Rae Ellen Bichell | KUOW News and Information

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.

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.

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.

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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Only one woman has been allowed to represent Iran in triathlons. Her name is Shirin Gerami, and this weekend the athlete faces her biggest test yet.

First, she'll swim 2.4 miles in choppy water. Then, she'll bike 112 miles. She'll top off the race with a full marathon, on a road that crosses a landscape described as "barren lava fields."

One man died and four were injured in January after a clinical trial went awry in Rennes, France. Now, Biotrial, the company that ran that study, said it has opened a new research facility in Newark, N.J.

Biotrial conducts clinical trials on behalf of drugmakers and biotechnology companies. Most are phase 1 trials, in which an experimental drug is tried in a small group of volunteers to make a preliminary assessment of its safety before the drug moves on to larger human studies to further evaluate safety and also its effectiveness in treating an illness.

It has been a common belief that low-emissions vehicles, like hybrids and electric cars, are more expensive than other choices. But a new study finds that when operating and maintenance costs are included in a vehicle's price, cleaner cars may actually be a better bet.

The cars and trucks we drive are responsible for about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. That's why Jessika Trancik, an energy scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided it was time to take a closer look at vehicle emissions.

Most animals die once they can no longer have kids, but men and women tend to totally buck this trend, living decades beyond their reproductive years despite drastic changes in their bodies.

Eid al-Adha, an important Muslim holiday, starts on Monday in many countries. The Festival of Sacrifice, which marks Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, involves days of feasting and celebration. But the holiday has health officials in some countries — Afghanistan, in particular — wringing their hands about health risks. It's the feasts that are the problem — specifically, the meat.

Updated at 7:20 p.m. ET.

A rocket took off Thursday evening from Cape Canaveral, Fla., as part of a mission by NASA and the University of Arizona to send a robot to an asteroid. The goal: Bring back ancient dust.

Most of the world didn't know anyone lived in the highlands of Papua New Guinea until the 1930s, when Australian gold prospectors surveying the area realized there were about a million people there.

When researchers made their way to those villages in the 1950s, they found something disturbing. Among a tribe of about 11,000 people called the Fore, up to 200 people a year had been dying of an inexplicable illness. They called the disease kuru, which means "shivering" or "trembling."

The rumbling started on the afternoon of May 22, 1960. Sergio Barrientos, then about 8 years old, was walking down a street in his hometown in southern Chile when the ground started to shake. He remembers electrical wires swinging from the telephone poles — so violently that they slapped each other from opposite sides of the street.

"At the same time, I saw some of the chimneys falling down through the roofs of the houses," says Barrientos.

To a mathematician, it's a violent explosion that shoots out missiles of hot, wet air, slamming a turbulent cloud of moisture into anybody or anything that crosses its path.

To the rest of us, it's a sneeze.

At about 8 a.m. ET today, far above Earth, astronaut Jeff Williams floated out a hatch and then welcomed Kate Rubins into the void.

"OK Kate, come on out," said Williams.

When Kristin Armstrong pedaled across the Olympic finish line to win a cycling gold in Rio de Janeiro, her nose was bleeding and her 5-year-old son was waiting for her.

The 42-year-old told reporters that people constantly ask why she keeps competing despite her age and multiple hip surgeries.

Her response? "Because I can."

A few months ago, when Dr. Thomas Lee logged in to his patients' electronic medical records to renew a prescription, something unexpected popped up. It was a notice that one of them had died.

Lee, a primary care doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, was scheduled to see the patient in three days.

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