Journalist Kate Rope ’95 documents a little-known program during the Vietnam War that produced cutting-edge medical research, nine Nobel laureates, and the nation's best-known immunologist
“Service is a huge component of my family,” says journalist and author Kate Rope ’95. “My grandfather was a foreign service officer. His wife—my grandmother—was a librarian in the New York Public Library. My dad was also a foreign service officer, and then my parents became elementary school teachers in midcareer. There is an ethos in my family of service to others, and I make that my mission as a writer. I try to mostly write things that are helpful to other people.”
Early in her career, after discarding the idea of being a lawyer, Rope worked in research for a host of magazines, “waiting for inspiration, and watching the careers of my peers take off,” as she recounted in 2018. “And I turned my attention to becoming the only thing I had always wanted to be when I grew up: a mom.” That milestone helped her find her voice as a writer, and Rope (whose daughters are now 13 and 9) frequently writes on matters of health and family for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time, among many other publications. She also produced an episode of the Freakonomics podcast titled “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting” in 2011.
The latter experience would come in handy with her latest project, Soldiers of Science: The Vietnam War, Anthony Fauci & the Doctors Who Revolutionized American Medicine, a four-part podcast released last December by Audible. Co-written by Rope and actor Alan Alda, the audio documentary (narrated by Alda) tells the all-but-forgotten story of an elite group of young doctors who were drafted into service during the Vietnam War. Nearly 9,000 miles removed from the front lines of the Far East, they served their tours of duty battling disease and infection at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The group includes nine future Nobel laureates (among them Harold Varmus, for his discovery of the first cancer-causing gene, and Robert Lefkowitz, for his studies of G-protein-coupled cell receptors)as well as a certain director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—Anthony Fauci—who became a household name during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soldiers of Science became a passion project for all involved. “We really believed in it and we thought it was an important story, but then once the pandemic hit, it changed,” Rope says. “We were telling Anthony Fauci’s origin story as he was becoming ubiquitous on our television screens and Brad Pitt's doing an impression of him on Saturday Night Live. When I started this program, the only people I could brag to that I was working with Anthony Fauci were my fellow science writers and doctors, but now everybody knows him.”
COVID-19 brought an unexpected urgency to the narrative Rope and her collaborators set out to tell—one of the alliance of science and medicine for the national good. “It ended up being incredibly prescient,” she says. “We started with just a good story and then ended with a really important story.”
Midway through her time at Oxy, Rope switched majors, from diplomacy and world affairs to the College’s new public policy major. Economist Richard Rothstein, an adjunct professor of public policy, became a mentor to her. “He taught me how to build an argument,” she recalls. “Writing was a huge part of all of my classes at Oxy, and so I left school feeling pretty strong about my writing skills.”
Oxy also instilled in her a newfound confidence in her math and science prowess. “I took Bio 101 class to fulfill distribution requirements, and it was so great, it really opened me up to science,” Rope says. “I would say that Oxy was pretty instrumental in where I ended up.”
After graduation, Rope took a job as a paralegal at Ernst & Young law firm in Los Angeles as part of a team that would investigate and then determine consequences for sexual harassment. She found herself feeling empathy for the perpetrators and their families. “The men in these cases all did bad things and made bad choices, yet I saw in them their insecurities or their humanity and realized what had led them to do these things,” Rope explains. “And I realized that I'm not comfortable meting out punishment. That was the first crack in the idea of me being a lawyer.”
Looking back, she recalls, “My grandfather wanted me to be a broadcast journalist. I don't know where he got that idea but I never cottoned to it, but he wanted to keep me informed, so he sent me a subscription to The New Yorker all through college. I was reading too many things for my classes and I just didn't have the bandwidth, so I would just put them in the bathroom and read the cartoons.
