Sharon Begley, path-breaking science journalist, dies at 64

Trying to write a lede about the loss of Sharon Begley feels a little like being asked to sing a song at Aretha Franklin’s grave. Sharon would have hated that sentence. She didn’t settle for similes that needed qualifying. She got things exactly right. No matter what she was writing about — genome editing or Alzheimer’s, dinosaurs or the death of Lady Di — she was a master, drawing you in and keeping you riveted. Her journalism was as rigorous as any peer-reviewed journal (and sometimes more so), but also vivid, funny, and fast-paced. Yet she had none of the ego you might expect in someone so brilliant. She was a virtuoso who didn’t act like one. She didn’t want to be fussed over.

Fussed over she was, though. Over the course of her 43-year-career, at Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and STAT, from the glory days of print magazines to 2020’s Twitter-crazed news cycles, she won more awards and accolades than could fit in an obituary. The accomplishments she was prouder of were making complex ideas accessible to anyone — and beautiful — through her articles and books, and in doing so, training and inspiring generations of science journalists. She taught by example, showing that you could be tough-minded while being kind, that you could be literary without any big-personality bull.

When the pandemic hit last year, she was at the forefront of STAT’s coverage until she herself got sick — with lung cancer, it turned out — breaking down computer modeling studies, mortality data, and wastewater analyses to help millions make sense of a disorienting barrage of un-vetted information. Sharon’s was a voice readers knew they could trust.

In the hours after Sharon died on Saturday at 64, due to complications of the cancer, her longtime friend and colleague Melinda Beck was unsure of what to do with herself and opened their college yearbook. “In her little entry, she wrote that she hoped to be a science journalist,” Beck said, a little after midnight. “What an understatement. It’s kind of like Louis Pasteur saying, ‘Gee, I’d like to be a biologist.’”

When Beck hired Sharon away from Newsweek, to write a column for the Wall Street Journal, she ran into Don Graham, the chief executive of the magazine’s parent company, at a conference. “He pointed at me across the buffet table, and said, ‘Sharon Begley. I want her back.’ And he wooed her back!” Beck recalled.

In 2015, Rick Berke, the executive editor of what would become STAT, was asking around about which science journalists he should hire to give his startup-to-be credibility. The name he kept hearing was Sharon’s — and when she signed on, others knew this was a venture to take seriously. “She had remarkable range, she was a perfectionist about her craft, she was prolific, and her humanity came through in everything she wrote,” Berke said. “She was a guiding light for STAT from its inception.”

Sharon at Summit
Sharon Begley interviews Dr. James Wilson at a STAT event in 2019 in Cambridge, Mass. Emilie Pickering for STAT

To Deborah Blum, who is now the director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program and a luminary in the field, Sharon has long been someone to look up to. “When I was starting out as a science journalist, and maybe equally important as a female science journalist in what was then a very male dominated profession, she was an incredible inspiration to me and my peers… she was so good, so thoughtful a reporter, someone who could do a serious investigation while never forgetting that the people in the story mattered,” Blum wrote in an email.

Sharon was admired as much by her sources as she was by her peers. To James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, she was “at the top of the science reporting class.” Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna wrote, “Sharon was a marquee science reporter … I valued her balanced view and dedication to furthering the public’s awareness and understanding of the potential of CRISPR.”

Sharon Begley was born in 1956 and grew up in Tenafly, N.J., with an Irish Catholic father and a Hungarian Jewish mother. Her parents had met in journalism school, at the University of Missouri, but one ended up a stockbroker and the other a homemaker. When Sharon went off to Yale, she majored in “combined sciences,” a smorgasbord of disciplines that could satisfy her boundless curiosity, though her favorite among them was physics. She’s said in interviews that she wasn’t especially good at it, but the one thing you couldn’t trust Sharon about was her own ability. Maybe that’s why she almost never wrote in the first person: Her self-effacement couldn’t meet her standard of telling the truth.

She fast-tracked her degree — as her husband, Ned Groth, put it, “she doesn’t believe in wasting money, so she finished in three years; even her father’s money, she didn’t believe in wasting.” A week after graduating, she started work at Newsweek.

