Today at Berkeley Lab

After Stellar 32-Year Career, Lab Senior Science Writer Lynn Yarris Retires

Yarris receiving a Director's Achievement Award from COO Glenn Kubiak

Yarris receiving a Director’s Achievement Award from COO Glenn Kubiak

In 1984 Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, Apple aired a commercial announcing a new personal computer called the Macintosh, and the Pittsburgh Steelers won the playoffs. And in 1984, Lynn Yarris joined Berkeley Lab as a science writer in the Public Affairs department.

He retires Jan. 8, spending his final week writing about advances in artificial photosynthesis and metal organic frameworks, a fitting end to an immensely productive 32-year career in which he chronicled Berkeley Lab’s diverse scientific achievements in language accessible to anyone.

In his first several years, he covered Berkeley Lab’s involvement in the search for quark-gluon plasma and the discovery of the top quark, and follow-up research on Luis Alvarez’s theory that an asteroid collision led to the dinosaur extinction. And as Berkeley Lab’s science portfolio expanded, so did his writing.

Yarris has covered the groundbreaking work that breast cancer is linked to the microenvironment surrounding cells, the 1993 opening of the Advanced Light Source, how microbes degraded oil during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill, biofuels and antimalarial drugs from synthetic biology, and more recently, a revolutionary genome-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9.

Yarris with his wife Martha

Yarris with his wife Martha

His hundreds of news releases and articles tell the story of Berkeley Lab, sometimes with humor, and always in a way that conveys the importance of science to society.

“Lynn and I go back a long time, and it has always been a pleasure and a surprise to work with him,” said cancer researcher Mina Bissell. “A pleasure because he is so darned good and surprise because he is even better when he sends back his first version of his press release!”

He was tapped to help write parts of the 2007 report from the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee entitled Directing Matter and Energy, Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination, which helped set the research agenda in the years ahead.

“Every time I think I’ve done a decent piece of research, I call Lynn,” says faculty scientist Graham Fleming, who also worked with Yarris on the Grand Challenges report. “In the past my incoherent mumblings to a writer often resulted in text that bore little or no resemblance to what I thought I’d said. With Lynn, that never happened. Lynn has a genius for taking the essence of complex science and making it relevant to a general audience while still doing justice to the basic science.”

Yarris avoided the limelight, but he couldn’t in 2012 when he received a Director’s Award for Exceptional Achievement for his contributions to Berkeley Lab.

“Lynn Yarris is remarkable in his ability to report accurately and with nuance on science, while still conveying excitement and beauty to the public,” said Lab Director Paul Alivisatos, whose research was often the subject of Yarris’ literary talent.

Yarris assisting during a visit by Stephen Hawking, along with former colleague Judith Goldhaber

Yarris assisting during a visit by Stephen Hawking, along with former colleague Judith Goldhaber

“Lynn is one of the most talented science writers with whom I have ever worked,” noted Jay Keasling, Berkeley Lab Associate Lab Director. “He could take some of the most detailed and difficult-to-comprehend science and make it understandable to a general audience.  We need more Lynn’s in the world. He will be sorely missed at Berkeley Lab.”

Added Lab Nobel Laureate George Smoot, “Lynn is a professional, cheerful and full of good, and sometimes colorful, advice. In later years I have gotten many more requests and invitations and Lynn has been a great source for how to handle many of these.”

He played a role in helping those such as Smoot tell their stories. He was there to help when Smoot won his Nobel Prize and was happy to be at Saul Perlmutter’s house at 3 a.m. when he won his Nobel in 2011.

“Lynn really had his finger on the pulse of the lab and was always one step ahead of me in finding and writing about research breakthroughs,” added his UC Berkeley science writing colleague, Bob Sanders. “Whether it was neutrinos, new elements or the latest in optoelectronics, Lynn was on it and explaining very difficult and usually impenetrable science in lay terms.”

Among the many highlights of his career was shepherding director Ang Lee’s film crew around Berkeley Lab in 2002 as they filmed the Incredible Hulk.  One of his most cherished mementos from that project was a headshot autographed by co-star Jennifer Connolly, which hung proudly in his office for the last 13 years. A native of Pittsburgh, his office had a “lived-in” look, adorned with paraphernalia from his beloved Steelers football team.

As he noted in a farewell note to his colleagues, Yarris also had the good fortune to dine with Stephen Hawking and served as part of the transition team for Steven Chu’s nomination for Energy Secretary.

Yarris leaving Building 65 for the last time on Jan. 8, 2016.

Yarris leaving Building 65 for the last time on Jan. 8, 2016.

“I have learned from some of the finest scientific minds this nation ever produced. Where else could a writer receive one-on-one tutorials from the storied likes of Glenn Seaborg, Owen Chamberlain, George Pimentel and the incandescent Luis Alvarez?” Yarris wrote.

“The Lab and all the people I have met here will always hold a special place in my heart,” said Yarris. “It was an honor and privilege to have worked on the Hill and to have made in my own fashion a contribution.”

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