From “murder hornets” to life on other planets, the most popular Washington State University research coverage in a year dominated by COVID-19 was largely tangential to the pandemic—playing on questions of how things could get worse, or how we might leave this troubled planet altogether. Other stories that saw wide audiences involved the pandemic more directly or research so novel it could not be ignored like the creation of the first-ever surrogate sires, male livestock able to pass on the most-desired genetics of donor animals.

This was not a typical year, but the news stories about WSU research that did the best still had a focus on real world impact. Health-related stories, in particular, did well, such as whether parents should hide their stress from kids, the potential benefits of cannabis or whether exercise helped people deal with their pandemic fears.

WSU communicators produced more than 100 research-related press releases in 2020, helping disseminate the knowledge gained while elevating WSU’s national and international profile as a leading public research university. WSU News staff analyzed each story using Meltwater media tracking software for its total potential audience reach. These reach numbers are quite large as they are based on each media outlets’ circulation or viewership added together. While the numbers contain duplicates, given that many people consume news and information from multiple outlets that might report on the same developments, it can give a sense of how far and wide a story travelled.

Below are the top 10 research stories of 2020 with press release links, potential reach numbers, a sample of the resulting media articles, and some possible reasons for their success. Following that is the rest of WSU research stories ranked by their reach.

  1. Scientists predict potential spread, habitat of invasive Asian giant hornet

    3.52 billion

    USA Today, BBC, CNN, People magazine

    This story started quietly when a call went out to Washington state residents to keep an eye out for the invasive giant hornets known for decapitating whole hives of honeybees, the world’s critically important pollinators. The story exploded after the New York Times dubbed the insects “murder hornets” and a morbid hilarity ensued in the news and on social media mainly on the theme of “what could be worse about 2020?” By the end of the year more than 1,500 articles mentioned the hornets and the work of WSU scientists who were collaborating with state officials to track and remove the destructive bugs.

  2. Some planets may be better for life than Earth

    2.22 billion

    CNN, Fox News, Forbes, Gizmodo

    The idea of “superhabitable” planets, worlds that might be better than our own, caught a lot of people’s imaginations across the globe. Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an adjunct WSU professor also with the Technical University in Berlin, and his colleagues came up with a set of characteristics that are better for life and found 24 of these potentially wonderful planets.

  3. Gene-edited livestock ‘surrogate sires’ successfully made fertile

    1.39 billion

    BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Yahoo News

    In an advance that promises to improve food production worldwide, male pigs, goats and a bull were gene-edited to be born sterile but able to pass on the implanted genetic material containing the desired traits from donor animals. These special livestock animals were born right here at WSU Pullman in a project led by reproductive biologist Jon Oatley. Buoyed by strong interest in Europe, media from all over the world ran stories on these so‑called “super‑dads.”

  4. Study: Organic molecules discovered by Curiosity Rover consistent with early life on Mars

    980 million

    Daily Mail, Daily Beast, CNET, NY Post

    The possibility of life on other planets is always a big draw as is proven again by this story based on another paper led by Schulze-Makuch that came out even before COVID‑19 lockdowns started making life on Earth a bit difficult.

  5. Tasmanian devils may survive their own pandemic

    728.34 million

    U.S. News & World Report, Smithsonian, Science magazine, MSN.com

    In a dark year, a bright spot of good news for the iconic Tasmainan devil gained a lot of attention. The method used to trace the evolution of the transmissible cancer afflicting the devil may also help scientists learn more about other genetically complex pathogens. The work led by WSU biologist Andrew Storfer and recent WSU Ph.D. Austin Patton not only made the prestigious journal Science but was featured in their podcast as well as numerous mainstream media sites.

  6. Everything is not fine: Kids can tell when parents suppress their stress

    436.74 million

    CNN, Healthline, Consumer Affairs

    Parents don’t need to stress about hiding stress – that was welcome information for parents during the pandemic. The research led by human development assistant professor Sara Waters had a large reach, driven primarily by an article in CNN that was picked up by many of their affiliates.

  7. Cannabis reduces OCD symptoms by half in the short-term

    361.91 million

    Forbes, International Business Times, Consumer Affairs

    Cannabis is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the U.S. and that has created a real craving for news about its potential benefits. The analysis that psychologist Carrie Cuttler did using self-reported data from the Strainprint app provided some real-world information about this understudied drug.

  8. COVID-stress may be hard to beat even with exercise

    327.96 million

    WebMD, U.S. News & World Report, Times of India

    The pandemic has been a continual focus in the news during 2020, and this twin-study led by Glen Duncan in the College of Medicine addressed a question a lot of people wanted to know about whether they could manage their COVID‑19 stress with exercise.

  9. New study to examine benefits, risks of breastfeeding during COVID‑19 infection

    245.98 million

    Daily Mail, MSN Health

    While it is rare for the start of a study to make news, a similar recently completed study in China was making headlines at the same time that this WSU call for study participants went out, resulting in a surprise mention from the widely circulated Daily Mail in the UK, among other places.

  10. Decline in plant breeding programs could impact food security

    223.51 million

    Medium, Forbes, The Farmer

    This study related to agriculture education attracted attention outside of the agriculture media as it showed a real-world effect. The story was particularly boosted by an article in Medium, whose membership community gives it a potential audience of over 120 million.

Logos of various news outlets.

