It’s out! Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure


Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research is now officially published and available from Routledge/Taylor & Francis/CRC Press on their website, from Amazon and all the regular book sellers, including Barnes & Nobles, Waterstones, etc. I’m not sure what this means, as this is an academic book, but it’s been a #1 hot new release on Amazon (the paperback version) alternately in “Biotechnology” and “Medical Research” as well as “Cell Biology” and “Biochemistry” these past 10 days since being published.

It’s been on my mind for the last 5 years, and in active writing since early 2020. For the last 12 months it’s taken up every free minute of my spare time, the writing, editing, tweaking, modifying, re-editing, figures, references, glossary, proof reading ad nauseam–so that now that the book is finally published, I feel a little lonely, a little lost, and not quite sure what to do with myself. Fortunately I have a new young dog to keep me busy…

Overall, it’s been a marathon of sorts–a marathon I started as a book to lobby for basic biomedical research, but in the course of writing became enamored with the history behind some of the greatest discoveries. I really loved the researching and writing of each of the 24 chapters in the book, and the biggest take-home message is that “it takes a village of scientists” and usually decades between the initiation of a great discovery until some clinical fruits might be gained from the research.

Another important point relates to perspective. Researchers are continually trying to “sell” the science and highlight the “significance” and “impact” of the research. But historically, it hasn’t been an easy task to always predict what impact a discovery might have in the future. For example, Chapter 24 addresses the discovery of the green fluorescent protein (GFP)–arguably one of the most impactful findings that has had a monumental influence on the course of research’s allowing scientists to study proteins, organelles and living organisms more readily. However, when the protein was first isolated from jellyfish in 1962 by Osamu Shimomura and his colleagues, the initial publication was a rather understated paper in a modestly-ranked journal–not really providing a hint of the massive impact the GFP protein would later make.

Indeed, what is “impact?” I once was asked to show a group of donors some microscopy studies on a confocal microscope, perhaps 15 years ago. After a lot of preparation and working to explain things to laypersons, I realized that the group was entirely fixated on—the notion that the microscope had two computer screen (at the time this was a relatively new thing) and they were amazed that I could drag images and icons from one screen to the next one seamlessly. The actual biology held no interest for them. And thus, “impact” can be a very subjective concept. Just ask any scientist whose paper has been rejected without review for “insufficient impact…”

In any case, for anyone interested in the stories leading up to the great discoveries, or in search of a holiday gift for a scientist, please check out this book. There’s even a discount for my friends…




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Corner Office


As a child, one of the most humiliating punishments at (elementary) school was being banished “to the corner” for bad behavior. Something to be avoided at all costs. But as an adult, I have learned that there are advantages to being in “the corner.”

For nearly 18 years I have spent large portions of my working day toiling behind a screen (or two or three) in a “compact” (mind the euphemism) office. I had no complaints, being housed in a modern building that was completed in 2004, with a large, well-furnished lab, I was perfectly happy to retreat to my office-closet. I had my kettle, coffee and tea, emergency snack food, an oversized desk and a bookshelf, with little room for anything else. Given that I purchased a “convertible standing desk” ( a few years back, meetings with colleagues or visiting researchers (remember those?) were inevitably uncomfortable, and more than one visitor required the securing of a conference room for a meeting. Such meetings, including with my own students, were always complicated, with technical difficulties in looking at data, whether on my computer screen or on paper.


As if to compensate for the tiny size of my 7thfloor office, I was blessed with huge floor to ceiling glass windows. Nice? Sort of…. The windows faced full west, and even with the blinds permanently closed, the glare often necessitated wearing sunglasses while working at the computer in the afternoons. If that wasn’t bad enough, my view west (in the rare instances when the blinds were open) included: several parking lots, an electrical power station, a smelting factory from WWII that just recently closed, and a large cemetery on the other side of a very run-down industrial road known as “Saddle Creek.” However, we scientists don’t like to complain, and if we have a lab and research resources ($), then who cares about such trivial matters?


