What I Don't Know Yet

My Published Work

Most of the links below are to stories I’ve written since I began freelancing in 2008. If you scroll all the way down, you’ll find a few from my time at the Toledo Blade.

Trouble In Mind

Can magnetic energy change the face of autism?

Louisville Magazine | August 2013 | Jenni Laidman

They stand like microsoldiers in tight ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder across the top of your brain, each sentry humming its own tune, these millions of tiny processors running your life.

Little in Dr. Manuel Casanova’s office stands in such orderly fashion. Behind him, a bookcase overflows, extra volumes shoehorned in at every odd angle. There are books to the right of him, books to the left of him. Every flat surface supports towers of books. He peers between the stacks that tile his desk, looking past the photographs of his four daughters and past his brains. They are plastic brains, more talismans than teaching tools, too crude to illustrate the microscopic processors that take up so much real estate in Casanova’s thoughts, those minicolumns of neurons snapping away in the folds and ridges of his cerebral cortex.

His office is in a part of the University of Louisville Health Sciences Center campus that makes a fetish of concrete. There is an expanse of hot pavement forming a courtyard fringed by three examples of 1960s brutalist architecture. If you’re standing on Preston, facing west, Casanova’s office is dead ahead, in the tallest building. To your left is Kornhauser Library. And in the building to your right, researcher Estate “Tato” Sokhadze moves amid the warren of small rooms that make up his laboratory.

Maureen “Moe” Womack walks into the lab on a Friday afternoon in May trailing three children. Her hair is blond and wind-styled, and she clutches a stuffed Mickey Mouse dressed in lurid emerald green. It belongs to Augusta, the smallest of the three children flowing around her, a pixie of a girl with sky-blue eyes, luminous skin and a cap of thick brown hair. Sokhadze stands to greet them, his voice rising an octave and growing louder, taking on the musical tone adults use with children. “So how are you?” he says to Augusta, who is wearing two ribbons on her shirt. “Is this a prize you got at school?” Augusta affirms this in the tiniest voice. “Congratulations!” he says. “So it was after school? It was a competition?” She nods. “Very good!” he says. “It looks very nice!”

She is here to take part in an experiment, one of more than 120 youngsters to visit Dr. Tato – that’s what everyone calls him – for treatment that is showing promise to an intractable problem. In this treatment, Sokhadze and Casanova are a team. Casanova has the theory; Sokhadze waves the magic wand. Together, they hope to change the lives, at least to some degree, of children with autism. Augusta, diagnosed with autism at age four, is one of those children.

Continued . . . 

Printers Row: The Chicago Tribune

Savage

Anthropology

and

Napoleon

Chagnon

March 01, 2013|By Jenni Laidman

In 1998, just before Napoleon Chagnon retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he signed a contract to write a book about his life as an anthropologist among the Yanomamö people, who live in the forests of Venezuela and Brazil. It promised rip-snorting adventure — threats at spear point, psychedelic snuff, wars over women — from a serious and celebrated academic who had lived among people who had little or no previous contact with the modern world when he began his work in the 1960s.

Now, 15 years post retirement, Chagnon’s book, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists,” is finally available. That it took Chagnon nearly a decade and a half to write it should surprise no one given the events of the intervening years. What may be more surprising is that it doesn’t drip bitterness on every page. It very nearly did.

“I’d write two or three days, produce a chapter for my book, and tear it up and throw it in the garbage can,” Chagnon said in a telephone interview from his new home in Columbia, Mo. He joined the anthropology faculty at the University of Missouri in December after a long hiatus from academia. “Everything I said sounded very depressing and very angry,” he said. “Everything I wrote became tarred with the putrid smell of (author Patrick) Tierney, (and) the American Anthropological Association ….”

Of the many tales Chagnon tells about life with the Yanomamö, about death threats from angry head men and tragic epidemics and killing raids, probably few are more bracing than what happened to him in his home country, among his own tribe, the American Anthropological Association. Chagnon’s shove from grace is about as spectacular as it gets, featuring long smoldering academic disagreements that burst into a wildfire of accusations — accusations that continue to reverberate. Late last month, Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, citing Chagnon’s election to the academy as one reason.

