Baylor’s storied science editor to retire

Clumsy in her high school science class, Ruth SoRelle nevertheless had an interest in health and in uncovering what drives scientific discovery. When she combined that interest with her love of writing, she found her passion and embarked on a successful career as a science writer.

But now, SoRelle says, “It’s time.” She’ll retire at the end of the year, after nearly 40 years of reporting and writing on the most important research and healthcare at Baylor and beyond. SoRelle has served as Baylor’s chief science editor since 1998 and, before joining the College, spent 20 years as the science and health reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

“Life has stages, and I’m ready to start the next one,” she says.

Ruth SoRelle prepares for an interview with Dr. DeBakey

Ruth SoRelle prepares for an interview with Dr. DeBakey.

Early years

After growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, SoRelle attended The University of Texas, earning a degree in journalism. She worked as a reporter for the student newspaper, the influential Daily Texan, in a decade when campus protests were the news of the day. Of course, SoRelle was in the thick of it, even getting tear gassed during one particular demonstration. At UT, she met her husband, Paul, and once they moved to Houston, she had her sights set on being a reporter. She figured that she’d get sent out on assignments like she had in college. But the Houston Chronicle wouldn’t hire her, because Paul already worked there, and the now-defunct Post wouldn’t either, since her husband worked for the competition.

She landed a job at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s scientific publications office. “MD Anderson gave me a good background in medicine and in how science works, and I learned a lot about science writing there,” she says.

She had found her niche, although being a science writer didn’t come to her overnight. In fact, SoRelle emphasizes that she’s never stopped learning on the job, from reading books to auditing classes to simply asking researchers to explain – and re-explain – when she doesn’t understand something. She also returned to school mid-career, receiving her Master of Public Health degree from the UT School of Public Health.

After her stint with MD Anderson, SoRelle finally got on with the Houston Chronicle, starting as a copy editor and eventually moving to the science and health beat she so coveted.

Newspaper success

“I had a pretty successful career there,” she says. SoRelle is being modest. She won more than 60 awards in her newspaper career, including the American Medical Writers’ Association John P. McGovern Award and the international health reporting award from the Pan American Health Organization for a special section on AIDS in Romanian children.

SoRelle recalls several stories that left the biggest impact on her and – she hopes – made a difference in the lives of others as well.

“I was on the beat when AIDS was first recognized, and I was able to write a series of stories on it and its impact in Houston. It was an interesting thing to work on, because it involved more than just medicine, but the political and social landscape too.”

She regularly observed and reported on surgeries performed by Houston’s top surgeons, including the groundbreaking heart surgeries of Dr. Michael DeBakey, Dr. Denton Cooley and Dr. Bud Frazier. She remembers watching the first deep brain stimulation by Dr. Robert Grossman and the buzzing when his instrument touched the neurons in the brain. SoRelle was invited to ride along with Baylor’s first medical director of Houston’s emergency medical services. “It was eye-opening, the scenes they faced every night,” she says. She chronicled it all in the newspaper.

As a reporter, she wrote the first story on the research of Dr. Huda Zoghbi, professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, to uncover the genes involved in an adult disease called spinocerebellar ataxia 1. She recalls how Zoghbi drove the back roads in East Texas and Louisiana to visit families affected by the disease and showed so much compassion and concern for her research subjects. “I got to see the human side of scientists, and I’ve seen it countless more times over the years,” she says.

She did a series of stories on the “gene doctors” in Houston, scientists at Baylor and other institutions who were researching genes, a new field at the time. She wrote about a woman who was given a gene that made her better able to handle chemotherapy, giving her another year of life. Another six-day series focused on infant mortality in Houston. SoRelle profiled people in the Fifth Ward, where there were multiple infant deaths in one year on one street alone. “The next year, infant mortality dropped to single digits for the first time, in part because we had put the focus on it. It was an important thing to do.”

And then, of course, there was her award-winning series from Romania. She accompanied Dr. Mark Kline on the trip that left her “furious” by what she saw. For Kline, then a professor in pediatrics and now department chair and physician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital, it was so touching that, on the return home, he hatched a plan in the back of the plane that served as the foundation for the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative.

