Contributor corner: Bryn Nelson

Bryn Nelson

Bryn Nelson is a former microbiologist who decided he’d much rather write about microbes than mutate them. Since launching his new career in science journalism with a gripping yarn about an electronic watermelon thumper, he has written for the New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, BBC Focus, Science News for Students and many other publications. A resident of Seattle, he has a particular affinity for unconventional travel destinations and double tall lattes.

Twitter: @seattlebryn

What's your feature about?

This story is about people who can’t swallow, and the enormous physical and psychological toll it takes on their lives. Dysphagia is a common condition that many of us wrongly perceive as something that only affects older people, when it can strike a surprising range of individuals. It’s also a condition that we often hear little about, in large part because of its cruel tendency to force patients into seclusion; advocates, in fact, call it a silent epidemic. The story is also about our tendency to bond over and derive joy from food, what happens when that is suddenly yanked away, and how some patients are regaining a sense of resilience and hope.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

One of the biggest surprises for me was how little we know about what’s required for a successful swallow. Several researchers have estimated that the motion involves 22 muscle pairs and 7 of our 12 cranial nerves, meaning that there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. I also wasn’t prepared for the extreme psychological impact of dysphagia, and the way in which it can affect both patients and their caregivers. On the bright side, I learned that technology is being exploited in a number of fascinating ways – from dissolvable tasting strips and re-engineered bread to 3D printing and an extreme neck piercing – in a bid to aid patients.

Read Bryn's story on Mosaic from 15 March 2016.