In which my dreams come true (redux)

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.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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44 Responses to In which my dreams come true (redux)

  1. Eva Amsen says:

    Yay! \o/
    And I like the cover =)

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    This is teh totes awesome, as they say.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Free copy for whoever can identify the bridge. (By the way, Richard took the bottom photo!)

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    aw shucks, I wasn’t going to say 🙂 I guess that means I’m excluded from the competition?

  5. Frank Norman says:

    Will it be available in UK on that date too?
    Re. the bridge – I think it is somewhere in the Netherlands. Is that close?

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yes! The book will hit the warehouses in October and should be available on Amazon by the release date. As soon as the entry is up, it can be pre-ordered.
    The bridge is on the Runstraat in Amsterdam – I just ran a Twitter competition which ended about 5 minutes after it stared when clever-clogs @gfpom won him/herself a free copy.

  7. vishal kalel says:

    in which I run in entire lab and show all colleagues new magazine article..!
    (sorry for this random comment..)
    Biology’s ‘Lady of Letters’..
    A conversation with Jennifer Rohn, London
    The whooping 6 page interview of Jennifer by Jeremy Garwood appeared in “Lab Times” which is my favorite magazine.!

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Vishal. How embarrassing…I was shocked how long it was. Usually people edit down interviews, so I just rambled away. I would have been more concise if I’d known…:-)

  9. Ken Doyle says:

    I’m ashamed to admit that I only just (last night) started reading Experimental Heart; so far, I’m enjoying it. I even set aside Carl Djerassi’s Cantor’s Dilemma to read it. I don’t usually read more than one novel at a time, but reading time has been hard to come by these days.

  10. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’m honored you’ve shelved CJ on my behalf! Hope you continue to enjoy it.

  11. Richard Wintle says:

    Oh sorry, was that “excessively long”?
    Well done you. RPG – nice photo. Looking forward to it. 😀

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Winty.

  13. vishal kalel says:

    denial, greed, hatred and love…. The plot of “The Honest Look” seems perfect for making a film based on it..!
    Has any Hollywood company already approached you for it?
    Last year some students from my research institute in India had performed one play based on the lives of Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin.. (the betrayal part.!) and one short humorous play on how the guys in lab change their behavior upon arrival of a junior girl student (and how the girl exploits them..)

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Not yet, Vishal, but it would certainly be fun to see it brought to life. Though I suspect authors go through a lot of pain, too, watching what happens to their baby during adaption to the big screen.
    Seems like a good time to big up my friend Jennifer Ouellette’s initiative The Science Entertainment Exchange, a program of the US National Academy of Sciences designed to promote decent science in movies.

  15. Åsa Karlström says:

    Wow! Love the cover and the title. (Richard, nice photo of the water and the bikes!)
    And thanks for the link to the interview Vishal. Very intresting and fun to read Jenny.
    I’m looking forward to the book too!! Will be a fun fall reading 🙂

  16. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Oooooo! It sounds fantastic!!!! The cover looks good, too, rpg 🙂
    Congrat’s Jennifer and I look forward to reading it. I”m going to see if I can pre-order it on the U.S. Amazon site. Otherwise I figure I could use the UK one?

  17. Eva Amsen says:

    So, on the topic of books and the buying thereof, where do you stand on libraries? If someone gets your book from the library, you don’t see any money, but if a library buys a copy, you do. If someone requests a book at a library, and they then purchase it – is that good or not?

  18. Cath Ennis says:

    It sounds (and looks) great! Congratulations!

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Elizabeth – it will be on all Amazons, as is my first one. Hopefully in a few weeks…but I’ll keep you all posted.
    Where I stand on libraries? I think they’re great. It’s nearly impossible to earn a living wage from writing books, so for me it has nothing to do with earnings. I only want to sell copies inasmuch as a perceived success for my publisher will make them more likely to buy my subsequent books.
    Asa, it should be fun winter reading!

  20. Heather Etchevers says:

    Hooray!! Wonderful news. I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy. And #3, too, when it comes along. The cover is lovely, why is it provisional?

  21. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ah, provisional in that we’re still at the proof stage, so there might be some tweaks before the first official print run. It also needs to acquire a back cover and spine art. Everyone in New York is really pleased with the front so I doubt that will change.