Chagnon’s ideas had long been controversial among some of his colleagues. His depiction of the Yanomamö as “The Fierce People” — the subtitle of his best-selling textbook, “Yanomamö” — drew critics who said he exaggerated Yanomamö violence. The reasons for the violence were also in dispute. Chagnon said extensive taped interviews in many Yanomamö villages prove that many of these battles were over women. But opponents said the fights were due to the lack of animal protein in the people’s diet. Chagnon created more enemies when he came to champion sociobiology — an idea that, when introduced in 1975, met angry denunciation through its claims that all behavior, even human behavior, is shaped by natural selection.

An article Chagnon published in Science magazine in 1988 led to further ruptures among the cultural anthropologists. Chagnon’s data showed that Yanomamö men who participated in killings had more wives and more offspring than those who had not killed — in fact, three times more children. His opponents said he manipulated his data to exaggerate violence and that his research led to violence against the Yanomamö, charges he vigorously rejected.

Continued . . .

What is Bill Lamb Up To?

Louisville Magazine | October 2012 | Jenni Laidman

The future of newspapers, he thinks, is television.

Bill Lamb leans back on the couch in his stifling office. His suit jacket is off, revealing a white-on-white striped shirt and gold knot cufflinks. Six-foot-three, with blue-gray eyes, he’s better looking in person than on his twice-weekly television appearances as the editorial voice of Louisville’s Fox affiliate, WDRB. Onscreen, his ears seem a bit too noticeable, his hair and persona a tad too uptight.

His is a business where looks matter, where everyone, including the 58-year-old Lamb, meets with appearance consultants periodically. As president and general manager of WDRB and vice president of broadcasting for station owner Block Communications Inc., he represents a type of media notorious for its superficiality – notorious, at least, among print journalists, who often feel smugly superior to their more popular television competition, with its 45-second stories, its in-depth investigations of the obvious, and all that perfect hair. Four times in the course of two long conversations, Lamb mentions that WDRB reporters may be good looking, but they’re also “tough as nails,” betraying a degree of defensiveness at any casual dismissal of local television as the dumb blonde of journalism. But it’s no more than an annoyance, a conversational gnat swipe. The way he sees it, he’s a few steps ahead of the journalistic pack, and his well-groomed people are manning battle stations. Then it’s bye-bye Courier-Journal.

The future of newspapers in Louisville is, according to Lamb, WDRB.

You need not be a media junkie to catch the weird vibes on the airwaves this year.

Continued . . .

Chicago Tribune: Printers Row

Cracking the Code

of Linear B

in ‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth’

June 10, 2013|By Jenni Laidman

At the opening of the 20th century, an archaeologist unearthed a Bronze Age palace larger than Buckingham on an island of Crete in the ancient city of Knossos. In that collapsed edifice, which extended some six acres, he found hundreds of clay tablets where small inscrutable symbols dance along horizontal rules.

Some of the incised drawings surely stood for the things they depicted: horses and pigs and goblets and spears. Others were more puzzling — marks that looked like pitchforks or telephone poles or buttons. Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who uncovered the site, which was abandoned sometime between 1400 B.C. and 1100 B.C., recognized the inscriptions as a writing system never seen before, for a language that was anyone’s guess. And for the next several decades, guessing is what many people did, including Evans.

In 1952, a 29-year-old British man named Michael Ventris drew worldwide acclaim when he worked out a way to read that writing, designated as Linear B. But behind his accomplishment — and it was an accomplishment — was the painstaking but unacknowledged detective work of a woman named Alice Kober, whose remarkably thorough and thoroughly logical approach to the squiggles and horses and lines provided the keys that Ventris employed to solve the riddle.

The New York Times senior writer Margalit Fox tells an intricate and riveting story of how the writing system was deciphered in her book, “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.” What emerges is a puzzle-solvers delight and a detective story full of longing and frustration, discovery and maddening egotism. At the story’s center is Kober, a professor at Brooklyn College, laboring under the requirements of teaching a full course load to undergraduates while she works out the secrets of the strange writing system in her spare time.

Continued . . .

Scientific American Online

Speedy Genes:

The Race

for Genetic

Advantage

May 4, 2012| By Jenni Laidman

When the Kentucky Derby winner crosses the finish line in front of 160,000 roaring spectators on May 5, there’s a good chance it will have two copies of a gene that makes a horse a sprinter.

