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How a fellowship led to a series on global emerging infections Date: 12/15/17

Mark Johnson

By Bara Vaida

Mark Johnson, a health and science writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was looking for an idea to pitch in 2015 to the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism when he got a call from a public relations source at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The story was about a professor of epidemiology’s three-year quest to learn what in 2012 had killed a popular 5-year-old Milwaukee County Zoo orangutan named Mahal. Affection for the orangutan, plus concern that other zoo animals also might be in danger, led the zoo to send the animal’s body to the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine for an investigation lead by Tony Goldberg, a professor of pathobiological sciences. After three years of work, Goldberg determined Mahal had died from a new species of tapeworm previously only found in Finland and Japan.

“So how did that tapeworm end up in Wisconsin? It turned out to be a really interesting story of evolution, the earth’s orbital patterns and the ice ages,” Johnson said. “It was a micro-story that was really part of a bigger macro-story about global forces and zoonotic diseases.”

Goldberg’s detective story became the foundation of Johnson’s application for an O’Brien Fellowship to produce a series on how pathogens emerge from animals and spread to humans and the role that climate change may be playing on this public health issue. Johnson won a fellowship for the 2016-17 year and has since published six stories for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the topic of emerging infectious diseases. Two more are expected to be published in the next few months.

The O’Brien Fellowship, which is administered through the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, was created in 2012.

The nine-month fellowship is awarded to three to five journalists annually for public service investigative projects. Fellows work out of offices on Marquette’s Milwaukee campus and are paired with Marquette journalism students to support their projects. The fellowship pays reporters’ newsroom salaries during the program, and fellows receive allowances to cover project-related travel, technology, research and equipment, such as for a photographer.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel supports the O’Brien fellowship, so at least one staff member receives the fellowship annually. Freelancers and reporters from other papers also have received fellowships. This year (Sept. 2017-May 2018) reporters from the Virginian-Pilot and Wisconsin Public Television and a freelancer won the fellowship. Johnson was interested in the O’Brien fellowship not only because his paper supports it, but also because he wanted to work with student journalists.


“My advice for anyone interested in applying for a fellowship is to think about what you want to get out of it,” Johnson said. “Some fellowships don’t allow you to write during their duration and I didn’t want to take a year off writing.”

Johnson began writing the series during his fellowship, which ended in May. His paper has since given him time to balance his full-time reporting responsibilities with completing the remainder of the stories he researched during the fellowship.

Johnson built each of the stories in the series around published research. For example, he began the Mahal detective story by reading studies such as this study on Mahal's death, and a follow-up, in the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. For a story on how technology is being used to predict the spread of outbreaks, Johnson turned to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), where he found for research on how mobile phone data is being used to study disease transmission, and how the improved mobility of populations in Asia has affected the spread of infections. When Johnson was trying to get accurate data on the spread of diseases in foreign countries, Johnson worked with a local scientist or a researcher familiar with that country’s health system to gather monthly health reports. When health records were not in English, Johnson used the Google Translate application.

As he got to know U.S. emerging disease researchers, Johnson learned that many of them had laboratories in other countries. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s Goldberg has a research center in Kibale National Park in Uganda, where he works with a team of scientists monitoring wildlife diseases in the jungle. Karen Strier, another researcher at the university, has a laboratory in Brazil. Johnson used his O’Brien fellowship resources to travel to Uganda, Kenya and Brazil to see the researchers’ work in action. On the trips, he talked to doctors, patients and researchers, which helped Johnson describe how a disease like Zika, which first appeared in Uganda, spread to the rest of the world, or why a yellow fever outbreak in Brazil should matter to Americans.

For reporters wanting to cover global health stories from a local perspective, Johnson suggests doing what he did and reach out to local epidemiologists, especially those with university affiliations.

“I think that it would surprise a lot of people if you contacted epidemiologists in your area,” he said, “I bet there is someone who has found a new disease in wildlife or has a lab in some other country. This is a way to bring a global story home.”