  1. Centenarian study suggests living environment may be key to longevity
  2. Researchers use origami to solve space travel challenge
  3. Researchers advance fuel cell technology
  4. Fear of missing out impacts people of all ages
  5. Scientists document collapse of key Central American forest engineer
  6. Rural areas have fewer mental health services for young people
  7. Researchers develop viable sodium battery
  8. Social media use increases belief in COVID-19 misinformation
  9. Researchers call for new approach to some mental disorders
  10. New research sheds light on potentially negative effects of cannabis
  11. Where you live may influence your baby’s behavior
  12. Depressed, rural moms face greater health challenges–and so do their kids
  13. Exercise during pregnancy reduces obesity among offspring
  14. Water splitting advance holds promise for affordable renewable energy
  15. Study shows cannabis temporarily relieves PTSD symptoms
  16. Tasmanian devil research offers new insights for tackling cancer in humans
  17. Facebook political ads more partisan, less negative than TV
  18. Invisible plastics in water
  19. Discrimination increases against Asian and Asian American population, affecting health
  20. Study shows rising age of first drug use in teens, young adults
  21. No honor among cyber thieves
  22. Restaurant customers frown on automatic gratuities, particularly after good service
  23. More economic worries mean less caution about COVID-19
  24. Football-loving states slow to enact youth concussion laws
  25. Ancient blanket made with 11,500 turkey feathers
  26. Canada lynx disappearing from Washington state
  27. Study finds fatty acid that kills cancer cells
  28. Nurse practitioners play key role in opioid addiction treatment in very rural areas
  29. Teen boys link marijuana use with more, better sex
  30. Cannabis ads and store location influence youth marijuana use
  31. Wording of vaccination messages influences behavior
  32. War songs and lullabies behind origins of music
  33. Researchers develop method for earlier detection of Alzheimer’s Disease
  34. Response to fire imapcts water levels 40 years into the future
  35. Researchers find connection between household chemicals and gut microbiome
  36. Small towns have highest risk of intimate partner violence
  37. Increasing sleep time after trauma could ease ill effects, study says
  38. Non-tobacco plant identified in ancient pipe for first time
  39. Jails that don’t change operations due to COVID-19 put all at risk, WSU study finds
  40. Changes to drylands with future climate change
  41. Microscopic partners could help plants survive stressful environments
  42. Discovery enables adult skin to regenerate like a newborn’s
  43. Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
  44. Seductive details inhibit learning
  45. Glyphosate can create biomarkers predicting disease in future generations
  46. In-person college sports can create campus COVID-19 spikes
  47. Medicine-carriers made from human cells can cure lung infections
  48. Researchers develop software to find drug-resistant bacteria
  49. Cannabis use blunts stress reactivity in female rats
  50. Amphibian study shows stress increases vulnerability to virus
  51. Antibiotic-resistance in Tanzania is an environmental problem
  52. Pregnancy stereotypes can lead to workplace accidents
  53. Paper-based technology advances earlier cancer detection
  54. New technology helps reduce salt, keep flavor
  55. Men less likely to see food as national security issue amid pandemic
  56. New model gives wineries better data from existing tests
  57. Twinkling, star-shaped brain cells may hold the key to why, how we sleep
  58. Researchers advance solar material production
  59. Prenatal cannabis exposure linked to cognitive deficits, altered behavior
  60. Information technology played key role in growth of ancient civilizations
  61. Study suggests biological clock is key to reducing heart damage from radiation therapy
  62. UV light may be a greater risk for melanoma than suspected
  63. WSU study aims to prevent adverse drug reactions in dogs
  64. WSU scientists discover new, simple way to classify marine biomes
  65. Not-so-dirty birds? Not enough evidence to link wild birds to food-borne illness
  66. Study paints picture of marijuana use in pregnant women
  67. A key to cheaper renewable fuels: keeping iron from rusting
  68. Privatized prisons lead to more inmates, longer sentences, study finds
  69. Glacial stream insect may tolerate warmer waters
  70. Bat research critical to preventing next pandemic
  71. Researchers show advance in next-generation lithium metal batteries
  72. Discovery of a mechanism plants use to toggle on photosynthesis chosen by top journal
  73. A compound unlike any other
  74. Cracking the Lyme disease code
  75. Research identifies critical protein in cancer treatment-related heart damage
  76. Research demonstrates a molecular dance that keeps your heart beating
  77. Researchers use soy to improve bone cancer treatment
  78. Researchers urge healthcare providers to routinely ask patients about cannabis use
  79. Biggest holes in the system’ / WSU research shows very rural elders receive fewest services
  80. Organic farm advantages in biodiversity and profits depend on location
  81. Beavers may help amphibians threatened by climate change
  82. Electron-producing microbes power sustainable wastewater treatment
  83. Study indicates vaporized cannabis creates drug-seeking behavior
  84. Finding the genes to build a better cancer treatment
  85. Environmental DNA detection could cut pathogens in pet trade
  86. Media literacy can improve child nutrition, family relationships
  87. Nitrogen-fixing genes could help grow more food using fewer resources
  88. ACA results in fewer low-income uninsured, but non-urgent ER visits haven’t changed
  89. Poor hygiene is significant risk for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria colonization
  90. Hospital websites lack usability for non-English speakers
  91. Study reinforces drug’s potential to treat hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  92. To help wildlife move, researchers map both natural and legal boundaries