Kolata, Gina Bari 1948- (Gina Kolata)
KOLATA, Gina Bari 1948-
PERSONAL: Born February 28, 1948, in Baltimore, MD; daughter of Arthur (a jeweler) and Lillian (a mathematician; maiden name, Aaronson) Bari; married William George Kolata; children: Terese Bari, Stefan Matthew. Education: University of Maryland, B.S., 1969, M.A., 1973; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, postgraduate, 1969-70.
CAREER: Science magazine, Washington, DC, copy editor, 1973-74, writer, 1974-87; New York Times, New York, NY, reporter, 1987—. Columnist, Bild der Wissenschaft, 1984-87, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 1985-87; Coordinator of charity dinners for the "So Others Might Eat" program, Washington, DC, 1983-87. Author.
(With others) Combatting the Number-One Killer: TheScientific Report on Heart Disease, American Association for the Advancement of Science (Washington, DC), 1978.
(With Edward D. Freis) The High Blood PressureBook: A Guide for Patients and Their Families, Painter Hopkins (Sausalito, CA), 1979.
(As Gina Kolata) The Baby Doctors: Probing theLimits of Fetal Medicine, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1990.
(With Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, and Edward O. Laumann) Sex in America: A Definitive Study, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
(As Gina Kolata) Clone: The Road to Dolly and thePath Ahead, Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
(As Gina Kolata) Flu: The Story of the Great InfluenzaPandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
(As Gina Kolata) Ultimate Fitness: The Quest forTruth about Exercise and Health, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals and newspapers, including the New York Times and Science Times.
SIDELIGHTS: Gina Bari Kolata, science reporter for the New York Times and author of a number of science-oriented nonfiction volumes, has earned a reputation for making highly technical events and procedures approachable, even fascinating, for the general reader. Trained as a molecular biologist and mathematician herself, Kolata moved into the writing field when she discovered that she was better at explaining scientific discoveries than making them herself. In Publishers Weekly, Charlotte Abbott noted that Kolata creates a prose consisting of "concise sentences that convey her clear-eyed enthusiasm for her work."
A Baltimore native, Kolata studied microbiology at the University of Maryland and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also completed graduate work in math. She then took a job at Science magazine, working her way up from copy editor to reporter. In 1987 she took a staff position at the New York Times and has continued in that position even while writing a series of science books. Her reporting for the science section in the Times has sometimes stirred controversy. Once, after a story on drug trials in AIDS research, she was termed "The Worst AIDS Reporter in America" by ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The Times offices were picketed, and the group pasted stickers on Times vending machines all over New York City. Edwin Diamond's New York article on this phenomenon included an interview with Kolata, as well as with Larry Kramer, ACT UP's founder. Diamond's article implied that ACT UP's hostility toward Kolata and the Times was based on the group's disgust that AIDS became a newsworthy issue only when the middle-class heterosexual community began to be seen as potential victims of the disease. Scott Wald, of ACT UP's city-action committee, told Diamond, "[Kolata] always gives the Establishment view." While Kolata said that she "found some common ground with the activists," she noted that "they want an ally, and I'm a reporter." On other controversial issues, such as cloning and abortion services, she has also described herself as having no personal agenda.
Four of Kolata's best-known volumes were written in the 1990s. The first, The Baby Doctors: Probing the Limits of Fetal Medicine, follows the stories of a group of doctors who call themselves the "Fetal Invaders" because they perform fetal surgeries to correct birth defects or reduce the number of fetuses in a high-order multiple pregnancy. As Mark L. Shelton, a reviewer for Library Journal, pointed out, this new and rapidly developing area of specialized medicine is in high demand, while at the same time its procedures raise many ethical dilemmas which have not yet been fully considered. Shelton called the book "casually written and often . . . melodramatic," but recommended it highly for its "good layperson's view of this important subject." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the book's "arresting detail" as it follows a series of couples through their interuterine surgeries, some successful and others not. And William Beatty of Booklist commented that Kolata's interviews with doctors and prospective parents reveal medical providers' "approaches, attitudes, anxieties, failures, and successes in accessible, human terms."