The so-called speed gene, which several laboratories say determines whether a horse prefers a short sprint, a marathon or something in between, is just one of the genetic markers identified in the search for the roots of elite performance in thoroughbreds. Now the race is on among five or six commercial laboratories to convince thoroughbred breeders and buyers that testing for this gene and other markers is the road to the Triple Crown. In the meantime, the geneticists behind these companies scramble to lay claim to the best markers for athletic traits. Major thoroughbred farms are signing up horses for testing, even though some say they’re not sure what the results mean.

“We don’t know what to make of it,” says Elliott Walden, president, CEO and racing manager of Winstar Farms in Versailles, Ky. Winstar, the 685-hectare birthplace of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, is dabbling in genetic testing. “We don’t know how to evaluate the information. We’re still figuring it out.”

He’s not the only one puzzling over these tests, which start at around $500 per horse.

Continued . . .

Why Do They Hate Us?

 Kentucky hates Louisville: True or False

“Some folks, not naming names, seem to think that if you don’t live within 40 or 50 miles of Louisville or Lexington you’re just out of touch and likely married to your sister. Additionally, we’re uneducated, overreligious, shack-dwelling inbreds and have only poor underachieving schools that only teach about Jesus. We’re out of touch, out of date and out at Klan rallies.”

Louisville Magazine | July 2012 | Jenni Laidman

We walk to the garage, where two pale faces, one skeletal and one round, glow from the gloom of a cave-like service bay. The ground around us is carpeted with little toothed metal disks, bolts, nuts, doohickeys, glittering blackly. The gaunt face lifts its chin, directing me to the man walking our way, and I am ushered inside the building with the hand-painted sign proclaiming “Bible & Tire.”

We were just east of Morehead, Ky., when my husband and I had spotted Bible & Tire. Bibles are a seasonal business, owner Garrett Dehart now tells me, and this isn’t the season, so stock is low, although given the weather – it’s a preview of hell, with temperatures pushing 100 degrees – a little wise promotion might goose a sinner or two toward scripture.

Dehart says he took up his calling not long after his marriage ended. That was 20 years ago. “I had lost everything,” he says. “I was home – you probably won’t believe this . . .” He stops to look through me with Frank Sinatra-blue eyes.

“I’ll believe it,” I promise.

He continues. “One day I heard a voice on the couch: ‘Come down and lease this garage.”‘ He says he drove right over. But the owner had not heard the same instruction, requiring the Lord to send Dehart again. This time, heavenly communications were clearer. Eventually Dehart bought the place. Now Bible & Tire is just what the sign says: It sells tires; it sells bibles. And Dehart occasionally gives bibles away.

It is his mission. Yet I, too, have a mission. A misbegotten mission. Maybe a stupid mission. But it was born of one of the first conversations I had in Louisville, with our mover. The rest of the state, the mover said, hates Louisville. He wouldn’t live anywhere else – although he was born a few counties over – and people in the rest of the state wouldn’t come here. This hardly seemed credible to me, charmed as I was by my new hometown. Then I ran across an online discussion in which people from all over Kentucky talked trash about Louisville.

“There is a deep-seeded (sic) dislike of Louisville in most of the rural areas of Kentucky,” one wrote.

“I’ve heard from quite a few people outside of Louisville that believe that native Louisvillians tend to seem a little ignorant, narrow-minded and arrogant . . . putting Louisville too high up on a pedestal while at the same time being condescending to other areas.”

“Some folks, not naming names, seem to think that if you don’t live within 40 or 50 miles of Louisville or Lexington you’re just out of touch and likely married to your sister. Additionally, we’re uneducated, overreligious, shack-dwelling inbreds and have only poor underachieving schools that only teach about Jesus. We’re out of touch, out of date and out at Klan rallies.”

Wow, I thought. Is the divide that bad? Are we truly such arrogant jerks? Thus, my mission was born, launching me on a 2,500-mile journey, looking for answers from Pikeville in the east to the farthest western outpost of Madrid Bend.

So I ask Ol’ Blue Eyes this question: Why does the rest of the state hate us?

He can’t say. In fact, he’s never been to Louisville. “I’ve been to the edge,” he says. “There are good people and bad all over.”

This is discouraging. . . .Continued

Clean Coal? You’re Kidding, right?

Photograph by John Nation

Mike McInnis wears a blue cable-knit sweater zipped to his chin. It’s cold outside The Summit office building on Brownsboro Road, and snow has been falling all day. McInnis looks like he’s trying to warm up after skiing to work.

