Event Connects Science Writers, Johns Hopkins Research

Carol Greider talks about telomeres at the 2018 Science Writers' Boot Camp.

Molecular biologist Carol Greider studies the enzyme that repairs telomeres, the structures at the ends of chromosomes. She’s working with oncology professor Mary Armanios, who is investigating the human diseases that result when those repairs slow down and telomeres get shorter.   

But Greider, who won the Nobel Prize in 2009 with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco; and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School; says her research is often misinterpreted. “There’s a lot of hyperbole out there,” she told an audience of more than 90 journalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on May 7.

Armanios, who also spoke at the event, explained that, while shorter telomeres are associated with age-related disease, simply measuring their length does not reveal a person’s health or longevity, as claimed in some news reports, books and even commercial testing kits.  

Greider, Armanios and 20 other Johns Hopkins experts discussed their research and insights at the 10th annual Science Writers’ Boot Camp, sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences and organized by Johns Hopkins Medicine’s marketing and communications department.

This year’s theme was about what it means to grow old in America. Some presenters showed photos of their own relatives, smiling and vibrant into their 80s and beyond, to highlight findings about the benefits of exercise, positive attitude and continued learning.    

“Most older people don’t want to live forever,” said Jeremy Walston, professor of geriatric medicine and co-director of the Biology of Healthy Aging Program at Johns Hopkins. “They want to be healthy and fit as they get older. They want to stay out of the hospital, and they want to be able to do things.”

Speakers noted that one in five U.S. residents will be 65 or older by 2030, and two out of three people in that age group will have multiple chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. The speakers discussed their work on understanding and treating this population.  

Susan Michaelis, professor in the Department of Cell Biology, is learning about aging by studying a rare genetic disease called progeria, which fast tracks aging —people with progeria have geriatric biology as toddlers and die of heart disease at an average age of 14.

Dan Arking, co-director of the Biological Mechanisms Core at the Johns Hopkins University Older Americans Independence Center, studies mitochondria, which provide most of the energy needed for life, and whether people can increase mitochondria counts in cells through diet and exercise — and improve longevity and energy.

Erin Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, said women who have higher testosterone levels after menopause are at greater risk for heart disease.

A. Karim Ahmed, a medical student and research fellow working with neurosurgery professor Daniel Sciubba, discussed their rating system that helps determine if patients are too frail for surgery.

The yearly daylong event aims to improve public understanding of scientific research by giving journalists access to the latest Johns Hopkins studies, said Stephen Desiderio, director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. 

“We felt it would be useful to the national scientific community and to Johns Hopkins to draw the connections between basic research and clinical practice,” he said. “We are partly motivated by the fact that the public funds most of what we do. I think they deserve to hear from us.”  

The first boot camp, in 2009, was held in the Rangos Life Sciences Building on the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus and attracted seven reporters for a discussion about the processes underlying sight, taste and other senses. This year, about 100 journalists, including reporters from Kaiser Health News, The Washington Post and other national publications, attended the event at the National Press Club where it has been staged since 2014.

Past themes included obesity, cancer immunotherapy and pain. The 2019 boot camp will focus on addiction and mental health. Most reporters stay the entire day, and many interview Johns Hopkins scientists on the spot for stories they are developing.

“Science is nuanced,” Desiderio told the audience of journalists. “It’s a good idea to spend a day every once in a while digging deeper. We at Hopkins want to help you get the story right.”