  22. Eva Amsen says:

    I’m glad you like libraries…
    Last fall I filled out a request form for Experimental Heart at the Toronto public library (apparently the largest public library system in North America…). Even though I have a copy of the book, I found that other people didn’t want to buy it when I recommended it (scared of science) so I thought I could lower the barrier if it was in the library.
    When I requested it, the girl at the desk said “That looks great! Why don’t we have this yet? I want to read it!” but explained that it had to go past some committee first, and they had to decide whether to buy it.
    They ended up getting seven copies all over the city and half are currently being read.

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    totes awesome
    Remind me to join our local library…

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Wow, Eva – that’s great! Thanks so much for promoting it to them.

  25. Eva Amsen says:

    I didn’t mention it when I did because I didn’t know whether you’d not rather want everyone to buy it, and because I didn’t know whether they ended up getting it, but was amazed when I saw they got SEVEN copies!

  26. Grant Jacobs says:

    Hopefully I’ll remember to ping the local library and sci. comm. dept. Frantically busy this month, though… 🙁
    I usually have pretty good luck getting them to take them up.
    I’d pick up my own copy, but I have to confess with the exception of reference and textbooks needed for work, which have to be current, my book buying is limited to second-hand items from book sales.

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    No wonder so many authors are starving…good thing I have a day job! 😉

  28. Ken Doyle says:

    I wonder how many authors are actually self-sufficient (i.e., derive a full-time income from their writing). I imagine it’s a very small percentage, which is discouraging, but I guess I can still dream 🙂

  29. Eva Amsen says:

    I know some (fiction and non-fiction) authors without “day jobs” and without best-seller status, but they either freelance a lot to actually pay the bills, or have other side projects (publishing, organizing things, giving talks, etc.) that bring in money other than the books.
    Nobody who seriously considered writing as career actually expects to live off selling books alone, and think even some of the people that do manage to make a living off it are very surprised about that!

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I read a factoid somewhere that in the United States, only 400 writers earn a living wage from writing books alone.

  31. Eva Amsen says:

    How many of them have been featured on Oprah’s Book Club?

  32. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hmmmm. Now we’re getting into epidemiology.

  33. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny> I wonder if the writers will turn into the music industry today… you know, more money on the concerts and the merchendaise than the actual CD… maybe there will be “Rohn pipette tips” or something like that. Hm, now when I wrote it down, it didn’t look as funny as when I thought it. (I might need some food, blood sugar making my humour even duller than usual)
    Eva> I wonder how much that does for them? Do they get money for being picked? (I don’t think it is peer reiewed, is it? ^^ )

  34. Henry Gee says:

    Huzzah. Having read a draft I think it’s much better than ExHeart. The title puzzles me though.

  35. Eva Amsen says:

    Asa, they just sell SO MANY MORE books

  36. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Asa, there might be a market for Rohn Pipette tips. Multicolored ones, perhaps?
    Henry, the title has several meanings. Primarily it is taken from one of the key poems in the book, by Edna St Vincent Millay. It also refers to the protagonist’s machine, which sees the objective truth – as well more broadly, to the process of science in general, which always tries to see objectively even when human ego gets in the way. It further reflects the perspective of the protagonist, who (if you’ll recall) has the knack of seeing beyond the superficial in other people.

  37. Henry Gee says:


  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Isn’t it just? To say nothing of ‘literary’. 😉

  39. Grant Jacobs says:

    While looking for the Millay poem mentioning ‘the honest look’ (Dirge without Music?), the search turned up that Unwoman has voice + cello recitals of some of Millay’s work. Just passing it on in case it’s of interest to you. YouTube has a few videos of her performances too.
    Sounds like I might like the book. Incidentally, I had similar layered meaning behind the name for my blog (Code for life), explained in my ‘About’ page.

  40. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yes, that’s the right poem. Titles are very difficult things. In this case, there were any number of sort of scientific/technical/geeky sounding titles we could have chosen, but we all wanted to have something that didn’t sound too much like that.

  41. Scott Keir says:

    Congratulations Jenny. I hope RPG is claiming billions in royalties for that photo.
    I was intrigued by this line:
    I was on the dole in Amsterdam and had the chance to write that novel: The Honest Look.
    Presumably that was some time ago: so what happened? Was it a case of you dusting off the manuscript and punting it around, or revisiting an old idea, or something else?

  42. Richard P. Grant says:

    I wish, Scott. sniff

  43. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny: Rohn Pipette tips. Multicolored ones, perhaps?
    I’d love that. yey! .. now… all I need to do it convince the powers that pay that it is a great plan. (I remember trying to order multicoloured small tubes at an old department and gtting so shut down… hmmm…. ) 🙂

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