He will warm up. Get him talking about American energy policy, and he sounds frustrated, incredulous, sarcastic, heated. But we don’t get to that large subject until more than an hour into our conversation. With an air of mild frustration, he explains the intricacies of his business, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rulings, fluctuations in natural gas prices, the unsteady state of the credit markets. All those complexities, intimately bound up in a project he and his partners at The Erora Group have shepherded for 10 years, fail to raise his ire. But the big picture? It gets him steamed.

At the center of the debate is the question: How are we going to get to the middle of this century? How are we going to turn on our lights, make our coffee, watch Real Housewives on big, energy-sucking flatscreen TVs, kill Nazi zombies on our computers, run our air conditioners, freeze our food and thaw it later in the microwave, and, eventually, charge our cars? Where will the energy come from?

For McInnis, and many others, the answer is coal. Forget the green future you’ve been waiting for, where windmills turn sedately against a clear blue sky. Oh, windmills have a role to play, as has solar and geothermal and even nuclear and hydroelectric and algae and weeds. And all those things will probably constitute the full mix of our energy needs sometime in the future. But for the next half-century, many believe, wind turbines, solar panels and other “renewables” won’t even make a dent.

Only coal can carry us to a green future.

Coal, the least green of all fuels, famous for despoiling landscapes, blackening lungs, increasing death rates wherever it’s burned, putting mercury in our fish, acid in our rain and nitrogen oxides in our skies. Coal, a leading culprit in global climate change, spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other fuel, where its accumulation triggers ocean acidification, rising sea levels, chaotic weather systems, melting ice caps and a warming planet. Coal: That’s the stuff of our salvation.

Really?

Yeah, really.

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

Not everything I write gets a byline. Stories I’ve written for Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for instance, generally aren’t bylined. But a story HHMI published
in the HHMI Bulletin did get a byline. It’s a different kind of piece. I worked with researcher Evan Eichler of the University of Washington to create his first-person story. So I interpret, and then I try to write in his voice. It helps to be the voice of someone who’s very articulate. And his work is utterly cool. I also enjoyed the fact that it was a challenge to explain. His lab is reading the parts of our genome researchers couldn’t get to before. What he’s finding … well, read the story.

Crucibles of Dynamism

We’re accustomed to thinking of evolution moving forward one base pair at a time: A single nucleotide is replaced in the ribbon of our DNA and a gene is gradually transformed from one function to another, or a disease emerges as the gene’s function is perturbed by these small stepwise changes. But there is another, parallel story unfolding within our genes, which, until recently, no one was able to easily read.

To all appearances, it’s a more dramatic tale, with big events and rapid cataclysmic change.

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

When all the fighting was over, it seemed most people forgot that the University of Louisville was building a laboratory for some of the world’s most dangerous germs in the middle of suburbia. I took a look at the NIH BioSafety Level 3 laboratory just before it opened, explaining what was going on in the nondescript building on the university’s satellite campus.

Biology’s Bad Boys

Her eyes are hazel. They open doors.

The iris scanning camera doesn’t actually see their color; rather, it compares the unique angles within to a database. Only then can Colleen Jonsson activate the electronic access that lets her inside.

There are five doors, each with special security requirement, between the entrance to the University of Louisville’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory and the room where she leaves street clothes behind in favor of surgical scrubs. She tops the scrubs with a white Tyvek coverall and dons an air-purifying respirator, a hood, double gloves, and special shoes and socks. If the experiment under way is particularly risk, even underwear stays behind. After years of working in such laboratories, Jonsson, director of the Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases — of which the laboratory is the major part — rarely wears jewelry. Why put on something you’re only going to take off again in a little while?

This is biology’s inner sanctum, soon to be home to Louisville’s most dangerous inhabitants, lined up in tiny tubes inside locked freezers. There will be bubonic plague, and hantavirus — the respiratory infection that swept through the Four Corners region of the United States in 1993, killing 13. There will be commoners, such as influenza, and exotics, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed nearly 10 percent of its victims in 2003. The number of frozen criminals could increase as new infectious disease emerge, or as their danger as instruments of terror rises.

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

I suppose it’s inevitable: Move to Louisville, take an interest in horse racing. These are my first stories on the sport. One makes fun of my ignorance about the Kentucky Derby and is preoccupied with horse sex. The other looks at the perilous economics of thoroughbred racing in the Bluegrass and the policy debate in the state capital of Frankfort.

