Rae Ellen Bichell

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.

In 2010, Sonia Vallabh watched her mom, Kamni Vallabh, die in a really horrible way.

First, her mom's memory started to go, then she lost the ability to reason. Sonia says it was like watching someone get unplugged from the world. By the end, it was as if she was stuck between being awake and asleep. She was confused and uncomfortable all the time.

"Even when awake, was she fully or was she really? And when asleep, was she really asleep?" says Sonia.

Sonia Vallabh saw her mother die at age 52 from a rare disease that causes irreversible brain damage. Then Sonia learned she has inherited the genetic mutation that killed her mother. She and her husband quit their jobs and trained to become scientists. They're now racing against time to come up with a treatment that could save Sonia's life.

It's a mission that's been in the works for nearly 60 years. NASA says it will launch a spacecraft in 2018 to "touch the sun," sending it closer to the star's surface than ever before.

The spacecraft is small – its instruments would fit into a refrigerator — but it's built to withstand temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all the while maintaining room temperature inside the probe.

Animals, especially mammals, need oxygen to keep their bodies and brains humming along.

But leave it to the African naked mole-rat to buck that trend. The rodents are bizarre in just about every way. They're hairless, ground-dwelling and cold-blooded despite being mammals. Now, scientists report in the journal Science that the animals are capable of surviving oxygen deprivation.

Decades ago, scientists surgically attached pairs of rats to each other and noticed that old rats tended to live longer if they shared a bloodstream with young rats.

It was the beginning of a peculiar and ambitious scientific endeavor to understand how certain materials from young bodies, when transplanted into older ones, can sometimes improve or rejuvenate them.

Researchers have found that European eels can sense magnetic fields and may use this ability to navigate thousands of miles through the Atlantic Ocean.

Eels have always been mysterious animals. More than 2,000 years ago, Artistotle proposed that they were born spontaneously from mud.

"I think it's fascinating because as humans we've been pondering the life history of eels for a long time," says Lewis Naisbett-Jones, a graduate student in marine biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Viruses are supposed to be tiny and simple — so tiny and simple that it's debatable whether they're even alive.

They're minimalist packets of genetic information, relying entirely on the cells the infect in order to survive and reproduce.

But in 2003, researchers identified a new kind of virus that that turned scientific understanding of viruses upside down, and tested the boundary of what can be considered life.

Exposure to lead as a child can affect an adult decades later, according to a study out Tuesday that suggests a link between early childhood lead exposure and a dip in a person's later cognitive ability and socioeconomic status.

Lead in the United States can come from lots of sources: old, peeling paint; contaminated soil; or water that's passed through lead pipes. Before policies were enacted to get rid of lead in gasoline, it could even come from particles in the fumes that leave car tailpipes.

There is such a thing as a memory athlete. These are people who can memorize a truly insane amount of information really quickly, like the order of playing cards in a deck in under 20 seconds, or 200 new names and faces in a matter of minutes.

Neuroscientists writing Wednesday in the journal Neuron found these champs of memorization aren't that different from the rest of us.

When you step outside after a big rainstorm and take a deep whiff of that fresh, earthy smell, you're mostly smelling a chemical called geosmin.

It's a byproduct of bacteria and fungi. And something about rain lofts the chemical — and sometimes the organisms themselves — into the air, a process that not only helps release that earthy smell but may, in very rare conditions, spread diseases.

Somehow raindrops launch tiny living things off the ground.

It's not clear when or where life on this planet began, but scientists are working hard to find out.

Now, researchers writing in the journal Nature say they found fossils of what could be some of the earliest known creatures to grace the Earth, embedded in rocks that are at least 3.7 billion years old.

Initially, Clint Perry wanted to make a vending machine for bumblebees. He wanted to understand how they solve problems.

Perry, a cognitive biologist at Queen Mary University of London, is interested in testing the limits of animal intelligence.

"I want to know: How does the brain do stuff? How does it make decisions? How does it keep memory?" says Perry. And how big does a brain need to be in order to do all of those things?

About 3,000 years ago, a potter near Jerusalem made a big jar. It was meant to hold olive oil or wine or something else valuable enough to send to the king as a tax payment. The jar's handles were stamped with a royal seal, and the pot went into the kiln.

Over the next 600 years, despite wars destructive enough to raze cities, potters in the area kept making ceramic tax jars, each one stamped with whatever seal represented the ruler du jour.

They didn't know it, but in the process, the ancient potters were not just upholding centuries of tax bureaucracy.

Each year, fish farms produce a massive amount of carp — so much that if you put all that fish on one side of a scale, and all the people living in the U.S. on the other side, they'd pretty much balance each other out by weight.

But for the past couple of decades, carp have been plagued by a type of herpes virus, known as Koi herpesvirus.