However, this summer I was offered the opportunity to move to a corner office at the other end of the hallway and I readily accepted. Unlike all the other offices, this one is different—it is much larger, with space for a nice desk for my co-investigator, as well as a round table for meetings with colleagues and students, and the ability to swivel my screen around to look at data from the table with students. No less significant than the extra room is the northern exposure—meaning that I get natural light all day from the many, large windows facing several angles, without having to close the blinds. Even better is the view, which looking north avoids the power plant, graveyard and factories (although there is a car wash), and I can even see two of Omaha’s iconic sites: the Joslyn Castle and St. Cecilia’s Cathedral.


Whether the new corner office improves my productivity or leads to more exciting scientific advances, I am doubtful. But given that I spend so much time in the office, I am very appreciative of my new surroundings, and certainly no longer dread being banished to the corner. Although, I guess it does mean that I’m getting old…

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Introducing Golgi, the Labrador Retriever


Golgi waiting for a tennis ball throw. For now, we are forced to keep her in “the Golgi Compartment” (a bedroom) when we leave the home, so she will not destroy it!

I as reported not long ago, we recently had to say a difficult goodbye to our 12-year old rescue dog, Ginger, who was (even by the standard of those outside our family) an exceptional dog in her friendliness and great nature. While the grieving process will go on for the rest of my life, it did not take me long to realize that I was in need of new canine companionship.

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Our grieving process include putting together a book to commemorate Ginger’s life with us. It’s a great reminder of what a wonderful time we had with her.

Coming home from work without being excitedly greeted (no matter how many grants or papers were rejected), not having a partner for hide-and-seek and throwing a tennis ball, I knew that at some point I would look to adopt another rescue dog, to rescue me. What I didn’t realize was how quickly this would happen. Or how much energy a younger dog has!

I spent time looking online at nearby humane societies and rescue shelters, in Omaha and Lincoln Nebraska, nearby Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, seeking a relatively young Labrador Retriever-like dog (preferably female, because akin to the human species, females are generally less aggressive and better natured…), but not a puppy. About 3 weeks ago, a cute ~1-year old female Labrador Retriever showed up on the website for the Sioux City, Iowa Humane Society, about 90 miles away. It was a Saturday evening, and knowing that many dogs are quickly adopted (especially nice-looking ones), my son and I drove out to be first to see her at opening on 12 pm Sunday the next day. I didn’t even wait for my wife to return from out-of-town (but did have her approval if we liked the dog). Within an hour we were driving back to Omaha with our new family member, renamed “Golgi” (what do you expect from a cell biologist?! Endoplasmic Reticulum just doesn’t have the same ring!).

Golgi is a sweet and affectionate dog, with boundless energy. I perhaps underestimated the  lack of maturity of a 1-year old dog, thinking that she would be less puppy-like, and a little calmer. But hopefully with consistent training and lots of exercise, she will calm down and we will get back into a routine (one that doesn’t necessarily include 5 am wake-up on weekends!). On the positive side, I am certainly not lonely, with a shadow by my side everywhere I go, from the shower to the kitchen to the garden. In addition, while there are many reports detailing how dogs increase the quality and length of human lives, anecdotally I can easily see how they induce one to walk and exercise more. Indeed, this graph of my “steps” from before and after adoption on Aug. 2 clearly demonstrates a trend. Untitled

Any guess as to when we adopted Golgi?! Almost like the graphs in papers with pre- and post-treatments…

But leaving aside such health considerations, despite the huge effort and amount of work in training Golgi, I feel happier with a new canine companion in my life again.


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Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research


I am very excited to finally have my most recent book, “Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research” in press and now available for preorder. 

For a very long time I have been concerned that there is decreasing appreciation (and hence investment) for very basic, curiosity-driven research, with many political leaders and the public (and even scientists themselves) pushing to redirect funding toward “translational” and “disease-related” research. Not that there is anything wrong with advancing science to treat and cure diseases; ultimately this is the goal of all biomedical research. However, as the history of science and biomedicine has proven again and again, the biggest advances in medicine frequently come from basic, curiosity-driven research. The medical advances already coming from CRISPR-based gene-editing are an obvious example, but if we stray back only 50-60 years  to the era when Marshall Nirenberg brilliantly elucidated the genetic code, finding the molecular relationship between DNA, mRNA and the amino acids that comprise every protein, we realize very quickly that today’s mRNA vaccines for Sars2/Covid-19 would not be remotely possible without the knowledge accrued from these basic findings.

