STAT reporter Sharon Begley died Jan. 16. Here, colleagues share remembrances of their time working with her.
Watching a master at work
“Hello, this is Sharon Begley.”
Hundreds of times over the past five-plus years I’ve heard my colleague and friend pick up a ringing phone — generally a landline, Sharon wasn’t a fan of cellphones — and identify herself to a caller. Where I can come across as brusque when answering a call, especially one I’m not expecting, Sharon always sounded delighted, as if she was certain whoever was calling might have something fascinating to tell her.
I think they generally did.
We sat near and then beside each other at STAT. I knew her work, obviously, before we ended up as colleagues at this new health news startup that Boston Globe Media Partners launched in the autumn of 2015. You couldn’t be a science writer and not know Sharon Begley’s work. But we’d never crossed paths. We typically didn’t write about the same things, which was lucky for me because I’d never have gotten a job at STAT if we did.
Sharon was a marvel to watch at work. Quiet, reserved, but with a killer wit that she only occasionally let others see. She loved gossip, but I think she listened more than she dished; co-workers were always finding their ways to her desk to share news, or ask advice. They trusted her.
When STAT and our colleagues from the Boston Globe moved from the Globe’s historic home in Dorchester — the building immortalized in the movie “Spotlight” — in mid-2017, Sharon and I ended up sharing a cubicle in our new downtown office. At such close proximity, I gained a new appreciation for how she did what she did.
I tape all interviews and transcribe too many of them, because by the time I’ve done several interviews for the two or three stories I’m juggling simultaneously, I’m not quite sure what I’ve got. My desk has a stack of 8 1/2” x 11” lined writing pads heaped on it, with scrawls I can barely read scratched across them.
Sharon used the same writing pads, writing remarkably detailed notes in handwriting that was impeccable, tiny and neat. She didn’t record. She didn’t need to. Her brain was a steel trap.
Her long and delicate fingers would fly across her keypad, creating magic as they went. She churned out story after story, though churn is definitely the wrong verb. It creates an image of sameness, a lack of artistry. Her pieces were not iterations of each other, pressed out using a few standard cookie cutters. She covered a wide range of topics — breaking news and emerging science. She was a brilliant writer who explained complex concepts with elegance.
When the pandemic hit the United States and our office closed in early March, Sharon and I would meet from time to time on Commonwealth Avenue, a lovely Back Bay street with a park running up the middle. She lived nearby; I was within biking distance. We’d find an empty park bench, settle at opposite ends and talk about how weird the world had become. It helped ground me; I hope it did for Sharon, too.
News of her illness, diagnosed in the summer, was a profound shock. Sharon was seemingly the picture of health. She walked everywhere in Boston — she loved exploring the city on foot. She was a vegetarian, and ate in bird-like quantities. Based on what I knew of her, I would have guessed she’d have lived to be a nonagenarian, at least.
I am not religious, but I told her I was sending up agnostic prayers on her behalf. She told me she was using mental imagery, picturing little Lego men hurling bundles of TNT at her tumors. For one of her major early medical appointments, she wrote for me a schedule for my agnostic prayers — at one point in the afternoon to show that her tumors had shrunk, at another to show her blood measurements were OK, at a third that a chemotherapy session would go well and the Lego men would be unleashed.
“Me, I seem to be getting more Zen about it all,” she wrote me at one point. “I tried my best with the years I was given, often fell short, but my lodestar was always kindness and making things a little better than I found them, journalistically or personally. I think I can look back and say I was not a mean or bad person.”
She did. She could. She definitely was not. She was kind and whip smart and so, so good at what she did.
— Helen Branswell
What Sharon taught me
One thing I’ve always found hilarious is that Sharon and I started at STAT on the same day 5 1/2 years ago. Here was the doyen of science journalism, and here I was, someone whose last job was covering local politics and breaking news in San Antonio. What was I doing here?
