Rocket Science: Keren Landman

On health journalism, squirrel adventures, and connection versus distraction.

Keren is a practicing physician, epidemiologist, and journalist who covers topics in medicine and public health. Follow her coverage here and @landmanspeaking.


Most tempting snack to have around during self-isolation.

A really good salty chocolate chip cookie, the kind with sea salt sprinkled on top. Dangerous to be locked in the house with those.

I mean, you’re supposed to shop the periphery in a grocery store, right? The places where they keep produce, dairy, cheese, fresh tofu, fresh meat. You’re not supposed to shop in the interior where all the trans fats are packaged into these delicious, addictive foods. 

But, that’s what’s shelf-stable, so we’re all gonna be eating from the interior of the supermarket over the next few weeks. Then afterward there’s gonna be this massive epidemic of cardiovascular disease!

What’s the most frustrating thing about mainstream news coverage of health and medicine?

In general, the news cycle rewards stories that get clicks, which are not always the stories that are best for humanity. People need to see models of the outside world to behave differently. News is, for many people, the source of those models. 

So, the model that we often see is, “This bad thing is happening because people are bad and there’s no way to fix this.” Then people don’t try, and they stop thinking about something as a fixable problem. 

I’m a big, big proponent of solutions journalism, which is all about identifying, amplifying, and describing … in gory detail and including its failures … the solutions and responses that people have to big social problems (including health problems). 

So, I think health journalism would really benefit from shifting its lens, more often than not, toward showing people models that are working either alongside or even in place of the things that are broken.

What are you listening to this week?

My partner Bill plays viola, and he’s been doing a daily recording posted on social media to keep his chops up. So, I’ve been listening to Bill practice a lot. 

There are also a couple of really soothing playlists on Spotify like night pop and chill wave and dream wave and shoegazing… It’s kind of stoner music, which is really good for right now because I just need to quiet some of this. 


What’s your favorite thing about technology right now?

I really wish I was one of the people currently enjoying TikTok, because it seems like that’s where a lot of the decompression is happening and I could use a little of that. 

On Facebook, healthcare providers have been exchanging lifesaving information. There are groups for clinicians of all sorts – doctors, nurses, techs, social workers, respiratory techs. It feels like a wartime effort in some ways, in the sense that people are really coming together to help each other. 

For instance, if you were on a shift in the middle of the night with a vented patient in an intensive care unit, and you had limited experience with ventilators, you could go on Facebook on one of these groups and post, “What do I do with this situation?” You’d probably get a response within 20 minutes. I mean, I’ve never seen us use social media for that. This is really special.

Unsung TV show we should watch.

Animals. It’s an animated series on HBO about the secret lives of urban animals like pigeons and rats and cockroaches that unfold while all sorts of bureaucratic and administrative doom and gloom happens in the background. 

There’s an episode, for example, centered around the collapse of a tree that houses families of squirrels. The whole Goonies-like story arc is about these squirrels escaping from this tree, interspersed with a wild, parallel soap opera about a corrupt mayor and murder. It’s completely incidental and of zero consequence to the actual story about the squirrels’ tree falling down. 

The show offers refreshing little reminders that while we all feel like the world is collapsing, and in many ways it possibly is, wildlife is having the same old experience of the world: “I need food. I need to make a chittering noise. I need to mate. I need to find a warm place to sleep.” Their entire life arc is without all the fears and drama and CNBC and all the rest. It’s great.


What’s a statistic you’ve been dropping recently?

Oh so many, how to choose? China built an entire hospital in 10 days to receive all of its people who met their definition of a Covid-infected person. That’s really impressive.

The speed with which Southeast Asian countries tested people, truly quarantined them and took this seriously is impressive too. It seems like an outcome of having taken SARS very seriously. We have this thing in this country where if you haven’t experienced it personally, you’re unable to imagine that it could actually happen to somebody else. 

Like with Ebola, we kind of shrugged until it became clear that it could come to the United States, then we dumped a bunch of money into it. With things like violence and drug addiction, we didn’t really pour resources into it until it started touching people who are stakeholders in the power structure here – white folks, rich white folks. When their kids started getting addicted to opioids, then they gave a shit. 

Now, 20 years after SARS, Southeast Asia was ready to snap into action when somebody saw a few cases. You should see the timeline of how things unfolded in late December when one doctor saw two or three cases of what looked to him like SARS. Government and private sector got on it because they knew what SARS could do, and they were ready. 

We have public health people who understand this. But without somebody to guide all these moving parts, we face a massive challenge. The speed of response doesn’t hinge on the type of government either. I’ve seen luxury condos go up in the time it takes for me to bake a loaf of bread. We can build the stuff that we want to build really fast, when we want to.

We’ve read about COVID-19 for 12 hours straight, and need a break. What else should we read?

Wow, you’re making me realize that I have not done a whole lot of that lately. I think if I were to do that now, I would probably go to a few cooking blogs that I enjoy like Smitten Kitchen. My “content breaks” are going to Twitter, and my entire Twitter feed is coronavirus. So, that’s not ideal.

What do you do instead?

I’m probably looking more for connection versus distraction. Not taking my mind off of the terrible stuff that’s happening, but instead reconnecting my mind with the things in my life that are really important to me: my partner, my family, good food, making music. 

I have a guitar that I will, very periodically, just pick up and strum and play. I had a guitar lesson the other day and I just went in there and said, “Can we please just play some stuff we know and sing together because I just need to do something that’s not this for a while.” 

I realized as I was playing how high-strung and annoyed I was with myself when I’d make a wrong note. But, maybe that was a good thing … looking at Instagram or TikTok wouldn’t give me that feeling. Social media would’ve taken my mind off everything for a moment, but it doesn’t connect me with the things I really care about. 

Singing with someone, making music, laughing with another person, just going outside, leaving the house, seeing the trees – I mean, Atlanta is in bloom right now. Flowers are beautiful. Pollination is happening. Being in a world that keeps moving and around people that I care about is how I want to use that time.


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