The biggest WSU research stories of 2021

A woman smiling as she sits face to face with a dog.
A cross-cultural analysis led by anthropology Ph.D. student Jaime Chambers (above with her dog Priya) and Professor Robert Quinlan found that when dogs had a special relationship with women, people were more likely to regard them as a type of person and see them as a member of the family. Photo by Bob Hubner, WSU Photo Services.

In many ways, 2021 was a year for the dogs.

As the pandemic dragged into its second year, Washington State University research that grabbed the most media attention either provided some comfort and hope or warned of more dangers ahead.

Two stories focusing on the benefits of man’s – or really woman’s – best friend made the top ten this year. A look forward to the happiness of travel came in second, and an innovative way to recycle plastic waste made third. On the other side, even amid the pandemic, people still wanted to read about climate change impacts to animals and humans alike as well as the negative aspects of cannabis and shift work.

As in previous years, all the stories that did the best highlighted novel or surprising findings and demonstrated a real-world impact in keeping with WSU’s land-grant mission.

WSU News staff analyzed 86 research press releases from 2021 using Meltwater media tracking software for its total potential audience reach. “Potential reach” numbers are usually large but were a bit smaller this year partially due to a change in Meltwater’s circulation ratings of some media outlets. Reach numbers are based on each media outlets’ circulation or viewership added together, so they contain duplicates since many news consumers may be counted more than once. Essentially, they tell us how many times research coverage may have been seen by a reader or viewer. Still, they provide a rough idea of how much public exposure WSU’s research enterprise is receiving.

Below are top 10 research stories of 2021, including their potential reach numbers, examples of resulting media articles, and a possible explanation for their success. Following that is the full listing of WSU research press releases ranked by their total potential reach.

  1. Women influenced coevolution of dogs and humans

    1.17 billion

    Daily Mail, Discover Magazine, New York Post, Seattle Times

    Nothing like destroying a cliché to catch attention. The news that dogs are likely women’s best friend did just that. A cross-cultural analysis led by anthropology Ph.D. student Jaime Chambers and Professor Robert Quinlan found that when dogs had a special relationship with women, people were more likely to regard dogs as a type of person, treat them with affection and see them as a member of the family. The news hit more than 250 outlets, including more than 80 radio and TV broadcasts.

  1. Frequent travel could make you 7% happier

    505.15 million

    CNBC, The Atlantic, Hindustan Times, Yahoo News

    When this story came out in January 2021, a lot of travel options were closed, but that seemed to fuel an even greater desire to read about the happiness of getting out of town. This study, led by hospitality researcher Bamboo Chen also found that people who talk about possible vacations are more likely to take them.

  1. New technology converts waste plastics to jet fuel in an hour

    431.6 million

    ABC15, ArsTechnica, Christian Science Monitor, MSN

    An innovative chemical recycling solution to the tricky problem of persistent plastics attracted a lot of notice for the hope it presented. The technology developed in chemical engineering lab of Hongfei Lin shows promise to take simple plastics like those used for plastic bags and reuse them as jet fuel. The story was not only picked up in online and in print outlets, but by a national journalist from the E.W. Scripps Company whose syndicated story ran on TV news stations across the country.

  1. Rare footage captured of jaguar killing ocelot at waterhole

    423.1 million

    CNET, The Telegraph, Gizmodo, IFLScience

    Predators don’t usually prey on other predators, so the unusual imagery of a jaguar killing the smaller ocelot grabbed a lot of attention. WSU wildlife ecologist Dan Thornton also noted that the event occurred at a waterhole during a drought-stressed period in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, raising questions of whether climate change had an influence on the wild cat conflict.

  1. Melting sea ice forces polar bears to travel farther for food

    354.76 million

    BBC, Billings Gazette, The London Economic, Yahoo News

    Another major predator, the polar bear, is feeling the heat from climate change as this study led by WSU ecologist Anthony Pagano shows. The shrinking traditional arctic hunting grounds for polar bears in the Beaufort Sea area has contributed to an almost 30% decrease in their population. The polar bear plight gathered a wide range of interest from a small paper in Billings, Montana to the worldwide media juggernaut BBC.

  1. Cannabis impacts sperm counts, motility in two generations of mice

    338.63 million

    Daily Mail, Daily Hunt, KIRO‑7

    Several stories this year demonstrate how WSU’s growing leadership in cannabis research. There is a dearth of knowledge on the effects of cannabis use, and as lead author Kanako Hayashi noted, this study is a warning flag that not all of them are good. This news hit outlets from UK to India to right here in Washington.

  1. Petting therapy dogs enhances thinking skills of stressed students

    337.4 million

    Consumer Affairs, Dogster,, IFLScience

    Two years ago a study by human development researcher Patricia Pendry showing that petting cats and dogs lowers the human stress hormone cortisol was the top story of the year — and continues to get pick up in the news. So, it’s no surprise that this follow up study showing petting pooches also improves thinking skills gained a lot of attention as well.

  1. Research offers insights on how night shift work increases cancer risk

    300.14 million

    Consumer Affairs, Forbes, Helio, Hindustan Times, Yahoo News

    The demands of work is always of interest to readers because it has a direct impact on their lives, but the pandemic has heightened that interest as it has added enormous stress to work, especially for some shift-workers like those in healthcare. This study led in part by WSU health science researchers about the potential dangerous cost of defying the body’s natural clock for the sake of work made news all over the world — online and in broadcast media where it appeared on more than 90 radio and TV outlets.