I have been thinking of this project for a long, long time, and I must say it’s been a challenging project. For one, my goalposts have been constantly moving–it began as an attempt to inform politicians, lobbyists, and members of the public why basic science is so important. But I soon realized that without delving into concrete details–actual historical examples of how basic science brings about cures–the book would not have the same weight. And thus Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure evolved into a true hybrid: a history book of biomedical research over the last 150 years, aimed at undergraduate students and informed laypersons, but also a guide for graduate students and all types of scientists, who so frequently are unaware of the history of science (yes, I know–time constraints–scientists have enough to keep up with in the present…)

Through an enormous amount of research and reading (throughout which I have, unfortunately, found little time for blogging these past 18 months), I hope that I have succeeded in compiling an exciting, fascinating and informative stroll through key biomedical research findings, from the discovery of DNA and on to CRISPR-based gene-editing, with many additional topics from the discovery of antibodies and angiogenesis, to the discovery of various subcellular organelles and pathways, and much more. Just as importantly, I also hope that I have established a pattern, where a key basic research discovery lends itself 20, 30 or even 100 years later to major advances in treating diseases. For if we do not make important new discoveries today, in 20-30 years there will be no “translational” and “disease-related” research.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned so much from this enterprise, and am certain that this endeavor has made me become a better scientist–I only wish I had taken the time to write this book 20 years earlier.


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A wonderful life


Last week, the family and I were devastated to have to say goodbye to our 12 year old rescue dog, Ginger. All dogs are wonderful, perhaps, but Ginger was WONDERFUL and EXCEPTIONAL in so many ways. Sure, she was intelligent and fun-loving and affectionate, but she was the dog-of-my-life, the kindest, sweetest, noblest and most loving of creatures, who never once exhibited the slightest aggression, or even anger or frustration. She was, in a word, PERFECT–my North Star. The traumatic events of the final days are slowing receding, leaving in their wake just the sadness, emptiness, and longings. But we take comfort in all the happiness she brought to our family, and hopefully, that we brought to her for the last 8 years of her life with us.

In my last post, eons ago last spring, I wrote how Ginger’s love of tomatoes had spawned a robust “poop-plant” that kept us awash in tomatoes last fall. Remarkably, Ginger left us a final parting gift this summer: not one, but FOUR tomato “poop-plants” in our garden!

Her legacy lives on, and we will miss her greatly.

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A perfect experiment and the poop factor

In the midst of the pandemic, it was time for me to plant my tomatoes. Being unwilling to visit local nurseries for obvious reasons, I did the next best thing and ordered 12 tomato plants online. The drawback was that the selection was limited, and the only plants available then were cherry tomato plants. Not a terrible thing.

Last year, I planted 7 plants adjacent to one area of the backup of my home. I drew conclusions that although there were some nice tomatoes, the yield was low because: 1) they were much too crowded (I should have planted 3-4 instead of 7),  and 2) because tress and shrubs limited the direct sunlight hours–and everyone knows that tomatoes love sunlight. So this year, I made a new plan. I built 2 boxes on each end of the garden, that like the area I planed last year, generally face south. But in addition, the boxes were away from the house and expected to garner a lot more sunlight. I decided to do a controlled experiment, and plant 4 in last year’s location, and 4 each in the new boxes.

All 4 locations received the same new topsoil with nutrients (all purchased online), and I planted the very same-sized cherry tomato plants in the 3 locations, convinced that the 2 new locations would produce dramatically enhanced yields. And like almost every scientific hypothesis in my lab, the results yielded some minor and major surprises!

  1. By the house– a decent yield (this was my “control”)


2. Southwest new tomato location– the best yield, with lush multi-branched tall plants, full of fruit!


3.  Southeast new tomato location–Surprise! the poorest yield! Something in that location caused the plants to grow slowly and the yield is minimal!


