Bradley Fikes, beloved biotech writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, was so much larger than life, he inspired two memorial services. The first, organized by the U-T, nearly overflowed a meeting room at the Springhill Marriott, Thursday, Dec. 12.
Here, U-T reporter and close friend Gary Robbins recalled once walking into a seminar with Fikes and gawking at the gathered brainpower: J. Craig Venter, sequencer of the human genome; and not one but two Nobel laureates — James Watson and Hamilton Smith.
“Bradley and I drifted apart for a few minutes, and then I looked back and they’re all listening to Bradley talk about stem cells,” Robbins told the crowd of 250. “They’re listening to him.”
Fikes began his career at age 6 by mentally devouring a medical encyclopedia. Then he used it to teach lessons in reproductive anatomy to neighborhood kids whose parents never forgave him.
He continued teaching laypeople about the wonders of science until the day he died, Nov. 20, of a heart attack at age 61. (His final article — about extremely rare platypuses introduced to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park — was completed by a colleague and published Nov. 21.)
Knowing more about science than many scientists wasn’t the only thing that distinguished Fikes from most of the crowds he could be found in. His appearance seldom failed to shock people meeting him for the first time. Fikes always seemed to find more important things to do than ironing and matching his clothes. Red suspenders over crinkled clashing shirts just felt natural to him, and he was in on all jokes made about it. (One of his favorite retorts was to snap the suspenders and ask, “Jealous?”)
“I always prepped scientists who were meeting him for the first time not to be fooled by the red suspenders and taped glasses,” Chris Emery, communications director at Scripps Research, told the U-T. “Bradley is the most legit science reporter you’ll encounter.”
Fikes and I met through a mutual reporter friend in Los Angeles. I reached out when I moved to San Diego three years ago, and he graciously accepted my invitation to lunch. We talked science for a bit but, when he learned that I once edited a rock magazine, he demanded to absorb all knowledge I possessed about his childhood music icon.
“Do you know Ozzy Osbourne?” he asked. (Well, I did, once.) “Have you seen his house?” (Twice.) “What does Ozzy’s house look like?”
When I became a reporter at the Light a few months later, I logged onto my computer for the first time to find a message waiting on the interoffice system. I figured it was one of those “welcome to this program” things. But it was Fikes, informing me of the crucial science stories I should try to cover during my first week on the job — and which were just hype. It went on for several paragraphs.
There was no reason for him to be so generous. Many reporters in his position would have considered me a competitor for scoops. But the messages from Fikes kept coming — just about every week. It was a full La Jolla science newsletter with a circulation of just me.
One week, Fikes asked if I could meet him for lunch in La Jolla that Friday.
Just north of the Salk Institute, the Bella Vista Caffe is mecca on the mesa for the science set. And Bradley, naturally, was its star. Not only did he have his own table, there is actual food on the menu named in his honor. (The Il Giornalista — the nickname given him by café co-owner Amanda Caniglia — is spicy spaghetti with meatballs, his favorite.)
“I hope you have two-and-a-half hours,” Fikes asked when I arrived. (I wondered why to myself. Did he need to know more about Ozzy’s house?)
Fikes had invited dozens of public-information officers from all around the mesa to the Bella Vista. He knew it would help me do my job better to get to know them, and that I probably wouldn’t get to without his involvement.
Wave after wave of staffers from the Salk Institute, UC San Diego, Sanford Burnham Prebys, Scripps Research and Scripps Oceanography pulled chairs up to Fikes’ table to meet and greet me. It felt like my bar mitzvah all over again.
One or two tried to pitch Fikes stories, but he kept them focused on what they could do for me.
“When you talk to Corey,” he told them, “you’re talking to me.”
Fikes’ second memorial service was held at the Bella Vista on Friday, Dec. 13. At this informal gathering, Dr. Catriona Jamieson, deputy director for UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center, told me how Fikes probably saved thousands of lives via a story he reported in 2015.
Theresa Blanda was able to fight blood cancer thanks to an experimental drug, fedratinib, until it was withdrawn under pressure from the FDA and she began dying. Fikes chronicled her desperate struggle for life, videoing an emotional talk she gave at Moores.
“That story captured everybody’s imagination, everybody’s sense of justice, and it led to the approval of this drug, which was bought by Celgene for $7 billion,” Jamieson said. “Celgene kept looking back at Theresa’s story on the web, because he videotaped it, and they were really motivated by that.”
Fikes’ sister, Sue Tate, then explained that Fikes became obsessed with placing a human face on disease after their beloved mother died of ovarian cancer in the ’90s.
When an artist friend of Fikes’ then suggested that a pedestrian bridge near the restaurant be named after Fikes — since “he bridged the gap between biotech and the public” — everyone within earshot agreed on what a perfect tribute this would be.
For now, though, those touched by the science writer will have to be content with a plaque unveiled by Caniglia, which she said will be on permanent display at the Bella Vista. It’s a phone receiver, like the one Fikes walked around with that was actually a device that plugged into his cell phone.
“My guess is it made it easier to do calls and phone interviews at the same time,” she said, “or just because it was hilarious and made me laugh so hard. Brad always made me laugh so hard.”
— The San Diego Union-Tribune is also establishing a science scholarship in Fikes’ name. Visit bit.ly/fikesscholarship to donate at the GoFundMe page.