Sara Falliigant award

Former Opelika-Auburn News journalist Sara Falliigant won the national Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research for her story, 'Saving Jayda,' published last Dec. 20. She is shown with her dogs, Noel, upper, and Tuck, lower, with her award to her right.

After digging for story ideas on a slow news day during the Christmas season, Sara Falligant, former reporter for the Opelika-Auburn News, came upon an idea that would lead to her national recognition.

Falligant was presented the 15th annual Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research this month for her story “Saving Jayda,” published Dec. 20, 2015. Her article chronicles integrated animal cancer treatment at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine by showcasing the stories of dogs receiving care.

The award differed from the Alabama Press Association and Alabama Associated Press Media Editors awards she had received in the past. Falligant said she was contacted by the FBR, which asked her to submit the article for consideration.

When she received the email this summer, Falligant said, she thought to herself, “This is not a real thing.” But once she determined it was legitimate, Falligant, now the social media marketing manager and teacher trainer at Pure Barre Auburn, decided to apply.

Falligant was one of five winners of the award, among reporters from NPR, The Atlantic, Popular Science and the Philly Voice. The award was established to recognize journalists who bridge the gap between scientists and the public, according to a press release posted on the FBR website.

“They are essential for helping people understand how research leads to new breakthroughs and cures,” said Frankie Trull, FBR president, in the release.

Falligant traveled to Washington, D.C., last week for an award dinner where she mingled with the other winners — she recognized the voice of the the winner from NPR — and those in the biomedical research field.

“I was a little bit a fish out of water. I think we all were,” Falligant said. “It wasn’t a journalist thing; we were in the middle of this conference for biomedical research. So people had been in lectures all day, then they’d come for dinner to meet us and talk about the positives of research. So we kind of stuck together and shook hands.”

With the exception of Ed Young from the Atlantic, Falligant said the award winners were all women in their mid-20s. She noted the recognition was “huge for journalism and science.”

Falligant briefly presented her work at the dinner, explaining the research done at Auburn’s veterinary department. To prepare for the article, Falligant spent the day in the oncology ward, speaking to dog owners whose dogs were there for cancer treatment.

“It really grew into this big thing of people being like, ‘This had changed my life or my (dog’s life),” Falligant said.

During her time in the ward, Falligant said, two main stories stood out to her: one of a bulldog named Amelia who was there for her last day of chemotherapy, and one of an American Staffordshire Terrier named Jayda.

“Every party that I spoke to knew it was mostly just a life-prolonging, not a curable thing, but they were very happy to have the opportunity to offer that to their pet,” Falligant said.

FBR was drawn to Falligant’s article because of a section that describes how families unable to afford the treatment, which can run between $3,000 and $10,000, can opt in to treatments headed toward clinical trials for medications for humans.

“It’s something that’s humane for helping out families that obviously can’t do $10,000 for a dog, and then getting new cancer drugs and new treatments to people,” Falligant said.

With two dogs of her own, Tuck and Noel, Falligant felt a personal connection to the story, as she often does with stories about animals. And a month after the article was published, Falligant had a chance to introduce her parents to the staff at Auburn when their Boston Terrier was diagnosed with lymphoma.

“Everybody knew Derby,” Falligant remembered of her parents' dog’s treatments at the clinic. “They improved her quality of life greatly for the last few months of her life, which was huge for my parents — empty nesters, you know, that was their one dog.”

For more information about the College of Veterinary Medicine’s oncology research, visit www.vetmed.auburn.edu.

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