Winter 2014

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Maryn McKenna at the White Oak Pastures, an organic farm in Bluffton, Ga. Photo by David Tulis.

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Donna Williams Lewis of Stone Mountain, Ga., is an independent journalist and a former writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Ever wonder about those strange designations we use throughout Northwestern to identify alumni of the various schools of the University? See the complete list.

Writer Maryn McKenna investigates how antibiotics got us into trouble in agriculture and what we can do to get out of it.
by Donna Williams Lewis

Stepping out of a pickup truck at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., science journalist Maryn McKenna is greeted by a bevy of brown-and-white-feathered chickens.

The sturdy, long-lived Freedom Ranger chickens, which roam freely through the grasses, sidle up to her, pecking at her boots, making soft rippling sounds, like mourning doves.

This is McKenna’s third visit to the largest certified organic farm in Georgia, a 140-year-old outfit that nearly 20 years ago scrapped the industrial techniques commonly used today for a return to the ways of its past.

At White Oak Pastures, thousands of chickens, cows, goats, sheep and other animals spend their entire lives foraging on land overseen by Will Harris III, the fourth generation of his family to work the farm. Hogs root around in the woods. All of the animals feed naturally and breed naturally.

“It’s a farm that’s really devoted to the welfare of its animals,” McKenna ’85 MS says. “One thing I heard Will say on one of my visits was, ‘I’m growing these animals to slaughter them and sell them. The last two minutes of their lives may not be pleasant. But I am going to make sure that they have the best lives that they can up to that point.’ ”

McKenna wrote about White Oak Pastures for Modern Farmer and returned to do research for her upcoming book (to be published in 2015 by the National Geographic Society) about the use of antibiotics in agriculture and how that practice has affected our health and diets, land use and global business.

“Most of the meat animals raised in most of the industrialized world get antibiotics every day in their feed or water under a practice that dates back to the earliest days of the antibiotic era,” McKenna explains, “because it makes them put on muscle more quickly, so you can move them through the assembly line of a factory faster and get them to market faster.”

No antibiotics are used at White Oak Pastures, where chickens raised for meat live for 12 weeks. The typical lifespan of industrial broiler chickens is six weeks, McKenna says.

“As my concept for the book moved forward,” McKenna says, “I realized that White Oak Pastures was going to be important to the story I was going to tell: how antibiotics in agriculture got us into trouble and what do we do to find our way out.”

Writing about food is a new direction and a natural progression for McKenna, a former newspaper reporter known as the “Scary Disease Girl” since her days of covering the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Since 2007 McKenna has focused on what the CDC calls one of the world’s most pressing public health problems — antibiotic resistance.

Her 2010 book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (Free Press) debunked common thought that this was a “hospital problem,” where medicated patients could be especially vulnerable to superbugs.

Instead, she saw an epidemic that is much more extensive. Multi-drug-resistant bacteria, which kill thousands of people a year and make many more sick, are rife in hospitals and in our everyday lives, but they also contaminate the food supply as well. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in people, farm animals and produce is leading to the emergence of bacteria that cannot be defeated. “As soon as you put a new compound out there, bacteria start resisting it,” McKenna says.

McKenna outlined some of the evidence in a November 2013 article for Medium that’s been getting a great deal of attention: “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future.”

In it she talked about the aquaculture industry’s struggle with antibiotic-resistant fish diseases in fish farms, particularly in Asia, and the recent re-emergence of an antibiotic-resistant blight that nearly destroyed Michigan’s apple and pear industry in 2000.

“Most of the meat animals raised in most of the industrialized world get antibiotics every day in their feed or water under a practice that dates back to the earliest days of the antibiotic era.” — Maryn McKenna

“We are almost at the end of the antibiotics miracle,” she wrote, later adding in a recent interview that “we really are almost out of drugs, and the companies are not making more because it’s not a profitable thing for them to do.”

After Superbug came out, McKenna was invited to become a blogger for Wired magazine. She had a Scary Disease Girl mission but found an audience there for food production as well.

In April, McKenna took on a second blog, writing about food for National Geographic’s “The Plate.”

Her posts about food tackle the big policy issues. But she also has written about growing up in England, where she was a day student at a boarding school, struggling with holding her fork British style and learning to like stewed rhubarb.

Red-haired, green-eyed Maryn McKenna was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to parents of Irish descent. Her mother died suddenly of leukemia when McKenna was just 5 years old. When her father remarried two years later, he moved the family to Weybridge, England, a southern suburb of London. They returned to the States, stopping briefly in New Jersey and then moving to Houston halfway through McKenna’s eighth-grade year. McKenna stayed there until she went off to college.

She graduated cum laude from Georgetown University with an English degree — “16th-century theater, 20th-century poetry, completely pointless for finding a job,” McKenna says, with a laugh.