Take Me Out to the Derby

By Jenni Laidman | May 2010

Safe Sex

Here is what I knew about Thoroughbred racing when I moved to Louisville a little more than two years ago:

It involved horses.

But I’m a Louisvillian now, and I need to get serious. I need to elevate my game if I’m to understand my adopted home, to be one of the people whose eyes fill with tears when the University of Louisville Marching Band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home,” to develop a taste for bourbon and to acquire a big hat. I want to be one with the Kentucky Derby.

But how?

I cannot put enough emphasis on my ignorance. I did not clearly understand what the word “handicap” meant if it did not pertain to the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was not sure what color “bay” might be, or “chestnut.” Don’t even ask me to find the cannon bone. Or the fetlock. I was clueless, uncertain even of where to begin. So I began at the beginning, so to speak, arriving at Darley America in Lexington before dawn one Wednesday to visit the breeding shed.

Did you know that horses roar? They do.

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

Playing for High Stakes

By Jenni Laidman | January 2010

It was the second time Craig Bandoroff felt pummeled by Frankfort. The first was more than 30 years earlier. He was a top jockey in New Jersey when a colt named Old Frankfort tried to jump the inside rail, flipping Bandoroff into the air like an unwilling acrobat,t hen falling atop the young jockey. Bandoroff would never use his right arm again.

Today, Bandoroff is the 54-year-old owner of Denali Stud near Paris, Ky., and he’s worried that his latest blow from Frankfort could be mortal. As he watched on June 22, members of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee voted 10 to 5 against slot machines for Kentucky racetracks. In a few short minutes, everything he had hoped for withered and died. He was devastated. To his mind, this had been the legislature’s best chance to rescue what he saw as a deeply threatened industry. The Senate left the future of Kentucky horse racing in grave peril, he believed.

He walked to his car alone.

“I don’t think anybody saw me,” he says, “But I was in tears.”

His voice grows sandy with the retelling.

“To think that’s how government works.”

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

2010 Person of the Year:

The Dealmaker

Louisville Magazine | December 2010 | Jenni Laidman

It was the eve of the big day: July 23, 2008.

Jim Host was more exhilarated than tired as he turned onto his street in Lexington after another long day in Louisville. Since January of that year, when he learned the financing deal for Louisville’s proposed downtown arena was in deep trouble, he had jawed his way through a hundred conversations, sent scores of e-mail, from his ever-present Blackberry, used every ounce of salesmanship and trademark shoot-from-the-lip candor at his command–and somehow managed to find safe passage in a financial market so chaotic that any move seemed perilous.

That very afternoon he had signed 456 documents lined up along table after table, each scrawl bringing him closer to closure and the more than $360 million in financing needed to build a state-of-the-art, 22,000-seat college basketball facility.

On the upcoming morning of July 23, Host and Dan Ulmer, chairman of the Louisville Bars and former PNC Bank chairman, would meet with the executive committee of Greater Louisville Inc. to trumpet the done deal. Later, Gov. Steve Beshear would stand beside Mayor Jerry Abramson during a press conference announcing the success. And that evening, 200 people would gather at the Jefferson Club for a gala celebrating this critical milestone.

It was going to be a great day.

Nearly 7 p.m. on the dot. Host pulled into his driveway and punched the button on his garage door opener. His cell phone rang.

It was Goldman Sachs, the Louisville Arena Authority’s bond underwriters.

“We’ve got some news,” Greg Cary, an executive at Goldman Sachs, told Host. “Are you sitting down?”

Continued . . .

I often write about plastic surgery for HerScene magazine. This year, I followed a woman through her breast implant surgery.

Diary of a Breast Augmentation

By Jenni Laidman | June 11, 2010

7:20 a.m. Friday, April 2 Imaage Medical Spa

Shay Perna hadn’t slept much last night. Instead, her mind raced. For weeks she’d wondered what if, just moments after the anesthetic took hold, she change her mind but was too doped up to say anything?

But now, walking into the surgery center on New LaGrange Road, groggy and nervous, the 29-year-old Brandenburg, Ky., woman has no doubts. Her heart races, but she is ready. She has thought about this since she was about 20. A petite 5-foot-2 and 103 pounds, Shay has a doll’s proportions — just not a Barbie doll’s. Her flat stomach and trim waist and hips aren’t accompanied by Barbie’s voluptuousness.