  1. Cannabis use can cause harmful drug interactions

    299.98 million

    Business Fast, Spokesman‑Review, Consumer Healthday

    Another warning flag on the cannabis use caught readers attention especially as pharmaceutical scientist Philip Lazarus found that cannabis use has the potential to interfere with common medications. One story by Consumer Healthday was picked up by more than 180 newspapers across the U.S.

  1. Concurrent heatwaves seven times more frequent than 1980s

    258.55 million

    Washington Post, Buffalo News, St. Louis Today, Yahoo News

    Climate change has become a renewed focus in the media as some of its real effects are being felt — including the unprecedented heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last summer. This study led by climate scientists Cassandra Rogers and Deepti Singh uses observational data to show large heatwaves are happening on Earth at the same time, posing additional threats. It was picked up by not only national news outlets but more than 230 local outlets across the country.

  1. Pulse oximeters more useful in COVID screening for older adults
  2. WSU scientists identify contents of ancient Maya drug containers
  3. Study finds no gender discrimination when leaders use confident language
  4. WSU to lead $125 million USAID project to detect emerging viruses
  5. Ethiopian monuments 1,000 years older than previously thought
  6. Prehistoric Pacific Coast diets had salmon limits
  7. New biomarkers could predict rheumatoid arthritis
  8. Pandemic has increased pregnancy stress for U.S. women
  9. Lab-made hexagonal diamonds stiffer than natural diamonds
  10. Science backs nature as key to children’s health
  11. Study finds foster youth lack critical financial skills
  12. Goldenseal use may compromise diabetics’ glucose control
  13. Cannabis use both helps and hurts entrepreneurial creativity
  14. Research identifies potential role of ‘junk DNA’ sequence in aging, cancer
  15. Doctor communication key to pandemic vaccine adoption
  16. Increased take‑home methadone during pandemic did not worsen outcomes
  17. Young adults’ alcohol use increases when casually dating
  18. Novel study of high-potency cannabis shows memory effects
  19. New Monarch butterfly breeding pattern inspires hope
  20. Blind trust in social media cements conspiracy beliefs
  21. Researchers find how tiny plastics slip through the environment
  22. Stress during pandemic linked to poor sleep
  23. Bee impersonating flies show pollinator potential
  24. Untrained beer drinkers can taste different barley genotypes
  25. Seeds of economic health disparities found in subsistence society
  26. Individualistic COVID‑19 vaccine messages had best effect in U.S. study
  27. Populous regions bear brunt of increasing humid‑heat
  28. Clinical trial shows alcohol use disorder recovery can start without sobriety
  29. Social tensions preceded disruptions in Pueblo societies
  30. Sleep loss does not impact ability to assess emotional information
  31. Expressing variety of emotions earns entrepreneurs funding
  32. Women of color, rural women most impacted by missed breast cancer screening during pandemic
  33. Consumers will pay more for ready‑to‑eat meals made with fewer ingredients
  34. Biomarkers in fathers’ sperm linked to offspring autism
  35. Soft X‑ray method promises nanocarrier breakthroughs for smart medicine
  36. Greenhouse gas emissions from water reservoirs higher than previously expected
  37. Toxin-adapted fish pass down epigenetic mutations to freshwater offspring
  38. Outside factors may help children develop internal control
  39. Gen Z willing to rent clothes to reduce waste
  40. Big name corporations more likely to commit fraud
  41. Fungus fights mites that harm honey bees
  42. More bullying of LGBTQ+ students in politically conservative districts
  43. Budtenders, healthcare providers seek more training as cannabis use rises
  44. Workplace pandemic protocols impact employee behavior outside work
  45. Catalyst advance improves natural gas cleaning technology
  46. Measuring electric current in soil could provide answers on soil health
  47. Gallic acid and stretching decrease osteoarthritis markers in cartilage cells
  48. Big gaps in quest to sequence genomes of all animals
  49. Shadowloss: Young adults cope with missing out during pandemic
  50. Low-income parents receiving universal payments spent more on kids
  51. Target protein identified for improving heart attack treatment
  52. Plastic waste has some economic benefit for developing countries
  53. Congestion pricing could shrink car size
  54. Stopping the sickness: Protein may be key to blocking a nauseating bacterium
  55. Oktoberfest memories increase life-satisfaction, customer loyalty
  56. Open source tool can help identify gerrymandering in voting maps
  57. Many new college students report pet separation anxiety
  58. Atom laser creates reflective patterns similar to light
  59. New treatment for baking with raspberries
  60. Test determines antibiotic resistance in less than 90 minutes
  61. Researchers advance 3D printing to aid tissue replacement
  62. New 3D‑printed sensor can detect glyphosate in beverages
  63. Systems approach assesses public health impacts of …
  64. Inflammation-fighting protein could improve treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
  65. Layoffs pushed hospitality workers to leave industry
  66. Drug-resistant germ packs a punch for U.S. travelers
  67. Hatchery conditions linked to lower steelhead trout survival
  68. Preserving employee morale during cost-cutting
  69. Food safety crises at smaller restaurant chains can hurt giants
  70. Study shows pest attack-order changes plant defenses
  71. New insight into photosynthesis could help grow more resilient plants
  72. Rapid evolution may help species adapt to climate change and competition
  73. Incentives can reduce alcohol use among American Indian and Alaska Native people
  74. Real-time stress detection devices could help fight alcohol relapses
  75. Touch as a form of care
  76. Wildfire changes songbird plumage and testosterone
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