“My grandfather would always write me letters: ‘What did you think of X, Y, and Z article?’ And then I would wait to write him back so that he would forget that he had asked me about a particular article, because I had not read it.” After her grandfather had a stroke, she talked to him on the phone in the hospital soon after. “I said, ‘I owe you a letter.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you do’—and his words were slurring.” Frederick Rope died two days later. Kate delivered a eulogy back in New England in the form of a thank-you letter to him.
Returning to California after the funeral, Rope began reading those New Yorkers cover to cover, which led to a career-changing revelation. “I was living in Orange County and I was commuting to downtown L.A. to Ernst & Young,” she remembers. “I was on the train, reading a New Yorker feature on mad cow disease [“A New Kind of Contagion,” by John Lanchester]. I was learning about agriculture policy, and livestock raising, and neuroscience. I was learning about meat rendering and import law. I learned so much in this one article. And I literally remember the moment I looked up. I looked out the window of the train and I thought, ‘I want to write an article like this. This is what I want to do.’”
Nearly 25 years later, working on Soldiers of Science, Rope would interview NIH alumnus and Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner, who discovered the prion that causes mad cow disease. That moment prompted her to revisit the New Yorkerstory. “One of the main people in my podcast was in that article,” she says. “It felt like things had come full circle.”
Rope was brought on to the project by her old boss at Life magazine, Maggie Murphy, who is now vice president of original content for Audible. A neighbor of Murphy mentioned that his dad was a “Yellow Beret,” fulfilling his Vietnam War service by doing research at the NIH (“They had called themselves ‘Yellow Berets’ as sort of a joke because they didn't have to go risk their lives in Vietnam”). A common acquaintance at Audible, Freakonomics creator Colin Campbell, reconnected Murphy and Rope, and Rope set about doing research in fall 2018.
She began by getting a list of men who had served in the NIH Associates Training Program during the war—people like Fauci and Varmus—and started talking to them and hearing their stories. “It was clear that this was an amazing story about Vietnam that had never been told.” Starting at the end of the Korean War in 1953, a “doctor draft” had moved young physicians into a two-year stint with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. “They needed people who had finished residencies and could specialize and handle serious trauma,” Rope says.
When the draft was reinstated in 1964 during the Vietnam War, doctors again were drafted, “but they had a couple of ways they could serve,” she continues. “Within the public health service, there was this extremely small, competitive program to do research and treat patients at the NIH. It was a plum position, whether or not you were facing the draft, but it became even more competitive because of the draft.” As the body count went up in Vietnam, so did the number of applicants to the NIH program. The people who got in were the cream of the crop, in the top 1 percent to 2 percent of their med school classes.
“You had all these super-smart men coming in and learning research from Nobel laureates and other prominent leaders in different fields—microbiology was just getting going,” Rope says. “They were taught the NIH research methods, which were very rigorous. They were seeing patients who were very sick and they themselves were an intellectually elite group of people.” In the lifetime of the NIH (which, like Occidental, was founded in 1887), 25 NIH-associated researchers have won the Nobel Prize. Nine of those served during the Vietnam War through the NIH program, which continues today.
Subsequent to their time with the NIH, Rope notes, these “soldiers of science” have been responsible for countless medical breakthroughs: statin drugs, which lower cholesterol and reduce heart attacks; the co-discovery of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); the HPV vaccine, which has dramatically reduced rates of cervical cancer in the United States; blood-clot busting techniques; and the first immunotherapies for cancer.
Rope was immediately drawn to the question: What's the “impossible math” of how many lives were saved because of the draft and the NIH? “It's this incredible silver lining to Vietnam,” she says. It’s a story that no one had told, she speculates, “because Vietnam is such a dark time in our nation's history, and so many people lost their lives.”
Early on in developing the project, Rope and her colleagues at Audible quickly decided that Alan Alda would be the ideal storyteller. Best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance as medic Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, he interviewed hundreds of scientists during his 11 years as host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. He hosts the weekly Clear+Vivid podcast and is a visiting professor at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
When this project was brought to him, Alda did not hesitate to get involved. “I was glad I was able to bring the experience I have interviewing scientists to it,” he says. “We have hours and hours of interviews with about a dozen of the scientists who lived through it.” The project reunited him with Fauci, whom he has interviewed multiple times over the course of the pandemic. (“We’re a double act now,” Alda says of himself and “Tony.”)