Now for the real surprise! Every experiment in the lab has one of these! And the responsible party is none other than our Ginger:


We noticed that in another area of the garden, a tomato plant began to grow, outpacing and overcoming its neighboring hydrangeas and gladiolas. But unlike my cherry tomatoes, the leaves were larger and different in shape. And as the fruit began to grow, it was easy to see that these tomatoes were not cherry, but the same strain of “tomatoes on the vine” that we prefer to purchase from the supermarket. Add to the story that Ginger loves eating the ends of tomatoes when we are making salad, and the picture starts to unfold…

Poop plant…


Conclusion: Even the best planned and simplest experiments oft go awry–that is the fun of science. And never discount the poop factor.


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In the shadow of the great narcissist

Having written my last post titled “Preliminary lessons from a global pandemic” on March 8, before my self-imposed sequestration at home for the past 6 weeks, I find it too depressing to write a sequel on additional lessons. Much has been said about the complete failure of leadership in the US, and unfortunately, most of it is true. In fact, it’s often far worse than one could sensibly imagine, making the US one of the most pitiful countries according to Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole.  No country has been spared this suffering, the loss of lives and the the illness, but one might have expected that a purportedly first-world country with resources, leading scientists in many fields, and lots of time to prepare, might have done more. But then, most countries are not led by the great narcissist…

Instead of lamenting over the situation here, which I do all too frequently, perhaps I will explain how one active research scientist (me) has been trying to stay focused throughout this pandemic. And I should mention that I have another two weeks at home (at least) ahead of me.

Speaking with many colleagues, I know there is a wide variation in how researchers feel about their productivity and this once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) pandemic stuck at home. It’s also very different if one is a student or postdoc, as opposed to someone like me, a principal investigator, who seldom (never?) carries out any actual lab work anymore, and is rooted to a computer terminal in any case.

First, I went home about 6 weeks ago in a rather unique sweet & sour situation; on the one hand, a terrible pandemic striking and sadness all around. On the other hand, I had just received unofficial notification of the funding by NIH of a new grant, one that takes me out of my natural realm of endocytic trafficking to study centrosomes and cilia. This has been a long process. I began working on cilia 6-7 years ago, on and off, and published a collaborative paper. About 5 years ago I began a collaboration with a colleague at another institute to study centrosomes, and we also published a paper. At some point, about 3 years ago, I realized that I had enough interest and data and ideas to start putting together a proposal for the National Institutes of Health. And now, a couple more papers later, 4 arduous grant submissions later, and finally, a funded grant for the next 4 years on this project (to complement our ongoing endocytic research). So the happiness and relief at having this grant funded helped buoy my spirits in these tough times.

However, from a purely personal standpoint, the self-imposed isolation has not really been a hardship to me. Unlike those in New York City in small apartments, or people in Milan or Madrid, Omaha is a very widely-spread city with a modest population of under 1 million. I live in a comfortable house on a little lake with a walking path, have a treadmill on the lower level facing the lake, and a covered deck for breakfast lunch and dinner outside facing the lake (on nice enough days). My wife is a research scientist who works with me, so we have a lot to talk about scientifically (if not personally!). We have groceries delivered and except for going out every day for walks with the dog, little direct contact with the outside world. An introvert’s dream…


Each morning I would wake up, have coffee and breakfast, do some weight training and stretching, spend an hour on the treadmill, either answering emails or watching films on my laptop, shower, have a cup of tea and a snack and settle down to work. Work consisted of a lot of administrative issues to deal with, many papers to review for several journals (how people are able to submit these days is a mystery to me! Good for them!), reading, strategizing over research plans for each of the students and postdocs, and attending various meeting by zoom. After lunch, usually at 2 pm, my wife and I would meet our lab people (usually 1/day) for 60-90 minutes for updates, plans, strategizing, practice talks etc. We’d have a lab video meeting once a week where someone would present, and a journal club once a week with someone (including me!) presenting a paper in our field.

Most of all, I have had time–for the first time in a long time–to really read the literature in and out of my field (with no guilt because I am avoiding some other obligation). In addition, I finally have had an opportunity to browse websites from scientific and biotech companies so I could see what new tools are available and that are worthy of incorporation into our research. My wife has even spent time figuring out which companies charge the least for shipping, and removed orders from those that charge too much. We have had companies begin the generation of new antibodies, ordered clones of cDNAs, designed our own siRNAs from a different (and less expensive) company, designed our own DNA insets to be synthesized and so on. When we eventually get back to doing experiments, hopefully we will be well positioned to make advances in multiple areas.