Kolata's next major contribution to popular science was the much-touted Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. It was Kolata's job to take the much more technical version of the book, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, and make it accessible to the millions of Americans interested in the study, which was based on exhaustive interviews with 3,432 "representative" Americans between ages eighteen and fifty-nine. (The word is in quotation marks because many reviewers questioned whether either version contained truly representative samples.) The study's most general conclusion was that Americans are much less sexually promiscuous and much more sexually predictable than our sex-hyped media would make it appear. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed had one sexual partner in the year of the survey, eleven percent had none, and sixteen percent had more than one. Married couples were found to have sex most often. Mary D. Pellauer of the Christian Century found it ironic that the survey's results "could be viewed as somewhat reassuring to traditionalists," considering that Senator Jesse Helms had "scotched federal funding" for the study.
But other reviewers, including Vern L. Bullough, himself the author of the well-received Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research, and R. C. Lewontin, who reviewed Sex in America for the New York Times Book Review, were more hesitant to take the results of the survey at face value. Bullough, in a Scientific American review, noted that, although the survey allowed respondents to place their answers to questions referring to masturbation in a sealed envelope, they did not employ the same procedure for questions referring to homosexuality. He also questioned the low numbers the study gave for homosexuals in the general population by pointing out that "because gays, like African-Americans, tend to concentrate in certain areas in a city, special care must be taken to include them in surveys. This compensation was done for African-Americans, but not for gays" in the study. Bullough stated that "the investigators steered clear of the most controversial areas," giving as an example that only one question on the survey "dealt explicitly with pornography." He also criticized the study for its omission of those "living in institutions, defined as prisons, army camps, and college dorms." Bullough decried the exclusion of these groups because the latter two "encompass the most sexually active segments in American society." Bullough's final conclusion, however, emphasized the book's value as a study of "American social life and health in a sexual context"; he welcomed it as an addition to much-needed information in the area of U.S. sexual practices.
Like Bullough, Lewontin had problems with the study's methodology. The critic questioned, among other things, why the study did not take into account the gender/race/age status of its interviewers in relation to those interviewed. While the study claimed that gender, race, and sex were "master status" variables in telling us about the people interviewed, the authors made no attempt to match interviewers and interviewees according to those variables.
Because Kolata was the journalist who broke the Dolly clone story to its U.S. audience, it was fitting that she publish the first book devoted to the subject: Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead. Gregg Sapp, a reviewer for Library Journal, appreciated how the book cut back and forth between the cold, clinical atmosphere of the lab which produced Dolly and the heated, almost hysterical, reaction when Dolly was introduced to the world as the first animal cloned from adult cells. According to John R. G. Turner's review in the New York Review of Books, Kolata described the panic that greeted Dolly before a completely unprepared public: "The orthodoxy that adult cloning was pure science fiction was so widely accepted that effectively no moral debate could take place on human cloning, nor could any control be exerted on the research until the orthodoxy was shattered by the creation of Dolly." Turner concluded that Kolata "has produced a book that is especially valuable in three ways: it explains clearly and intelligibly to a wide and nontechnical public how and why we reached this step; it records diverse contemporary opinions on the implications (so that the book itself will become a useful historical document); and it lays out some of these implications for us to chew over."
Etelka Lehoczky, feature editor of Chicago's Windy City Times, gave the frightening impression that Dolly is a kind of Frankenstein's monster, and her creators, if not madmen, then are scientists in blinders with little control over the results of their efforts. Lehoczky wrote for the Internet journal Salon that Kolata "sketches a compelling picture of the myopic world of modern science, where researchers labor over absurdly circumscribed areas of study and the direction of advancement is determined not by scientists' priorities, but by where the money is." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that Kolata "brings keen insight to her analysis of the implications of cloning and makes the complex details of genetics and cell biology interesting and accessible." Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, called Clone "a model of thorough research and clear writing."