McKenna says the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications made her a newspaper reporter, something she hadn’t planned.

She talked about that evolution during a recent interview in the cozy 1940s home she shares in Atlanta with her husband, Loren Bolstridge.

McKenna wanted to be practical with the small amount of money she received after her grandmother died. There was enough to pay for one year of journalism graduate school, something McKenna thought would help her become a better-equipped freelancer, specializing in the arts.

She chose Northwestern because its journalism program is practically focused and, at that time, students concentrated on one topic per quarter — politics, economics, the arts, etc. Ironically, the one subject McKenna didn’t get to do was science.

Her focus on public health evolved quickly in a career that began at the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star and continued when she moved to the Cincinnati Enquirer and then on to the Boston Herald, while doing groundbreaking research all along the way.

In Boston, McKenna wrote about life-threatening gaps in ambulance and emergency radio networks, stories that inspired the allocation of state funding to improve ambulance communications. She also co-wrote articles on illnesses affecting U.S. and U.K. veterans of the Persian Gulf War that helped lead to the first congressional hearings on the Gulf War syndrome.

In 1995 she joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming the only U.S. reporter covering the CDC full time. At the time, the agency was sort of a forgotten place, McKenna says.

“It was after all the alarms of the ’80s about HIV, but it was before 9/11,” she says. “The CDC was still very open. There were no gates, no guards. … You could go in and go almost anywhere, unescorted. That really changed my life. That started for me 10 years of just wandering into labs and trying to talk my way into investigations.”

Among her tours of duty, the SARS epidemic took her to Hong Kong and Hanoi, Vietnam. She reported stories from a field hospital in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; from a malaria hospital in Malawi; while with a polio eradication team in India; and from an isolation ward for people with drug-resistant tuberculosis in Vietnam.

Her first book, Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (Free Press), tells the story of that elite CDC team, with whom she was embedded for more than a year. It was named one of the top science books of 2004 by Amazon.com.

In 2006, as newspapers began taking nosedives, McKenna decided to leave the AJC. She moved to Minneapolis and restarted her career as a freelancer. She won a yearlong grant from the Kaiser Foundation to do storytelling on health care.

Over the next year McKenna spent eight nights each month embedded in overnight ER shifts in Atlanta, Minneapolis and other cities.

“I thought this was going to be a project about emergency rooms, but it happened to be the peak of the epidemic of MRSA, the superbug, in the U.S.,” McKenna says. “Every night that I was in an ER, somebody came in with a MRSA infection. … I thought, ‘There has to be a story here.’ ”

Her research resulted in the book Superbug, which won the 2011 Science in Society Award given by the National Association of Science Writers.

McKenna’s efforts to teach the public about antibiotic resistance have not only been informative but have helped advance the goals of public health in this area,” says Arjun Srinivasan, the CDC’s associate director for health care–associated infection prevention programs.

McKenna’s “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” piece was nominated as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Media Award and has been republished in France, Sweden and Russia.

“When I left the paper, I was scared. I didn’t know how to freelance,” McKenna says. “I think anyone who came out at that time thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do? How is this going to work in this new landscape?’ ”

She figured it out pretty quickly. To help develop an audience for Superbug, McKenna began blogging about MRSA in 2007. A year later she put herself on Twitter, where she now has more than 20,000 followers. She recently completed a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she learned to do audio and video.

Her biggest professional challenge may be keeping up with all of the demands for her time.

When two Ebola virus patients were taken to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital for treatment in August, Twitter followers pressured McKenna to weigh in on the outcry. She’d wanted to stay out of the breaking news fray.

“I’ve got people on Twitter saying, ‘When are you going to say something about Ebola,’ ” she says, “ ‘because Ebola is happening, and you are the person we trust.’ ”

Eventually, she caved and wrote a blog about Ebola for Wired, dropping some calm into the frenzy.

“Ebola is a dreadful outbreak, it needs attention, and it says something ugly about us as a society that we only really noticed it when two Westerners were injured by it,” McKenna wrote.

In September, as the epidemic continued to expand, she did several more posts for Wired on Ebola, calling it “a type of epidemic that the world has never seen before.”

“When one of the most senior disease detectives in the U.S. [Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota] begins talking about ‘plague,’ knowing how emotive that word can be, and another suggests calling out the military,” McKenna wrote, “it is time to start paying attention.”

McKenna will no doubt continue paying attention. “There’s still definitely a ‘scary disease’ part of my life,” she says.

But, for now, her focus is on bringing science into a conversation that people want to read about — food.

“As fascinating as people think scary diseases are, the audience for it is somewhat limited, precisely because they’re scary,” she says. “But food has become one of the major currencies of our culture, a subject everyone talks about. It’s a channel for bringing science to people who would never read a science story, and a chance to explore solutions and opportunities for change.”