The year was 1977, and the magazine was a macho place. For decades, there had been a tradition of each older male writer being assigned a younger female researcher, who would dig through the library and write up files with little possibility of advancing. In 1970, 46 women sued the magazine they worked for — a groundbreaking gender discrimination case — but it took a while for the culture to catch up. Only in 1975 did Lynn Povich become the first woman ever to be promoted to senior editor.

Sharon was quiet in a building full of loudmouths. “She didn’t rappel down the side of the building or spend her evenings at the local watering hole,” said Aric Press, who spent years editing her work there — but she did maneuver her way up to a writing job, and she excelled at it.

She wrote cover story after cover story, a whole gallery of glossy, color-tested printouts decorating the wall of her office. She hopped from marine archeology to nutrition to dark matter to baboon sex and made it look easy. She had an almost frightening ability to focus. On the day Newsweek was moving from 444 Madison Ave. to Columbus Circle, she sat finishing a piece as if nothing was going on. “In typical unflappable Sharon fashion, she’s at her computer happily writing away; 40 years of boxes and books are being hauled out of one headquarters to move to another, but we had a cover story to close,” said Press.

The people who worked with her then describe a kind of alchemy, taking the most technical of ideas and transmuting them into news magazine gold. “We provided the starting materials, but the stories that she would spin … it seems mysterious to me how she found so much narrative and drama and humanity, and humor,” said Tom Hayden, who got his start working under her, and now directs the science communication program at Stanford.

The alchemy metaphor was more literal than you might think. She pitched stories about neuroscience before it was a word many people knew, and her prescience paid off. “Every time we put one of those stories on the cover, it sold like hot cakes,” said Mark Whitaker, a former editor-in-chief. “The word ‘brain’ was like newsstand gold. The people on the business side loved her for that.”

He relied on her beyond her explanatory prowess. On Labor Day weekend in 1997, that week’s issue had already been closed when news emerged of Princess Diana’s death, and the staff rushed in, some from the bar, others from bed. Sharon famously showed up in gym clothes, tiny short shorts and a tank top. She always kept a shawl or wrap by her desk: She knew it could get cold. Whitaker came in at 1 in the morning, saw Sharon among the assembled staff, and felt a wave of relief. “I just looked at her and said thank God, and I gave her the cover story to write,” he said. Six or seven hours later, she had a riveting piece. She did the same after 9/11.

She brought that same nimbleness wherever she went. When she was at the Wall Street Journal, hedge fund managers wrote in to say that their favorite part of the paper was Sharon’s column, which covered everything from quarks to “cavemen crooners” to plants’ anti-aphid defenses.

By the time she arrived at STAT, she was already science-writing royalty. But she never turned down an assignment, no matter how cockamamie or ill-conceived. She was forever penning newsletter items and picking up weekend duties and helping out younger reporters while writing some of the most influential biomedical coverage of the last five years. She told the gutting stories of Black patients with sickle cell disease, whose excruciating pain is so often dismissed by a racist medical establishment. She unearthed what critics described as a “cabal” of Alzheimer’s researchers who thwarted projects that didn’t fit their hypothesis. She chronicled the ins and outs of CRISPR with both doggedness and clarity.

“There’s lots of things that people could have chosen to go on and do at that point, and what she chose to do was risky and aggressive, it was like dialing it up,” said Erika Check Hayden, director of the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose work with Sharon at Newsweek steered her into journalism. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s have a really chill last act.’ It was really a job that’s hard for a 20-year-old to do.”

Sharon’s husband saw that in her, too. She didn’t have hobbies. “If she was bored and needed something to do, she’d write another book,” he joked. She’d written four, two co-authored, two alone, all of them about the workings of the brain. One has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Of her latest, “Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions,” the New York Times wrote that it’s “fast-paced and engaging without being simplistic.”

