 pm

Prehistoric cave paintings of animals and human hands in Indonesia are as ancient as similar paintings found in Western Europe, according to a new study that suggests humans may have carried this art tradition with them when they migrated out of Africa.

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Shots - Health News
6:40 pm
Wed October 1, 2014

On The Alert For Ebola, Texas Hospital Still Missed First Case

Traffic moves past Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where a patient showed up with symptoms that were later confirmed to be Ebola.
Mike Stone Getty Images

Originally published on Thu October 2, 2014 8:57 am

Hospitals have been on the lookout for the Ebola virus in the United States, and Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas was no exception. A nurse there did ask about the travel history of the patient who later turned out to be infected with the virus. But some members of the medical team didn't hear that the man had recently been in West Africa. So he was initially sent home β€” even though he was experiencing symptoms of Ebola, and that meant he was contagious.

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Shots - Health News
3:33 pm
Wed September 24, 2014

Research Institutions Will Have To Identify 'Dual-Use' Pathogens

Biohazard suits used to handle dangerous microbes hang in a laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md.
Patrick Semansky AP

Originally published on Wed September 24, 2014 4:53 pm

Any research institution that receives federal funding will soon have to screen certain kinds of scientific experiments to see if the work could potentially be misused to endanger the public.

The new policy will take effect next year, and it's the latest effort by the U. S. government to come to grips with so called "dual-use" biological researchβ€”legitimate medical or public health studies that could reveal how to make already-worrisome germs or toxins even more destructive.

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Global Health
4:34 pm
Mon September 15, 2014

Could Ebola Become As Contagious As The Flu?

Medical workers at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia, put on their protective suits before going to the high-risk area of the hospital, where Ebola patients are being treated, Sept. 3.
Dominique Faget AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 5:10 pm

Back in August, scientists reported that the Ebola virus is mutating during this epidemic.

When a virus spreads between people and reproduces, it copies its genetic code in a sloppy way. So there can be unpredictable changes.

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Global Health
4:20 pm
Fri September 5, 2014

Health Officials Hope To Speed Up Possible Ebola Cures

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 8:39 pm

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

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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Goats and Soda
2:03 pm
Fri September 5, 2014

The Latest Word From WHO On Experimental Ebola Therapies

Proteins and enzymes that will produce antibodies for the experimental Ebola drug ZMapp are developed on the leaves of the nicotiana benthamiana plant, a relative of tobacco. Here, indicator proteins glow under ultraviolet light β€” a way to assess the success of bacteria spread.
Sean Gallup Getty Images

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 3:21 pm

One of the reasons Ebola is so terrifying is that there's no vaccine and no cure. But the World Health Organization hopes to change that, with plans to quickly test experimental products during this outbreak.

By November, two promising vaccines will have been tested on people to see if they're safe, says Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at WHO.

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Goats and Soda
3:42 am
Thu August 21, 2014

How Much Bigger Is The Ebola Outbreak Than Official Reports Show?

Workers with the aid group Doctors Without Borders prepare a new Ebola treatment center near Monrovia, Liberia, on Sunday. The facility has 120 beds, making it the largest Ebola isolation clinic in history.
John Moore Getty Images

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 3:05 pm

The latest numbers on the Ebola outbreak are grim: 2,473 people infected and 1,350 deaths.

That's the World Health Organization's official tally of confirmed, probable and suspect cases across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But the WHO has previously warned that its official figures may "vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."

So how bad is it really?

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Shots - Health News
5:58 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

A Virtual Outbreak Offers Hints Of Ebola's Future

Kenyan health officials take the temperatures of passengers arriving at the Nairobi airport on Thursday. Kenya has no reported cases of Ebola, but it's a transportation hub and so is on alert.
Simon Maina AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu August 14, 2014 8:07 pm

While the Ebola outbreak continues to rage in West Africa, it is also unfolding β€” in a virtual sense β€” inside the computers of researchers who study the dynamics of epidemics.

Policymakers look to these simulations to get a sense of how the outbreak might spread. They also can use them to run experiments to see which public health measures should take priority.

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Shots - Health News
3:25 am
Wed August 13, 2014

Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens

An outbreak of bird flu in India in 2008 prompted authorities to temporarily ban the sale of poultry.
Diptendu Dutta AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu August 14, 2014 5:23 pm

A smoldering debate about whether researchers should ever deliberately create superflu strains and other risky germs in the interest of science has flared once again.

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Goats and Soda
3:45 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

The World Health Organization Says Yes To An Experimental Ebola Drug

A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization has unanimously endorsed the idea of offering unproven vaccines or treatments to help combat the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

This outbreak is unusual not just because it has spread to four countries and involves so many people, says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization. It is also the first Ebola outbreak that could possibly benefit from a range of potential experimental treatments and vaccines.