I know my experience at home has not been typical, and from the perspective of the lab we need to generate data before we can do much more strategizing and planning, but if one ignores–or rather sets aside–the misery evident in every newscast, and the disgust in watching those who would sacrifice our elders and less healthy members of the population so they can shop or dine or attend sports games–if one is able to set that aside, then so far I can’t complain too much about the past 6 weeks. I have, however, learned an important lesson: when happier and safer times come, I will not be shy in staying home more often so that I can really get things done.


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Preliminary lessons from a global pandemic


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) map of COVID-19 infections as of March 8, 2020

1)         All humans on this planet are one species, with a genetically identical composition. The Coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between any of the so-called “races” on our planet, and because the genetic make-up of people with different levels of skin pigmentation is essentially the same, and the cells of every human being are controlled by the same proteins, the infectious virus is able to penetrate and replicate using the host cell proteins of every person on the planet. We are all susceptible, and viruses show no discrimination.

2)         We share remarkably similar DNA with the animal world, further highlighting the accuracies of Darwin’s observations, if there were ever any doubt.The origin of the Coronavirus is thought to be from pangolins, and the fact that the virus finds the host proteins and replication machinery of these mammals sufficiently similar to human cells highlights just how close we are to the animal kingdom.

3)         Cuts in funding to science, research and pandemic resources are a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the massive loss of money across the globe during such a pandemic. Unfortunately, it appears as though we are only at the very beginning of this pandemic, at least in Europe and North America, and already the Coronavirus pandemic is having an enormous impact on the global economy. Everything from production of goods, the entire travel industry, both nationally and internationally, with all of its offshoots that include airlines, hotels, restaurants, etc. have already been impacted. When more universities and schools begin closing, sporting and cultural events are shut down, potentially even the cancellation of the Olympics, the overall toll will be staggering. Yet the US government under President Trump “got rid” of the Pandemic Preparedness team. They proposed cutting funding to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. They even tried to move funding for Ebola research and preparedness to this current crisis—endangering the citizens of this country and the world should a renewed Ebola outbreak occur. This type of shortsightedness is dangerous, because had the government spent an extra 10-15 billion dollars a year to prepare for pandemics, we might be more ready today to save lives, prevent suffering, and avoid a nation-wide/international recession. The money “saved” by not supporting science, research and pandemic preparation will seem like peanuts, unfortunately, by the time we are done with this Coronavirus pandemic. 

4)         Healthcare is not a luxury but essential for every citizen. In the US, the debate has raged on over the last 10-15 years over health insurance. Democrats under Obama were able to make significant roadway and help provide affordable health insurance for 25-30 million uninsured US citizens. However, despite this significant improvement, many remain uninsured in this country, and even for those who are insured, seeing a doctor when ill is often a last resort due to expensive co-payments and deductibles. Today, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is taking things a step farther, and wants to abolish private insurance in the US in favor of a government-run single payer system that covers everyone. One can argue about the best way to provide basic health care, whether by expanding upon Obama’s system to include the remaining uninsured citizens (as democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden proposes), or by Sanders’ more drastic approach. However, one thing has been missing from all the ensuing discussion—it’s not just about individual health and well-being. This pandemic is reinforcing the notion that without affordable healthcare for everyone (and that obviously means around the globe), the world is at a much greater risk for every transmissible disease. It is clear that politicians and advocates of universal health coverage need to start including this as a key rationale—if for no other reason than it may finally resonate and help convince those who already have health coverage plans that unless the entire population is protected with health care, even the risk of healthy people is heightened. 

5)        The need to protect the elderly. The current pandemic also highlights how important it is to emphasize the need to care for our elderly populations. While the numbers are still very preliminary, not surprisingly mortality rates for novel COVID-19 Coronavirus suggest a steep incline for infected patients who are above 65 years of age—indeed there is an exponential mortality risk as the age bracket goes up. In part, this is because the elderly tend to have weaker immune systems and often suffer from other conditions. However, whatever the reason, just as society strives to keep our children safe, we need to redouble our efforts and keep our parents and grandparents safe. The sad news of the death toll at the nursing care facility in Washington State serves as a somber reminder. 