Thankfully, there was Sharon. She taught me so much about what it means to be a journalist generally, and a science reporter, in particular. She was so encouraging. Despite having more work to do than just about anyone, she never — truly, not once — shooed me away when I came to her with a question. She guided me through so many stories. I bounced ideas off of her. I asked her which sources I should interview on a certain subject. I asked her about guide RNA and synaptic pruning. I sent her drafts of stories to make sure everything was right. She didn’t just give them a scientific gut check; ever the careful writer, she was sure to cross out extraneous words. If she could read through this blubbering remembrance, I have no doubt she’d find ways to tighten it up. I had so much to learn from her.
She had a wealth of knowledge about cancer and neurodegeneration and genetics, but she was so humble. She stuck to the fundamentals: You shouldn’t assume you know something, and you should let the reporting guide you, asking every question you could think of. In my eyes, her humility only enhanced the quiet authority she commanded among the staff. And I think it set an example: I worked so hard on my stories not just for myself, and the readers, and the editors, but also because I just wanted to try to live up to the standards she set daily in her work.
Sharon expected science journalists to demonstrate the same principles, rigor, and skepticism we would demand from business or political reporters. A personal favorite: A cancer genetics company was asserting that its product surpassed its rivals, and it had the evidence to prove it. She looked into the matter, investigated the claims, and found that was not the case.
You may know her other stories: the country’s neglect of research into sickle cell disease, which disproportionately affects Black people. The progress and hiccups scientists encountered as they endeavored to move genome editing out of the lab and into patients. The Alzheimer’s “cabal.” Her writing made complicated neuroscience and immunology and technology accessible and artful; she let you know why what you were reading was important. She was there in Hong Kong to explain just what He Jiankui had tried to do when he announced the first CRISPR babies. She made the yearslong CRISPR patent battle — as in the weeds about intellectual property law as it was about biochemistry — as digestible and compelling as anything Netflix could produce.
She could do it all, and do it quickly, a skill any journalist should have, but one all the more remarkable considering the complexity of the topics she covered.
She was also hilarious, both in her quips about the gossipy world of journalism, and in her pieces. In this story about the BMJ’s annual Christmas edition, she wrote what, to me, may be the finest sentence ever published by STAT: “At least there’s sex.” She once described a particular kinase as having “more responsibilities than Jared Kushner.”
That I had the chance to work alongside her on some stories will always be one of the true privileges of my professional life. I remember, in particular, working with her on a “tick-tock” of the events that led up to that Hong Kong summit where the CRISPR babies story blew up, resulting in this 5,000-word epic that just seemed to spill from Sharon’s mind. As we were reviewing the edits, we came to a section that we had liked, but that the editors wanted deleted and replaced with something that we thought was, frankly, bad. I know I, and probably many reporters, sometimes ignore certain suggestions from editors (don’t tell), but if I remember correctly, this passage was perhaps two full sentences, at a pretty crucial point in the story, not a random word here or there. I started trying to brainstorm an alternative that would satisfy the editors but that we could also tolerate. Sharon calmly turned to me and said, “Whose names are on the story?” She deleted what the editors had proposed, reverting to our original language. My freaking hero.
To quote one of the reader comments left on that story: “If there is a better science reporter than Sharon Begley, I don’t know who that is.”
That is so true, but Sharon was also so much more than a gifted science journalist. She had a poise and placidity about her that I know I’ll never be able to replicate but God I wish I could. The editors would throw all sorts of stories her way, with impossible deadlines, and while I would have freaked out or said it’s not going to happen, she would say, “OK …” and nine times out of 10, she would get the job done — and more than just done but done far more skillfully than anyone could have expected. I’m not sure I ever saw her flustered.
She demonstrated every day what it means to be a generous colleague, one with no ego. She gladly shared tips or sources and didn’t feel possessive over her beat. She would add other reporters to contrib lines (those “so and so contributed reporting” mentions at the bottom of some stories) when they had done practically nothing, and would add them to bylines when a contrib line would have been more than fair. She came to cheer on our goofily bad work softball team. She would send me nice emails about my stories, which I always appreciated but only now am I realizing just how much I cherish them. I still have so much to learn from her.