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Shots - Health News
5:15 am
Mon July 21, 2014

Big Data Peeps At Your Medical Records To Find Drug Problems

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Tue July 22, 2014 2:43 pm

No one likes it when a new drug in people's medicine cabinets turns out to have problems β€” just remember the Vioxx debacle a decade ago, when the painkiller was removed from the market over concerns that it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

To do a better job of spotting unforeseen risks and side effects, the Food and Drug Administration is trying something new β€” and there's a decent chance that it involves your medical records.

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Space
3:28 am
Thu July 10, 2014

The Little Spacecraft That Couldn't

Early days: NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer C (also known as ISEE-3 and ICE) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside the Goddard Space Flight Center's dynamic test chamber when this photo was snapped in 1976.
NASA

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 3:03 pm

An audacious quest to reconnect with a vintage NASA spacecraft has suffered a serious setback and is now pretty much over.

The satellite launched in 1978 and has been in a long, looping orbit around the sun for about three decades. Earlier this year, NPR told you about an effort to get in touch with this venerable piece of NASA hardware and send it on one more adventure.

But there are no guarantees when you try to recapture the past.

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Science
2:03 pm
Thu June 26, 2014

A Shocking Fish Tale Surprises Evolutionary Biologists

A 6-foot-long electric eel is basically a 6-inch fish attached to a 5-1/2-foot cattle prod, researchers say. The long tail is packed with special cells that pump electricity without shocking the fish.
Mark Newman Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

Originally published on Sat July 12, 2014 12:39 pm

The electric eel's powerful ability to deliver deadly shocks β€” up to 600 volts β€” makes it the most famous electric fish, but hundreds of other species produce weaker electric fields. Now, a new genetic study of electric fish has revealed the surprising way they got electrified.

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Science
2:03 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

How To Become A Neanderthal: Chew Before Thinking

By comparing "Skull 17" from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era.
Javier Trueba Madrid Scientific Films

Originally published on Fri June 20, 2014 10:54 am

Scientists have long puzzled over the origin and evolution of our closest relative, the Neanderthal. Now, researchers say Neanderthals seem to have developed their distinctive jaws and other facial features first, before they evolved to have big brains.

That's according to an analysis of 17 skulls, all taken from one excavation site in a mountain cave in Atapuerca, Spain, known as the Sima de los Huesos β€” the "pit of bones."

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Science
3:25 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Is Collecting Animals For Science A Noble Mission Or A Threat?

DNA from these crab plovers, collected in Djibouti, Africa, should help scientists figure out how the unusual species fits into the family tree, says the Smithsonian's Helen James.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 8:29 am

Behind the scenes at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, there's a vast, warehouse-like room that's filled with metal cabinets painted a drab institutional green. Inside the cabinets are more than a half-million birds β€” and these birds are not drab. Their colorful feathers make them seem to almost glow.

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Science
3:59 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Big Flightless Birds Come From High-Flying Ancestors

The egg definitely came before the chicken in this case β€” the skeleton is from a modern adult kiwi, the egg from its much bigger, long-extinct cousin, Aepyornis maximus.
Kyle Davis and Paul Scofield Canterbury Museum

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 8:06 pm

Big, flightless birds like the ostrich, the emu and the rhea are scattered around the Southern Hemisphere because their ancestors once flew around the world, a new study suggests.

That's a surprise, because it means birds in Australia, Africa and South America independently evolved in ways that made them all lose the ability to fly.

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Science
12:18 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

Why This Octopus Isn't Stuck-Up

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 8:18 pm

Octopus arms keep from getting all tangled up in part because some kind of chemical in octopus skin prevents the tentacles' suckers from grabbing on.

That was the surprise discovery of scientists who were trying to understand how octopuses manage to move all their weird appendages without getting tied in knots.

Unlike humans, octopuses don't have a constant awareness of their arms' locations. It's kind of like the eight arms have minds of their own. And as an octopus arm travels through the water, its neighboring arms are constantly in reach.

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Environment
4:02 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

'Past The Point Of No Return:' An Antarctic Ice Sheet's Slow Collapse

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 10:04 am

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Antarctica is covered with the biggest mass of ice on earth. The part of the ice sheath that's over West Antarctica is thought to be especially vulnerable to climate change. Scientists now say a slow collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is both underway and irreversible. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this could eventually raise sea levels more than 10 feet.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: For decades, scientists have worried about the West Antarctic ice sheet.

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Shots - Health News
2:18 pm
Wed May 7, 2014

Chemists Expand Nature's Genetic Alphabet

Being able to insert the two man-made letters into DNA, alongside the usual four-letter alphabet, could teach old cells new tricks and lead to better drugs, researchers say.
courtesy of Synthorx

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 9:59 am

For the first time, scientists have expanded life's genetic alphabet, by inserting two unnatural, man-made "letters" into a bacterium's DNA, and by showing that the cell's machinery can copy them.

The advance means that scientists have a new tool for exploring how life encodes information, which could help them understand life's origins.