That’s about to change.

READ DIARY OF A BREAST AUGMENTATION

*–*–*–*

For the second year, HerScene magazine wanted to present a compendium of services of interest to women in Louisville’s sprawling, competitive hospital market. I confess that I sometimes refer to this as the wall-color guide to hospitals, since it’s heavy on aesthetics. The challenge is to blend the superficial assessments with substantive summaries of medical service. This comprehensive review ran in June of 2010.

A Women’s Guide to Louisville Hospitals

By Jenni Laidman  | June 11, 2010

Women are the primary decision makers when it comes to health care, and Louisville hospitals are surely keeping us in mind as they give our local health-care market a makeover.

Today, health care is pretty. The dowdy hospital with that odd perfume of humanity and antiseptic cleaners is no more. Even the lobby floor are works of art, to say nothing of the actual art on the walls. And, in Louisville at least, health care is increasingly convenient.

Odds are, skilled medical care is closer to you than ever — especially if you’re in a fast-growing ZIP code where income is higher. But the upgrades are more than window dressing. While conveniences abound, there are also important developments in research and patient care that will affect you and your family for years to come.

*–*–*–*

A Battle of Nerves

Louisville Magazine | August 2009 | Jenni Laidman

When neurosurgeon-to-be Christopher Shields was a young man, he and his sister Alexis decided to emulate the world’s reigning stars of pairs figure skating. The Shieldses were already respected competitors in Canada, consistently ranked among the nation’s best, but stalled in the number two spot. That’s when they fell under the spell of the Russian couple who dominated the sport during the early-’60s, Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov. “Oleg would hold Lyudmila up and he’d spin and she’d twist in the air,” Shields said in a recent interview. The move was revolutionary and the pair from the tiny gold-mining town of Schumacher, Ontario, began practicing it.

When the Shieldses performed in the 1963 Canadian national skating competition, Shields lifted his sister above his head in imitation of Protopopov, and, exactly as planned, his sister twisted gracefully above his head.

But there was a problem. The move wasn’t permitted. Canadian skating competitions didn’t allow this lift. The rules stipulated that a lift was to be a continuous motion–the girl goes up and the girl comes down in one sweet parabolic glide–with no stop in the middle for partner-twirling. Instead of impressing the judges with their innovation, the Shieldses lost points for their unauthorized acrobatics. They finished second again. A few years later, the Canadian figure skating organization changed its rules to allow the lifts created by the Protopopovs, but by then the Shieldses had left skating behind.

Another case of running afoul of the powers that be may have begun for Dr. Christopher Shields on Jan. 23, 2009, when he walked into the office of Dr. Edward Halperin, dean of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, with a proposal he was confident would wow the dean–the creation of a prestigious neurosurgery institute that Shields envisioned as competing with the biggest players in the field. “This was such a big offer to the university,” Shields said. “This was really a gift.”

Continued . . . 

Our relationship to animals, as well as animal behavior, have been long-time interests of mine. Louisville Magazine hired me to write about the future of elephants in zoos, in particular, the Louisville Zoo’s baby elephant, Scotty. In 2010, about a year after this story ran, Scotty died of a bacterial infection.

What’s Best for Scotty?

By Jenni Laidman | May 2009

In late March, several hundred people crowded around the elephant exhibit at the Louisville Zoo to watch Scotty the African elephant celebrate his second birthday. The youngster marched around the yard while the zoo loudspeaker blared an endless loop of “Baby Elephant Walk.” On command he sat upright and raised a chubby leg; he stood on small table in time-honored circus fashion and posed; he lay down and got back up again. Then he followed two adult elephants to his birthday “cake” of straw and vegetables and occasionally dashed beneath his mom’s trunk to grab a morsel and run away. Meanwhile, the two bigger elephants tore the cake to bits and grabbed most of the good stuff.

Little boosts a zoo’s gate receipts like a new baby, especially among the “charismatic megafauna,” the big animals people love to see. Elephants are as mega as they come, and Scotty is nothing if not charismatic. But these days, the birth of an elephant is about more than annual attendance figures, or even the desire by zoos like Louisville’s to increase the number of homegrown animals so visitors can appreciate their wild counterparts. Instead, elephants are emerging as the newest symbol in the ethical battle over animal captivity. As in other fights over keeping wide-roaming species such as polar bears captive, or caging our closest relatives, the great apes, the argument is emotional and difficult. It asks whether any zoo, even the very best with the most dedicated staff, is capable of raising and providing a proper environment for Scotty and elephants like him. It points to mistakes in the past and problems in the present.