Before we all started working from home last March, Sharon and I sat back-to-back in the newsroom. I liked to get to work early, but undoubtedly, she was there by the time I showed up. I’ll miss seeing her every morning typing away as I walked in. I’ll miss the snowman coffee mug she used year-round. I’ll miss being able to go to one of the smartest people and best reporters I’ve ever met with all my nonstop questions. I’ll miss being able to spin around in my chair with a “Hey, Sharon?” and watch as she would stop plucking away at the keyboard, take off her glasses, turn around and go, “Yes?” I’ll miss the bright red cape she wore as she walked to work in the winter. I’ll miss the stack of yellow notepads on her desk (unlike many reporters, she took notes during phone interviews by hand, not on her computer). I’ll miss reading the stories she wrote and learning so much from every single one. I’ll miss hearing about the walking tours she loved to take whenever she was in a new city. I’ll miss listening to her talk about her husband and kids. I’ll miss her wit and patience. I’ll miss my role model and mentor. I’ll miss my friend.
— Andrew Joseph
Sharon’s unfailing generosity
Sharon was remarkable. She was the person we couldn’t start a brainstorming meeting without. She’d scribble notes down by hand in her yellow notepad, fielding the half-baked, quarter-baked, sometimes still-potatoes-in-the-ground ideas with her characteristic calm.
Then somehow, without fail and without fuss, she would turn them into Sharon stories.
When Sharon wrote — which was unbelievably often — she did so with the deepest humanity. She was clear-eyed, cutting, quietly decisive. She didn’t shy away from laying bare science’s biggest problems or telling it like it is. But when there was hope, a chance to change things, something we should all be excited to learn, Sharon told us that, too.
She had the sharpest sense of humor and the most delightful turns of phrase. The process of creating lab-grown mini hearts entailed “the organoid version of suspending pineapple chunks in barely set Jell-O.” Science’s favorite fruit fly “follows a garbage truck like a long-lost love.” CRISPR’s idea of gene editing was “often like 1,000 monkeys editing a Word document,” and fitting the human genome into a nucleus was “akin to packing 30 miles of yarn into a basketball: It needs to be rolled up.”
She covered Covid-19, the coming tsunami of Alzheimer’s, the “CRISPR babies” and the CRISPR ethics and the CRISPR patent fights. She gazed into the Nobel crystal ball dutifully every year, and somehow her eyes weren’t too tired to write with clear insight about the bleary, 5 a.m. announcements that followed.
She made science and the world feel more accessible and alive for all of us, including anyone who was lucky enough to have worked with her.
It feels rare for a person to be so brilliant and yet never make others feel any less so, but that was the case with Sharon. She was an unfailingly kind and generous colleague — she was giving of her knowledge, of her creativity, of her time.
When I started writing this, I searched my email for a newsletter item I remembered Sharon writing for Morning Rounds years ago, a dispatch from a medical conference. She astutely observed that the longest line in the exhibit hall was a biotech company’s free coffee booth, despite there being plenty of coffee stands scattered around. (“Apparently even doctors don’t mind saving some money.”)
I found dozens and dozens of others. Not just newsletter items she’d kindly volunteered and taken time to write, but emails she’d sent answering 100 variations of the question: “What do you think, Sharon?” She was always encouraging, never condescending. She even came to cheer on the STAT/Boston Globe softball team, which, had you seen our record, was not a job for fair-weather fans.
When any of us approached her desk with a question, she’d smile, take off her glasses, and motion for you to take a seat. She was never too busy to help, and she made us all want to be better.
Sharon was, to so many, a mentor, a friend, our steady guide, our constant gut check. We could always count on her. When a story needed to be done, she simply sat down, pale pink shawl wrapped around her shoulders and mug of tea in hand, and started writing.
— Megan Thielking