In 1999 Kolata released Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. This nonfiction detective story revisits an outbreak of influenza that killed more than twenty million people worldwide in 1918 and then disappeared as mysteriously as it came. In some cases, victims died within hours of showing symptoms, and the illness was most devastating to otherwise healthy young adults, aged twenty to forty. Kolata not only describes the flu's symptoms and rapid spread through the population, she also details more modern efforts to isolate the killer virus and its particular genetic code. "Flu is a great read," wrote Stephen M. Huffman in American Family Physician. "This subject touches a chord in us today, when we are no longer quite so confident of our ability to outwit disease." In Insight on the News, Elizabeth Whelan called Flu "a nonfiction science book [that reads] like a page-turning thriller," adding that, "it is this search for the virus which lends itself to the author's first-rate storytelling."
Whelan concluded: "The book is an impressive, informative and sobering read."
Kolata has described Flu as one of her favorite projects, as the scientists involved in the modern-day search for information on the virus were both cooperative and engaging. Her enthusiasm for the project is reflected in the reviews the work earned. Time reviewer R. Z. Sheppard wrote that the book "is packed with new information and astonishments." Sheppard likewise noted that Kolata "has produced not only a chilling read but also a book that . . . could jumpstart a new generation of medical researchers." According to Andrew Noymer in Population and Development Review, the anecdotes Kolata offers in Flu "are human-centered stories, and Kolata gives a good sense of the scientists' characters and provides glimpses into their workaday lives, and into the moments when an idea flashes by and becomes an obsession." Noymer also observed that the author "writes with enviable clarity and style. This makes Flu enjoyable and educational reading."
Kolata lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and commutes to New York City every day. She is able to produce books rapidly and has even been known to write on the train during her commute. In an interview with Barbara Figge Fox for U.S. 1, Kolata said: "I like to work. I really just like to be engaged. The most boring thing is when I have nothing to do." The author once told Publishers Weekly that, as a science reporter, "you have to have the courage of your convictions about what the science says. There are always going to be people who don't like what you say when the stakes are high."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Family Physician, June 1, 2000, Stephen M. Huffman, review of Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, p. 3489.
Booklist, September 15, 1990, p. 127; December 1, 1997; November 1, 1999, William Beatty, review of Flu, p. 496.
Christian Century, June 21, 1995, pp. 642-644.
Discover, January, 2000, Rebecca Reisner, review of Flu, p. 102.
Economist (U.S.), April 26, 2003, review of UltimateFitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health.
Insight on the News, January 3, 2000, Elizabeth Whelan, "The Great Pandemic: Same Time, Next Century?," p. 28.
Library Journal, September 1, 1990, p. 248; November 15, 1997, p. 73; April 15, 2003, Samantha Gust, review of Ultimate Fitness, p. 114.
Nation, July 8, 1996, p. 10.
New York, April 16, 1990, p. 12f.
New York Review of Books, April 20, 1995, pp. 24-29; February 10, 2000, William H. McNeill, "The Flu of Flus," p. 29.
New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1997, p. 7; November 21, 1999, David Papineau, "Catching the Flu," p. 11.
Population and Development Review, March, 2001, Andrew Noymer, review of Flu, p. 187.
Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1990, p. 429; November 3, 1997, p. 69; October 25, 1999, review of Flu, p. 62; November 22, 1999, Charlotte Abbott, "Reporter's Syndrome," p. 38; March 31, 2003, review of Ultimate Fitness, p. 52.
Science, October 20, 1995, pp. 501-503.
Sciences, March, 2000, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Flu, p. 47.
Scientific American, August, 1995, pp. 105-106; February, 2000, review of Flu, p. 104.
Time, December 13, 1999, R. Z. Sheppard, "Plague of the Century: Tracking the 1918 Flu Virus That Killed 20 Million," p. 105; May 12, 2003, Andrea Sachs, review of Ultimate Fitness, p. 81.
U.S. 1, January 21, 1998, Barbara Figge Fox, "Gina Kolata: Cloning's Consequences."
Salon.com,http://www.salon1999.com/books/sneaks/1998/01/06review.html/ (January 6, 1998), Etelka Lehoczky, review of Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead,.*