A little over ten years ago, I left academia to work in a small start-up biotech company on a rural industrial park in the Netherlands. I can hardly believe so much time has passed: memories of my first day are vivid and immediate. I can still remember the feeling of trepidation when the CEO – a tall, amiable Dutchman in a suit – led me through the flock of chickens scrabbling for corn outside the door. The company, as it happened, worked on a chicken virus protein, and I was suddenly convinced that this was one of the experimental cohorts.
“Don’t worry,” the CEO said cheerfully, sensing my unspoken concern. “They’re just pets.”
Other memories stand out like still shots in my mind: those same chickens, suddenly bedding down to sleep in the middle of the day during a total eclipse of the sun; the look on the CEO’s face when he came into my office to inform me that the World Trade Center was falling down; sunlight shining off the windows of the nearby lunatic asylum as I killed incubation times gazing out the window of the radioactive B-lab – feeling I might go mad myself with boredom, as it was too much trouble to decontaminate and degown just for those five-minute spins.
But the project was highly stimulating, and I enjoyed some of the most fruitful years of my career, making discoveries, writing patents, publishing papers, liaising with the German pharmaceutical company with whom we had a lucrative research contract. The company, although it was trying to diversify, had only one key finding: an apoptotic protein that seemed to have exquisite sensitivity for tumor and transformed cells. It was one of those too-good-to-be-true phenomena that no one else was working on nor, therefore, seemed to believe – I didn’t really fully believe it myself, at the job interview, though the magic worked as advertised in my own hands. (The field has since taken off, with Big American Labs stepping in – the sorts of labs that people believe automatically given the same evidence.)
Having recently finished writing Experimental Heart, I started thinking that it would make an interesting premise for a second novel if someone like me – a new employee from outside – got hired by a company like this and accidentally discovered that the whole scientific premise behind the company was fatally flawed. Who would she tell? Would people believe her? Would employees with a financial stake in the company try to suppress her findings? What if she was romantically entangled with one of these stakeholders – how would that effect her choice to go public or keep schtum?
Later, when my own company went under (due to shareholder squabbling, not scientific mishap), I was on the dole in Amsterdam and had the chance to write that novel: The Honest Look. And on 19 November of this year, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press will publish it.