6)         We are all connected. In 2020, there is no such thing as being an “isolationist.”The entire globe is connected, as never before. This is both at a virtual/conceptual level, with the advent of cell phones and the internet, and at a physical/practical level, with so much international travel and movement from continent to continent. This pandemic, clearly spread by international travel and being propagated by administrative failures and a slow response to do massive testing and prevent unnecessary spread, highlights the interconnectedness of people around the world.


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The Coronaviral lie detector

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Coronavirus cover from the Journal of Biological Chemistry’s virtual issues.

Back in Oct. 2019, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler had counted 13,435 lies or false claims by President Donald Trump. They came in all shapes and sizes, large and small, significant and irrelevant. Some likened Trump’s mendacity to his breathing—simply a way of life, or philosophy of being. And for the most part, he seems to have escaped relatively unscathed from his behavior. Despite the Mueller Report and impeachment, he seems to have retained a similar level of support since his unfortunate election to the presidency. Whether due to the sheer massive volume of the lies, or the propensity of supporters to ignore them while believing “the end justifies the means,” little political price or any other price seems to have been paid. At this point in time, most people now believe that aside from the large democratic gains in the House of Representatives in 2018, only time will tell whether the lies would eventually lead to his removal from office in the 2020 elections.

And along came the Coronavirus. Out of the blue—or rather out of Red China. Scientists have been predicting possible pandemics for years, in the wake of HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, ZIKA, not to mention the fears back in the early 2000s of anthrax and other biological infectious agents. But this president, who cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and requested cuts for funding both to the World Health Organization (WHO) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in his most recent budget proposal, had already dismissed the pandemic experts in the White House that were put in place by (his nemesis) President Obama, precisely to prepare for such a potential catastrophic event. Why? Because he is a “small man” who is intensely jealous of Obama’s success and achievements, and simply wants to try and erase everything the former president has done—whether or not it is good for the country.

Unfortunately, viruses do not respect borders. Walls do not block them. They infect immigrants and national citizens alike. And they don’t care what falsehoods and spin are being spouted from the President’s mouth.

Unlike the president’s son claim, Donald Jr., who maintained that democrats want to see millions of Americans die so that the President’s “winning streak” is blocked, I can’t envision a single person, democrat or republican, who wants to see anyone die in this pandemic. I think the country is united in hoping that the virus can be slowed, contained, stopped—that a vaccine can be developed, that effective anti-viral drugs be made. No one that I know wants schools closed, sports events and performances shutdown, the workforce quarantined—all so we can blame the president. That is not only ridiculous—it’s warped and disgusting.

However, this does not mean absolving the president or abstaining from criticism for the poor preparedness and lack of a scientific approach. This does not mean that scientists and doctors from the top health agencies should be muzzled so that a positively-spun message out of the White House is the only one voiced. It’s time to rehire a pandemic preparedness team—better late than never. It’s time to turn over handling of the crisis to health experts so that they will brief the public and provide the truth and credibility that has been so sorely lacking. If the president thinks that the stock market slide into a tail-spin—the one sensitive spot for this president who seems to care more about the stock market than anything else—will be mollified by untrue statements that the infections are soon-to-be wiped out in the US, then perhaps he will get his first taste of the price of his mendacity. Unfortunately, this is a high price for citizens in the US to pay.

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Does it pass the smell-test? Review of “The DNA of you and me”


Moving into 2020, I realize that this is now my 10th year of blogging, a sport that I never really signed up for. In 2010, my daughter was 13 years old; now she is preparing for a series of interviews for graduate programs in the biosciences. Time flies! And in the meantime, she is now suggesting books for me to read, rather than the other-way-round. One such book was a new LabLit novel called “The DNA of you and me” by Andrea Rothman.

I am a sucker for this genre, and basically will read any science or lab-related fiction, just for the curiosity of seeing how my profession is perceived in someone else’s eyes. My daughter, who seems to have picked up similar interests, was not overly positive. And in truth, having read the novel, nor am I. But I do suggest that interested readers pick up a copy and decide for themselves.