Sharon speaks at the National Press Club. Courtesy Ned Groth

It sounds almost like a formality to say, in an obituary, that someone was generous and kind. Sharon was both, deeply — but as her Newsweek friend Barbara Kantrowitz put it, “she wasn’t a goodie-goodie.” All of the verve and wit and empathy you see in Sharon’s reporting were just as present in her personal conversations, too.

In print, she was known for the dazzling turn-of-phrase; in person, she was known for saying exactly the right thing. She had a keen eye for office politics, and helped to steer underlings through, explaining why editors might be at loggerheads, how their grudges and quirks were playing out in the margins of a story. “She gossiped, she was foul-mouthed, she would snark. This is journalistic sainthood, not normal sainthood,” said WIRED’s Adam Rogers, who also got his start under Sharon’s tutelage.

She was rumored to carry in her backpack a small doorstop — “shaped like a Russell terrier, about the size of a grapefruit, maybe 3-4 pounds,” according to her son, Dan Begley-Groth — so that she could whack the fender of New York taxis that came too close to clipping her as she walked to and from Grand Central Station. “No one would ever suspect the little old lady,” Sharon would say to her family, though it’s hard to say if this actually ever took place, and her husband said her “rock-in-the-sock kind of thing” may not have been a doorstop.

Begley-Groth family
Sharon with husband, Ned Groth, and their children, Daniel and Sarah Begley-Groth, in 2019. Courtesy Dan Begley-Groth

Besides that, her brilliant prose was the only sort of flashiness she allowed herself. An editor once told her she ought to stop expensing subway tokens and take some cabs, because she was making everybody else look bad, with their hotels and restaurant bills. She was a careful virtual clipper of online grocery coupons. Once, when her son, Dan, was engaged to be married, with an apartment full of food, she arrived at his house with meals surreptitiously pilfered from a conference: brownies in Dixie cups, bags of chips, sandwiches in Tupperware that she’d brought specially for that purpose.

She almost never talked about her awards, and last year, when she was preparing to be interviewed on Alan Alda’s science communication podcast, she didn’t tell her husband: “She often would say to me, ‘I have to do an interview, can you be quiet for a while?’ She clicks, and she says, ‘Hi, Alan,’ and the voice of Alan Alda fills the room. Here’s Alan Alda having this wonderful conversation with my wife like they’re old friends. I’ve been married to this woman for 38 years and she still can blow my mind.”

In that interview, she explained that she’d send technical bits of her stories to sources, but never quotes. “Generally people try to change their quotes because the quote made them sound like — are you sitting down? — a human being,” she said, “as opposed to someone writing in a scientific journal. So that’s not going to happen.”

If she wanted her sources to sound like human beings, that’s how she wanted people to think of her, too.  “That was one of her favorite things,” Ned, her husband, recalled. “When someone would say she’d done a great job at something, she’d say, ‘Oh, anybody could do what I do.” He paused. “But I don’t think there are a half-dozen people in the world who can do what she does.”

Last Monday, five days before her death, she filed a piece to her editor. It was about non-smokers who get lung cancer — a story she knew intimately, inside out, one she was living as she wrote it, neuropathy from the chemo making it hard for her to hold a pen. She didn’t mention that. Ned knew that there was still someone else she’d wanted to interview, another patient she was supposed to call Thursday, but by then she was acutely ill.

“The question,” Ned wrote in an email to her editor, Gideon Gil, “is what to do with the story. I did not read it but know she put a lot of work into it, and from my listening post across the room she was still the same sharp reporter and writer as ever, though her energy and ability to concentrate were flagging. She struggled to finish it and was so happy when she filed it with you. I’m hoping in your judgment it is good enough to publish in its current state, or with your essential editing. Sharon probably would not have settled for ‘good enough’ but it’s out of Sharon’s hands at this point. Given the subject matter I hope you share my sense that, if this proves to be the last thing she ever published, how fitting that would be.”

Sharon Begley is survived by her husband, Ned Groth, her sister, Barbara Suzuki, her children Daniel Begley-Groth (who is married to Colleen Becket-Davenport) and Sarah Begley-Groth. Plans for a memorial service are forthcoming.

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