Science and environmental writer

I’m an independent journalist covering science, the environment and society from Mount Rainier, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. My work has been published in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Nature, Science, Washington Post, Washington Post Magazine, Quanta, Inside Science, Science News, APS News, Eos, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Discover, Aeon, Undark, Smithsonian, Scientific American, New Scientist, American Forests, Mongabay, National Geographic, NPR, the Atlantic, Orion, Yale E360 and others.

I look for the story that isn’t being told, the angle that isn’t being considered. I like writing about underdogs and the unexpected, about places others don’t go to and people whose voices aren’t being heard. Trees and forests have a special spot in my heart.

Selected Work

FEATURE Some tropical forests show surprising resilience as temperatures rise, National Geographic, November 19, 2020
Could tropical forests be tougher than we think? The last few years have seen a flood of alarming reports about the future of tropical forests. But scientists are also finding intriguing hints of hidden resilience.

FEATURE Can an ambitious breeding effort save North America’s ash trees?, Science, November 12, 2020
A scientist who refused to accept doom and gloom narratives and may be on the cusp of reviving one of North America’s most important trees.

FEATURE A Physicist’s Approach to Biology Brings Ecological Insights, Quanta, October 14, 2020
Long ago, I started wondering what physics can say about big environmental and ecological questions, such as how so many species can coexist stably in ecosystems. I wrote about one physicist trying to answer such questions.

NEWS Mangrove loss has fallen dramatically, but the forests are still in danger, Washington Post, September 12, 2020
New research using satellites and ancient soil seek to reveal the future of some of the world’s most important forests.

NEWS Global Warming Could Unlock Carbon From Tropical Soil, New York Times, August 12, 2020
Warming soils in the tropics could cause microbes to release carbon from storage. One scientist called the finding “another example of why we need to worry more.”

NEWS To save the hemlock, scientists turn to genetics and natural predators, Washington Post, August 1, 2020
A hopeful story for one of our most troubled trees.

FEATURE Will Climate Change Upend Projections of Future Forest Growth?, Yale E360, July 7, 2020
There’s growing evidence that growing forests may not yield the climate benefits hoped for.

FEATURE Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?, New York Times Magazine, April 30, 2020
I tell the story of an attempt to rescue a great tree through genetic engineering.

FEATURE Can ‘Carbon Smart’ Farming Play a Key Role in the Climate Fight?, Yale E360, March 31, 2020
A lot of hype — and money — is going into the idea of fighting climate change use farm soils. But some scientists are skeptical.

Co-published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network: Is carbon farming a climate boon, or boondoggle?

And republished by Grist.

OP-ED Don’t cancel the outdoors. We need them to stay sane., Washington Post, March 24, 2020
Parks and natural spaces provide a crucial, health-enhancing outlet at a stressful time.

FEATURE Green Revolution 2.0, Moonshot Catalog, March 9, 2020
Feeding humanity as the climate changes will require crops that are more productive, hardier, and more diverse than ever. Scientists around the world are using modern tools to spark Green Revolution 2.0.

FEATURE Germany’s Ruhr valley beckons with converted coal mines and a unique industrial heritage, Washington Post, February 21, 2020
A travel story about “Germany’s Appalachia.”

FEATURE The Green Miles, Washington Post Magazine, February 13, 2020
Eastern Kentucky was devastated for decades by mountaintop removal. Now scientists have figured out a way to undo the damage — one tree at a time.

This story received an honorable mention in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.

OP-ED We don’t need to just plant trees. We also need to take care of them. Washington Post, January 30, 2020.
An obsession with tree planting but little money for keeping them alive.

NEWS Aphid-munching beetle could help save hemlock forests, Science, January 22, 2020.
A rare success for biological control – but much work remains before hemlock trees are safe.

NEWS Forests Could Turn from Allies to Enemies in the Fight Against Climate Change, Inside Science, November 27, 2019
Climate change may cause trees to live faster and die younger, releasing their carbon into the atmosphere.

NEWS For D.C. students, lessons in growth, of the garden variety, Washington Post, November 15, 2019
D.C.’s first school-based food forest feeds students’ bodies and minds.

NEWS A mysterious disease is striking American beech trees, Science, November 15, 2019
While scientists debate its cause, beech leaf disease spreads rapidly.

NEWS Scientists Can Now Predict Which Invasive Insects Will Wipe Out Forests, Inside Science, November 4, 2019
Surprisingly, it’s the trees, not the bugs, that matter.

FEATURE Catchy findings have propelled this young ecologist to fame—and enraged his critics, Science, October 24, 2019
I profile the scientist behind the message that tree planting is the world’s best climate solution.

FEATURE Waiting for the Quantum Simulation Revolution, Physics, October 21, 2019
There’s a lot of hype, but chemists and materials scientists say quantum computers have a ways to go before becoming useful.

FEATURE Soil’s Microbial Market Shows the Ruthless Side of Forests, Quanta, August 27, 2019
Innovative science reveals that the underground world may not be as beneficient as often claimed.

BOOK REVIEW The Overstory: Admirably ambitious but ultimately overrated, August 26, 2019
My somewhat belated review of a best-seller on trees.