It can make a guy like Dave Campbell, the Louisville Zoo’s elephant-area supervisor, seem like he’s operating int he eye of a hurricane.

READ “WHAT’S BEST FOR SCOTTY?”

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Louisville Magazine decided to publish its first sex issue, and the editor asked me to write about sex toy parties, which are apparently wildly popular in Louisville. What a fun story.

(Sex) Toy Stories

By Jenni Laidman | October 2009

Nicole Cissell draws the curtains in the small but elegant living room. Moments later, through the sheers, I see two police officers approach the front door. I knew this was a little naughty, but really, the police?

It’s a Friday night in late summer, and Cissell had just emptied a gun case onto a table in the living room of a Smoketown home. What in the world will the police think when the door opens? I’m not the only one wondering this, and laughter grows raucous among the women in the room.

Beneath a dazzling chandelier are a dozen festively colored vibrators and dildos that Cissell toted here in her gun case. It’s not illegal. (We’re not in Alabama, for pity sake; it is illegal there.) It’s just a bunch of women attending a version of a Tupperware party that the inventors of multi-level marketing schemes probably didn’t envision.

READ THE REST OF THE (SEX) TOY STORY

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Louisville was one of two cities involved in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned race-based school assignment. I had been in town about a year when I drew the assignment to write about it from Louisville Magazine for their Law issue. The case began and ended before I thought about moving to Louisville.

Order From The Court

By Jenni Laidman | March 2009

Frank Mellen climbed into the taxicab in Washington, D.C., and realized he was hearing a familiar voice coming from the radio,

His own.

There was never any question about the importance of what he did that morning. But it took on an air of surreal theater as he settled into the backseat of the cab crawling through the Washington traffic and listened to himself answer questions from justices of the United States Supreme Court.

Kentucky had its share of headline-grabbing lawsuits in the last year, but none drew more attention, or had greater impact, then the one Frank Mellen and Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs colleague Byron Leet pursued for the defense in Washington on Dec. 4, 2006 — the debate over which school Louisvillian Crystal M. Meredith’s son could attend. The question: Could her son, Joshua McDonald, who is white — or any child of any race — be put in a particular school, or kept out of one, because of the color of his skin? Would courts now forbid a practice developed to assure equal education to all children?

That cold and clear-blue morning, Mellen and Leet had their final showdown with another Louisville lawyer, Teddy Gordon — who this time was assisted by counsel from the Bush administration’s solicitor general. Gordon had been picking away at the Jefferson County Public School’s race-conscious student-assignment plan for nearly 10 years.

READ THE REST OF “ORDER FROM THE COURT”

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Immune No More

I was lucky with this one. I was already working on this story on whooping when a neighboring county reported an outbreak of the disease.

It started with a single case of whooping cough in a student at Freedom Elementary School in Shepherdsville, reported by a doctor to the Bullitt County Health Department in mid-October.

For some it might seem like a call from the past, a sepia-toned dispatch about an antique disease that once felled newsboys in knee britches and girls in sausage curls and pinafores. But to the Bullitt County Health Department and county public schools, a case of pertussis — whooping cough — was anything but quaint.

READ THE REST OF IMMUNE NO MORE

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Before I turned to freelancing,  most of my work was as the science writer for the Toledo Blade, writing about a wide variety of issues. What follows are some of the projects I wrote while at the Blade.

The Twilight of the Frogs

The Toledo Blade

EL VALLE DE ANTON, Panama – Kent Bekker of the Toledo Zoo starts his day swinging a makeshift net across damp grass. It’s about 8:30 in the morning, and already, the air is near liquid with humidity.

One doesn’t so much move through the day as swim through it. Nothing dries out. Skin glistens with sweat even when the evening’s mountain breezes make light jackets necessary. Car interiors smell of mildew. An abandoned damp towel sprouts a carpet of mold. A climate that allows a gardener’s dream of lush flowers is the perfect breeding ground for fungi.

