The Most Important Story of Our Time — and the Only Journalist Covering It

Shaw has learned not to "be seduced" by every paper that says they cause or cure cancer. Like every good reporter, she has developed a decent BS detector. "I believe that's part of journalism, no matter what anybody says. You make judgments about who you're going to trust, who you're going to interview, what you're going to write about."

These judgment calls come into play especially when writing about one of the rallying cries of the anti-nanotech movement — nanoscale titanium dioxide, which can be found in some kinds of sunscreen. The fact that nanoscale ingredients are in a widely used consumer product drives anti-nanotech activists nuts. And Shaw recognizes that it is too easy to get wrapped up only in the world of nano and view it in a vacuum. Nanoscale titanium dioxide is an alternative to oxybenzone or other chemicals that could come with their own problems. So, there's the appearance that nanoscale sunscreen presents special problems that other alternatives do not.

"I realize sometimes that you put the blinders on because I'm focused on nano, nano, nano," Shaw says. "I don't want to mislead people."

Next, Shaw would like to delve more into the implications of nanosilver, which is being used increasingly in products to kill germs, part of our society's new "anti-microbicide fever." Silver, of course, has been used for centuries to kill germs, but what about nanoscale silver? If that escapes into the environment, will that tip some delicate balance? Shaw wants to find out.

The trouble is, Shaw says, she is writing for the layperson and she is not certain enough laypeople read her work. I found this to be true when I wrote about nanotech full-time. There is an insular community of scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors all talking to one another in an echo chamber. She would rather write for people like herself -- a concerned consumer and parent.

"That's tough because I do feel like at this point we have some important, interesting, pretty in-depth, nuanced coverage," Shaw says. "It's just that nobody reads it."

I think she is probably getting through to more laypeople than she realizes, but I understand the frustration. Many of my own attempts to break through to a larger audience for nanotechnology were met with head scratching or by editors in the mainstream media who left off at nanotech with "gray goo," the out-of-control nanobot scenario that even its original theorist, Eric Drexler, has said is quite unlikely.

Shaw cannot say how much longer she can continue doing this in the context of a hyperlocal news site in New Haven, Conn., but she is excited about the fact that she is blazing her own trail in journalism.

"I''m 38. I've been at this for quite awhile," Shaw says. "This is something new and interesting that I'm psyched about. Not that I'm not psyched about local news, but I had done quite a bit of it over many, many years in my career and this is something I'd rather focus on."

You can read Gwyneth Shaw's nanotech reporting here.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple images.)