In case, dear reader, you elect to read the novel, I will not give away too much. The narrator of the story and heroine is Emily, who begins the tale as a Principal Investigator who studies and maps how the brain perceives our sense of smell, and has just received notification of winning the Lasker Prize, an award that often has served as a precursor for the Nobel Prize. However, most of the story returns 11 years earlier to the start Emily’s postdoctoral studies in a prestigious New York lab, detailing her interactions with her manipulative mentor and a torrid but heart-rending relationship with a fellow postdoc and project co-worker. So far so good? Well, to a point…

Science, intrigue, prestigious prizes, love affairs—what could possibly be wrong with that formula?! Trying to put my finger on perhaps what I perceive as the main drawback, the word “authenticity” pops up. While labs come “in all flavors” with regards to the vast types of social interactions between those doing the research, the interactions and situations that come up in this novel simply don’t ring true for me. Yes, the Principal Investigator (my position at this point in my career) can be immoral and a bad person. That’s not out of the realm of believability. But it’s pretty much inconceivable that a Principal Investigator would or even could hide the project, and names of the genes that some postdocs in the lab are working on from others in the lab. Especially, as in the novel, if the goal was to prevent one postdoc from starting to work on that project. As a Principal Investigator, all he/she would have to do would be to say: “that’s their project, they are already working on it, this is yours.” No need to have people hiding things from one another. That simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

In addition to many additional smaller points that just don’t mesh including real-life interactions between people in any of the research labs that I’ve ever encountered, I found some issues with the scientific descriptions. Scientists love to talk about their science, and a common problem is that many of us typically forget that the general public does not have the same specialized knowledge, and that when presenting our work to lay-people, it is necessary to carefully explain our science and not go into superfluous detail. I took that point very seriously in the 4 LabLit novels that I wrote, wanting more to provide a flavor of the lab experience than a primer in the science itself. The author of “The DNA of you and me” launches rather heavily into scientific descriptions, but surprisingly I found some to be less than accurate. As an example, for those of you who are interested in the science, while searching for proteins potentially involved in neural pathfinding in the olfactory system in the novel, the author (who is speaking for Emily as a postdoc) on several occasions mentions finding good candidate genes based on DNA motifs—and yet, it would make a lot more sense that Emily would identify functional protein motifs, rather than DNA sequences, that might account for some specific pathfinding function.

Given the anomalies noted above, I wondered a little about where the author obtained her information—and whether she had scientific research experience herself. Perhaps she simply had an unqualified adviser who gave poor advice? Upon searching for the author’s background, I found that she described herself as a researcher who received two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the sense of smell. But that didn’t seem to mesh with the descriptions of the lab, research and some of the science. The reason, of course, is that someone who has received two NIH grants would be a Principal Investigator and obviously someone with a lot of experience and expertise.

Unfortunately, I can be like a bull in a China shop, or a dog worrying a bone. I had to know—was she really a Principal Investigator before turning to writing? Enter a scientist’s tools—PubMed and NIH Reporter. Through the PubMed, I found that Dr. Rothman had indeed published several; scientific papers—one as a first-author (indicating that the work was driven by her), and had 3 additional collaborative papers. One, I might add, with a group of Israeli researchers led by a Principal Investigator at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, who taught me part of a course in physiology in 1987. Small world….

Returning to the author and her scientific productivity—in my experience, although there can be great variability in individual systems, her output would have more reflective of a graduating student rather than a postdoc, and certainly not the head of a lab conducting independent research. A quick check on the other website—NIH Reporter—indeed showed that one of the “grants” held by the author was a predoctoral fellowship, indeed one of my own students currently holds that very fellowship. While certainly prestigious for a student, I would be hard-pressed to call, it a “grant.” The second award was a grant of sorts, but a small award and not indicative of an independent researcher.

Without spoiling things “The DNA of you and me” does not paint a very flattering portrait of scientists and their ethics and behavior. Are there “rogue scientists” who are unethical and behave badly? Obviously. Are they representative of the entire scientific community? From my experience, absolutely not. So why, then, do such stories come to the forefront in fiction related to science? “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman is another example. Is it purely to provide tension and excitement in the story? Or is it possible, just possible, that the smell of sour grapes, and a career that hasn’t rocketed forward is leading some LabLit authors to bash science and career scientists a little? I leave it to you, dear reader to decide whether The DNA of you and me” passes the smell test.

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