What's more, this is a step towards giving living cells new abilities, like being able to make more and better medicines, cheaper and faster.

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The Two-Way
3:02 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

Scientists Spot A Planet That Looks Like 'Earth's Cousin'

An artist's rendering of Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit in the habitable zone of a distant star.
T. Pyle NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Originally published on Thu April 17, 2014 8:06 pm

Scientists who have been hunting for another Earth beyond our solar system have come across a planet that's remarkably similar to our world.

It's almost the same size as Earth, and it orbits in its star's "Goldilocks zone" β€” where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, and maybe just right for life.

But a lot about this planet is going to remain a mystery, because it's 500 light-years away.

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The Two-Way
9:40 am
Sun April 13, 2014

Climate Change Adjustments Must Be Fast And Major, U.N. Panel Says

The world must cut its greenhouse gas emissions to meet its goals, climate experts said Sunday. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (left to right) Youba Sakona, Ramon Pichs Madruga, Ottmar Edenhofer and Rajendra Pachauri hold copies of their new report in Berlin.
John MacDougall AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 7:33 am

A new report from the United Nations' panel on climate change says major action is needed, and fast, if policymakers want to limit global warming to acceptable levels.

There's an international target to control climate change: keeping the global temperature rise to just 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels β€” that's 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says it's technically possible to meet that goal. But doing so will require rapid, large-scale shifts in energy production and use.

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Shots - Health News
3:06 pm
Thu April 10, 2014

Scientists Publish Recipe For Making Bird Flu More Contagious

Street vendors sell chickens at a market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in early 2013. Last year Cambodia reported more cases of H5N1 bird flu than any other country.
Mak Remissa EPA /LANDOV

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 3:13 pm

The Dutch virologist accused of engineering a dangerous superflu a few years ago is back with more contentious research.

In 2011, Ron Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Center took the H5N1 flu virus and made it more contagious. Now the team has published another study with more details on the exact genetic changes needed to do the trick.

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The Two-Way
1:45 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Smithsonian's Air And Space Museum To Get $30 Million Spiffier

Where's the moon rock? Curators say national treasures are often overlooked in the museum's current display, which hasn't changed much since 1976.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 7:34 pm

Throngs of museum-goers mill through the grand entrance hall of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., every day, gawking at such treasures as the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back, as well as Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

But the famous Milestones of Flight exhibit hasn't significantly changed since the museum opened in 1976.

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Shots - Health News
11:23 am
Wed April 2, 2014

Ethicists Tell NASA How To Weigh Hazards Of Space Travel

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide makes a space walk outside the International Space Station in 2012.
NASA Getty Images

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 7:55 am

NASA is hoping to soon venture out farther into space than ever before. But these long journeys mean astronauts could face greater risks to their physical and mental health than the space agency currently allows.

Now, an independent group of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has weighed in on how NASA should make decisions about the kinds of risks that are acceptable for missions that venture outside low Earth orbit or extend beyond 30 days.

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The Two-Way
3:01 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

New Dwarf Planet Found At The Solar System's Outer Limits

This diagram for the outer solar system shows the orbits of Sedna (in orange) and 2012 VP113 (in red). The sun and terrestrial planets are at the center, surrounded by the orbits (in purple) of the four giant planets β€” Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Kuiper belt, which includes Pluto, is shown by the dotted light blue region.
Scott S. Sheppard Carnegie Institution for Science

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 8:44 am

Scientists have spotted a new dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. It's a kind of pink ice ball that's way out there, far beyond Pluto.

Astronomers used to think this region of space was a no man's land. But the new findings suggest that it holds many small worlds β€” and there are even hints of an unseen planet bigger than Earth.

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Space
4:44 am
Tue March 18, 2014

Space Thief Or Hero? One Man's Quest To Reawaken An Old Friend

Early days: NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer C (also known as ISEE-3 and ICE) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside the Goddard Space Flight Center's dynamic test chamber when this photo was snapped in 1976.
NASA

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 7:56 pm

More than 30 years ago, Robert Farquhar stole a spacecraft.

Now he's trying to give it back.

The green satellite, covered with solar panels, is hurtling back toward the general vicinity of Earth, after nearly three decades of traveling in a large, looping orbit around the sun.

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Science
3:27 am
Mon February 24, 2014

At 4.4 Billion Years Old, Oz Crystals Confirmed As World's Oldest

The colors of the zircon crystals range from transparent to deep red.
Courtesy of University of Wisconsin

Originally published on Mon February 24, 2014 2:06 pm

Scientists have used a powerful new technique to prove that some tiny crystals found in Western Australia are indeed the oldest known materials formed on Earth.

Back in 2001, scientists reported that one of the zircon crystals was about 4.4 billion years old β€” so old that not everyone believed it.

"There have been challenges, because nothing in science goes without being questioned. It always has to be proven," says John Valley, a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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