In the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, a gravel road leads to a 10-foot-tall fence. Type in a key code, and a gate scrapes open. Undo a chain to get behind another. Everything here is made of metal, because the residents of this facility are experts at invasion and destruction.

By the time Kay Schwister got her diagnosis last summer, she couldn't talk anymore. But she could still scowl, and scowl she did.

After weeks of decline and no clue what was causing it, doctors had told Schwister — a 53-year-old vocational rehab counselor and mother of two from Chicago — that she had an incurable disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD.

The disease was shrinking Kay's brain, and riddling it with holes. She would likely live only a few more weeks, the doctors said.

Scientists have described a new kind of sea creature in what's now central China. It lived 540 million years ago, and the tiny, baggy organism could occupy a peripheral spot on our own evolutionary tree.

When scientists like Simon Conway Morris discover a new animal, they get to name it. He and his colleagues in China don't seem to give compliments where they aren't deserved.

A group of scientists is gathering this week in the U.K. to discuss a slab of ice that's cracking in Antarctica. The crack could soon split off a frozen chunk the size of Delaware.

One glacier scientist, Heidi Sevestre, spent six weeks last year living on that giant slab of ice off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Right now, a big chunk of Antarctic ice is hanging on by a frozen thread.

British researchers monitoring the crack in the Larsen C ice shelf say that only about 12 miles now connect the chunk of ice to the rest of the continent.

People think of black holes as nightmare vacuum cleaners, sucking in everything in reach, from light to stars to Matthew McConaughey in the movie Interstellar. But, in real life, black holes don't consume everything that they draw in.

Evan Smith wanted to get his hands on the world's biggest diamonds — the kind that sit atop royal scepters, and the ones that are always the target of elaborate movie heists.

But this wasn't for some nefarious get-rich-quick scheme. It was for science.

"The most valuable, the most prized, of all gemstones are coincidentally some of the most scientifically valuable pieces of the Earth," says Smith, a diamond geologist at the Gemological Institute of America.

Ever since NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, it's been slowly making its way along hills, dunes and mesas, collecting rock samples all along the way.

But last week, as it started climbing up a gently sloping mountain, called Mount Sharp, it started acting weird. NASA engineers now say that a part of the extendable arm, the drill that bores into the Martian rock, keeps getting jammed.

Just as the tip hovers a few inches off the ground, the drill stops.

In 2015, Lida Xing was visiting a market in northern Myanmar when a salesman brought out a piece of amber about the size of a pink rubber eraser. Inside, he could see a couple of ancient ants and a fuzzy brown tuft that the salesman said was a plant.

As soon as Xing saw it, he knew it wasn't a plant. It was the delicate, feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur.

The Washington, D.C., jail has big metal doors that slam shut. It looks and feels like a jail. But down a hall in the medical wing, past an inmate muttering about suicide, there's a room that looks like an ordinary doctor's office.

"OK, deep breaths in and out for me," Dr. Reggie Egins says to his patient, Sean Horn, an inmate in his 40s. They talk about how his weight has changed in his six weeks in jail, how his medications are working out and whether he's noticed anything different about his vision. Egins schedules an ophthalmology appointment for Horn.

Pandemic flu, Ebola, Nipah virus. Emmie de Wit has held all of them in her hands (with three layers of gloves in between, of course).

She's a virologist working at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The 450-person facility, which is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is nestled in a town of 4,000. It's surrounded by mountains and national forests. Only one road passes through.

In 2011, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died, the state news agency reported that Mount Paektu took on a supernatural glow, and that at its summit, Heaven Lake shook with cracking ice.

Those reports were pretty unscientific. But several years earlier, between 2002 and 2005, Mount Paektu had experienced a swarm of little earthquakes.

Every morning in a government office building in Boulder, Colo., about a dozen people type a code into a door and line up against a wall on the other side. There are a couple of guys in military uniform, and some scientists in Hawaiian shirts. They work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they're here for a daily space weather forecast.

The golden poison dart frog is about an inch long and banana yellow. By some estimates, the skin of one little frog contains enough toxin to kill 10 adult men.

"Oh yeah, it's one of the more lethal poisons on the planet," says Justin Du Bois, a synthetic chemist at Stanford University.

A few months ago, neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch emerged from a 10-hour surgery that she hadn't done before.

"Most of my patients are humans," says Bloch, who works at the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.

This patient was a rhesus macaque.

The monkey's spinal cord had been partially cut. So while his brain was fine and his legs were fine, the two couldn't communicate.

The Schiaparelli Mars lander got very close to the red planet before something went wrong. It entered the planet's atmosphere, managed not to burn up as it hurtled down and unfurled its parachute. It's unclear what happened in the final minute of descent, but it wasn't what the European and Russian space agencies had planned.

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