It is also the ideal home for a fungus few here have heard of. It’s called chytrid (KIT-rid), or formally Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and it’s completing a deadly sweep through Central America. It threatens to kill nearly all of Panama’s frogs, as it has in Costa Rica and Mexico before this, and as it is doing on every continent on the planet. It’s why the Toledo Zoo sent Mr. Bekker to Panama. He’s part of a team attempting an unprecedented feat: the rescue of dozens of frog species from extinction.

Mr. Bekker snaps his net through the air as though it were a flag, hoping to dry it out just a bit. It’s a cloth bag, and it sticks to itself. He looks in the plastic cup humming with the insects he’s collected so far. There are not enough to feed all the frogs.

Finding enough frog food, it turns out, is just another crisis, faced like any other critical chore in an unusual project where a mistake could contribute to the extinction of a species.

READ THE REST OF THE STORY

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When a small group of patients agreed to help researchers determine the safety of a cancer drug, they quickly forgot this was their goal, and instead hoped the monoclonal antibody would cure them of  late-stage cancers.  Following these incredible women on their journey gave me a chance to delve into the often misunderstood arena of cancer and its treatment.

Working on a Cure: Cancer on Trial

The Toledo Blade

Pat Krzeminski marches into her doctor’s office at the Medical College of Ohio.

Secretaries and nurses eddy around her, snickering as they get a good look at the back of her head. She summons her physician.

Pat’s hair is punk short. Her eyes are wide, with carefully arched eyebrows, and dark liner.

Dr. James Fanning, angular, bearded, and just a little confused by the unexpected visit, answers the call.

“I did something, and you need to know what I did,” Pat tells him. Then she pivots…. READ THE REST OF THE STORY

*–*–*–*

While none of us were really even paying attention, our relationship to human reproduction changed entirely. A series I wrote in 2004 attempted to survey the vast changes in baby making and scientific progress.

The Embryonic Revolution:Harnessing the Power of Creation

The Toledo Blade

Alana Saarinen is an adorable, curious, shy, clever, devilish, affectionate girl. In short, a normal 3-year-old.

She may also be entirely new to biology. She may carry DNA from three people.

The cheerful girl in pigtails was born of her parents’ fifth attempt at in vitro fertilization – the meeting of sperm and egg in a laboratory dish, the “birthplace” of more than 1 million children worldwide in the last 26 years.

But Alana is more than a much-treasured personal victory over infertility – long and painfully fought – for Paul and Sharon Saarinen of West Bloomfield, Mich.

She represents a revolution born of the human embryo.

The revolution’s advance is often silent, crystallized within the private decisions of desperate couples and inventive fertility doctors. At the same time, it is a scientific revolution of unusual public prominence, the subject of presidential electioneering, Congressional debates, dire predictions, and … READ THE REST OF THE STORY.

*–*–*–*

While habitat loss continues to be the No. 1 threat to species the world over, for primates, the bush meat trade — the sales and consumption of wild animals — is proving a bigger threat. I traveled to Africa in 2000 to tell the story of people trying to save infant gorillas rescued from the trade.

Orphans of the Slaughter

The Toledo Blade

MPASSA, Gabon – The toddler wakes with a start and a scream.

His is a panicked, curdling cry, and Linda Percy has no choice but to hold the infant and wait for the moment to pass. The youngster tries to bury himself in her chest. His arms grasping, his legs pushing, he drives his head into her with desperate force. He’s unconscious in terror.

Every night. Night after night. Every few hours. It’s always the same: the same panicked cry, the same rooting for comfort, the same 18-month-old that will not be consoled.

Could it be memory, Linda wonders as she scoops up a bottle she hopes he’ll accept. This can’t be hunger. More often than not he refuses the milk she prepared for him.

She can’t prove it, but she’s convinced the small gorilla holds a nightmare.

Tormenting him is the memory of the slaughter of his family, the days of starvation that followed, the rope that wore infected ruts into his hips.

Ivindo remembers, Linda believes. She holds the sick youngster tighter and waits for exhaustion to quiet him.

In the tradition of the adventure stories that first revealed Africa to westerners, the continent is gripped by a new tale of man against beast. But this is one never imagined by the big game hunters and swashbuckling explorers who saw themselves conquering an untamable wilderness In this battle, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, and scores of other species are the ones fighting for survival as traditional hunting practices are perverted into a growing commerce known as the bushmeat trade…..READ THE REST OF THE STORY.

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