FEATURE Better Batteries or Climate Bust, The Moonshot Catalog, August 17, 2019
Learn why we need new, never-before-seen materials to decarbonize the economy and build a survivable future.

ESSAY What All the Affection for Monarch Butterflies Misses, Atlantic, June 4, 2019
Monarch butterflies are an outlier species whose success we have enabled. What about all the other less famous insects?

OP-ED Want to understand the biodiversity crisis? Look at the trees in your backyard., Washington Post, May 23, 2019
The loss of ash trees makes clear that mass extinction is neither remote or abstract.

FEATURE How much can forests fight climate change?, Nature, January 15, 2019
Forests take carbon out of the air, so they’re often touted as climate change fighters. But trees influence climate in lots of other ways that are rarely accounted for. I dove into the complex (and controversial) science.

OP-ED The federal government is silencing its scientists, Washington Post, December 16, 2018
Obstructive media policies have made it all but impossible to speak with scientists at many federal agencies.

FEATURE Forests Emerge as a Major Overlooked Climate Factor, Quanta, October 9, 2018
Yes, forests store carbon, but emerging research shows that they also influence global climate and weather in other important and far less obvious ways.

Republished in The Atlantic

NEWS An arboreal murder mystery: What is killing beech trees?, Washington Post, July 30, 2018
There’s a new disease attacking beech trees. If it spreads, it could be ecological apocalypse: Beech is the most common tree in DC and is near the top in many states. My story is the first report in a national news outlet.

NEWS D.C. says its tree canopy is growing. Federal researchers disagree., Washington Post, June 10, 2018
Two methods for measuring D.C.’s urban forest come up with conflicting results.

FEATURE Honoring trees, Orion, Spring 2018
A unique art exhibit for grieving scientists.

NEWS At age 16, A Maryland student is working with NASA on a serious project, Washington Post, December 31, 2017
A local high school sophomore has been working with NASA scientists for almost two years to map and conserve mangroves using satellite data.

OP-ED Cure yourself of tree blindness, New York Times, August 27, 2017
A meditation on the joys and sorrows of learning your trees.

FEATURE Can expensive, ultra-green homes sell in a gritty suburban Maryland town?, Washington Post Magazine, May 18, 2017

A profile of two young, ambitious developers building one of the country’s greenest homes — right next door to where I lived and worked for three and a half years.

FEATURE How Scientists Can Team Up With Indigenous Groups To Protect Forests and Climate, Smithsonian Magazine, May 3, 2017

Most scientists come up with their own research agendas and work and publish papers with other scientists. Catherine Potvin and Javier Mateo-Vega ask indigenous communities what research they would like to pursue, find funding to support it, include community members as collaborators and coauthors, and return results to communities. I don’t know anyone else who does science this way. It was a privilege to tell their story.

Lee esta historia en español!

FEATURE Mayans Have Farmed The Same Way For Millennia. Climate Change Means They Can’t, NPR, February 3, 2017
An innovative, indigenous farming and climate solution.

OP-ED The Free Flow of Scientific Information Is Critical for Democracy, Scientific American, February 3, 2017
Communication channels between government scientists and journalists must remain open.

ESSAY What the death of an oak tree can teach us about mortality, Aeon, December 6, 2016
Trees are not like us — and we can learn from that.

FEATURE Scientists are close to building a quantum computer that can beat a conventional one, Science, December 1, 2016
Private companies big and small place their bets on a future quantum computer.

FEATURE Warning to forest destroyers: this scientist will catch you, Nature, October 4, 2016
Profile of geographer Matthew Hansen, who is shining a light on the dark world of deforestation.

OP-ED Update the Nobel Prize, New York Times, October 3, 2016
It’s time to modernize the world’s most famous science prize.

OP-ED The battle to save Dueling Creek, Washington Post, July 8, 2016
Why even a battle-scarred little suburban park is worth saving.

OP-ED The ups and downs of the Bradford pear, New York Times, March 18, 2016

Of all the environmental evils in our world, is an ugly pear tree such a bad thing?

Followup blog post on gaining perspective on the Bradford pear

OP-ED Chasing the rabbit in D.C., Washington Post, January 22, 2016
Why square dancing can make the world a better place.

OP-ED Cities as havens for trees, New York Times, December 25, 2014
A beautiful eastern hemlock tree in my neighborhood got me thinking about whether cities can help preserve trees that are threatened in the wild.

My Writing

Why tell stories about science? Science, like any other endeavor, has characters, plot, intrigue and heartbreak. But perhaps unique among human pursuits, it inevitably progresses: We always know more than we did before. My writing sheds light on what scientists know, what they hope to learn and why it matters.

Writing – A nearly complete catalog of my published work.

Editing – I’ve edited science stories, books, reports, blog posts and more.

Blog – Occasional essays and original reporting on a range of topics. Most touch on issues related to the environment and sustainability.

Multimedia – In 2012 I produced a series of pieces for the Perpetual Notion Machine, a science radio show in Madison, Wisconsin. I have also developed innovative posters, brochures, and videos on topics in physics and science education.

Music and Dance – I play traditional music and organize occasional music and dance events.

Check out my work, read more about me, and please contact me if you would like to discuss a project. You can also subscribe to my writing.