The podcast took on new significance in the face of what Rope calls the government’s “botched response to the pandemic and the fact that we were not investing in and relying on science in the way that we should have been. We're telling the story of what’s possible when the government does make science and medicine a priority.”
While the pandemic didn’t significantly alter the timetable for the podcast’s completion, it did affect the process. Rope and Alda collaborated remotely on the scripts, and “Alan had to build a sound studio in his closet, in his house on Long Island,” Rope recalls.
“We worked well together right from the start,” Alda says. “We each contributed what was comfortable for us to and we both accepted the other's ideas very easily. Kate's a terrific writer.”
Prior to her work on Soldiers of Science, Rope published a book titled Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Happy, Healthy, and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood, which is about taking care of one’s mental health during pregnancy and early parenthood. She’s back at work on a follow-up book tentatively titled Strong as a Girl, which addresses how to raise strong daughters. “I see it as my quest to support and strengthen women,” Rope says. “First, you start with the moms because if the moms aren't strong, nobody in the family can be strong. And once you get your strong moms, then what are the elements that make for strong girls in our society?
“It’s not the biology of girls that makes that a crucial question,” she notes, “but it’s the expectations and experiences our culture imposes on them that make it necessary for them to have the tools to overcome them.” Rope notes girls experience sexual harassment and assault in numbers exponentially higher than boys, and they also have higher rates of anxiety and depression “because of the pressures they face in our society.”
“Two of the greatest tools we can help them develop is the ability to experience and move through difficult emotions and the confidence to stand up for themselves.” In fact, Rope recently wrote a widely read article for The Washington Post on the powerful example Simone Biles set for girls when she protected her mental and physical health by stepping down from Olympic competition.
With her books, Rope is filling a void in the dialogue on pregnancy and parenting. While carrying her oldest daughter, “I had a medically complicated pregnancy and I just felt like a freak anytime I read any of the normal books about what to expect,” she says. “They don't talk to you about what happens if you have to take really serious medication to take care of your own health and balance that against the theoretical risk to a baby. I definitely wanted to open up the conversation around mental health and motherhood and validate whatever someone's challenges are.”
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are the No. 1 complication of pregnancy and delivery, she adds. “They're more common than gestational diabetes, a condition for which we have a protocol for screening and treatment. PMADs are just as treatable, and we don't have a protocol for screening for and treating them.”
She challenges the notion that motherhood should be “an easy, blissful transition. Becoming a mom is a seismic shift in your life—one of the most significant you'll ever experience. How on earth could we expect it to be easy? Let’s talk about all the ways in which it's challenging and fortify you to meet those challenges and then support you when you find yourself unable to.”
In the broadest sense, Rope says, “My mission is to normalize struggle. The Buddha said, “Life is suffering.” That is true. We just need to cultivate some peace and compassion around that, and then figure out what we need to weather the slings and arrows.”
The response to Soldiers of Science has been gratifying since its release late last year. “It was a huge honor to be in a recording studio not only with Alan Alda but also with Nobel laureates,” she says. “There's just a purity of purpose that they all share—their sincerity and their sense of service in what they do. I felt that again and again when I went in the studio with them. They have careers that are entirely focused on improving our lives and they care about patients and they care about the people who end up taking the medicines that they develop. They're just coming at it from this sense of service and compassion.”
If Rope could share anything that she’s written with her grandfather, “I guess it would be Soldiers of Science,” she says. “In a time when there is so much skepticism about science, the people behind those discoveries are there for the greater good and care deeply about how well they do their work and who their work affects. That was the chance of a lifetime to me—to be around people who have made that their career.”