“It was heady, doing these things, because you were right there at the forefront of medicine,” she says.

But SoRelle saw the writing on the wall. She knew the newspaper business was changing, and journalism as a whole. There would be no more 12-page spreads and series of stories. Local television stations would no longer have a reporter focused solely on health and science. So when she was approached by Claire Bassett about being the science editor at Baylor, she seized the opportunity.

The Baylor years

At Baylor, SoRelle was still able to do what she does best – explain the science, why scientists do what they do, and why it’s important – but now through press releases and in From the Labs, an online publication that she developed and managed.

“I’m very proud of From the Labs. When I started it, there were really no online newsletters from colleges. It’s great way to publicize our scientists and their work, and I’ve tried to make it accessible to scientists and nonscientists alike.”

She’s also found fulfillment in her involvement with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and acknowledges that she’s often referred to as the “Queen of Consent Forms.” But it’s important to protect the privacy of patients and research subjects and for the integrity of the research.

“The timing was perfect for Baylor when Ruth decided she was ready to make the move out of the newspaper industry,” says Bassett, vice president of communications and community outreach. “Over the years she has been a wonderful mentor for members of the media team and scientists in helping them understand the best ways to communicate biomedical research to the public. Beyond that, Ruth has been a tremendous friend and colleague to people throughout Baylor. We will all miss her personally and professionally.”

SoRelle has developed a unique perspective, having worked as a reporter and for a research and healthcare institution. She has important advice to offer on all fronts.

Reporters want a cure or a big breakthrough but she reminds them that’s not how science works. “Research is a like a book with chapters. Each step of the research is a new chapter in the book, revealing more and more little by little,” she said.

To researchers, she emphasizes that not every press release on a paper or a study is going to generate a ton of media. “But it lets the media know what our people are working on and, sooner or later, a science writer will be working on this topic and will remember that we have someone at Baylor working on it. That’s part of the value of our press releases and science writing. Not everyone can be a big media star, but the institution as a whole can be and that benefits us all,” she says.

Dr. Christian Schaaf, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics, is one Baylor researcher who has worked closely with SoRelle to communicate his research findings, including his work on a genetic disorder caused by a mutation in the USP7 gene.

“There is great joy and excitement around having research breakthroughs, and getting those published in high-profile journals. But working here at Baylor, there was always another, additional level of excitement. Getting the paper out was also another opportunity to meet Ruth. One may say that she was ‘the icing on the cake,’” Schaaf said.

“Ruth would help translate and interpret. She was my connection, my ‘speaking tube’ to the world outside. Ruth is wonderful at so many levels. She is good at listening. Good at understanding. Good at condensing complex concepts into a writing that is clear and crisp, a writing that sparks curiosity and interest. I am thankful for all the wonderful interactions Ruth and I had, and for the wonderful pieces she has written about my work. I will miss her at Baylor, but I am sure I will see her riding the bike around the city!”

SoRelle singles out the support of Paul that has allowed her to have a long and successful career. As important as her career has been, she’s equally devoted to family and looks forward to spending more time with them, including her first grandchild, Doyle. She has other things she wants to do, too, like traveling and volunteer work. She’ll continue to be involved in the cycling community in Houston and at Baylor, with Paul by her side. She would like to work on a book, maybe about the AIDS epidemic in Houston or about the healthcare system that marginalizes many.

SoRelle admits retirement probably won’t be a smooth transition, and she’ll miss many things about Baylor, especially the supportive environment.

“Baylor is a family, and I certainly learned that when I got sick,” said SoRelle, who was diagnosed with cancer and successfully treated in 2014. “I don’t know that I would have survived without the Baylor team who offered so much guidance and support.”

She says that the Baylor community most likely hasn’t heard the last of her. She’ll continue to pursue topics of interest to her and write about them, perhaps even as a freelance writer on some of the research coming out of the College.

“There are stories still to be told, and I can tell them,” she said.