Sunday, November 23, 2014

LabLit: books about scientists and the realities of life in the lab

While exploring the Internet, I recently found the LabLit List, a frequently updated list of books that have scientists as central characters. In contrast to science fiction, these books occur in realistic settings. Lab lit books include some science to contribute to the plot. Because most lab lit is written by non-scientists, the science is not always very detailed. However, there are a few novelists who trained as scientists, including Carl Djerassi, Ann Lingard, and Jennifer Rohn (Rohn's book The Honest Look is next on my reading list). The lab lit books that I have read really capture the intensity of life in the lab, showing both the camaraderie and the competitiveness. So if you left the lab, but still fondly remember your days as a lab rat, this is likely a good genre for you. Below, I have written short reviews of three representative lab lit books that I have enjoyed.

Antisense by Richard Marshall

Principal investigator Daniel Hayden is a neuroscientist studying the molecular basis of aggressive behavior in mice. The beginning of Antisense is firmly planted in the lab, but quickly veers into the personal life of Hayden. I enjoyed some of the science bon mots; for example, when explaining blotting techniques Marshall writes, "we ran out of things to blot before we could head east." By the middle of the book, I worried that the plot would be the common male midlife meltdown, but the story generally redeemed itself. The science was interesting, but not very detailed. I was frustrated when Hayden started making grand conclusions based on a single experiment, but soon realized that this was likely the author's way of showing the PI's changing mental state. Likewise, the title was a clever choice, which was appropriate for the science as well as the character's journey.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman's 2006 novel Intuition is set in a high-stakes, ultra-competitive lab at a fictional cancer research institute in Boston's Longwood Medical Area. (Coincidentally, I was working at a similar institute when I read the book in 2007.) Intuition explores why the stakes are so high and what can happen when scientists succumb to the pressure. Goodman spent time in several labs to understand the lab environment. As a result, the book successfully captures many of the typical lab characters and accurately paints the daily life of a researcher. However, the science is not very detailed. Rather, the story focuses more on interpersonal dynamics in the lab and the possibly fraudulent data of one researcher. In light of some of the recent, high profile retractions (e.g., STAP stem cells) and the growing concerns about reproducibility in science, Intuition is increasingly relevant.

Life by Gwyneth Jones

Life tells the story of Anna Senoz, a mid-career scientist who makes an amazing discovery about the X and Y chromosomes: her sequencing data suggest that the Y chromosome is slowly being transferred to the X chromosome. Senoz studies the transferred Y story in secret, as she fears the implications and consequences of her results. The author chose the topic of sex chromosome balance as a way to discuss gender discrimination. (Here is a fascinating essay from Gwyneth Jones on her intentions for this novel.) Senoz suffers both major events (e.g., sexual assault) and minor slights (e.g., senior scientists referring to Senoz as a "good girl"), which affect Senoz's career and personality. The science in the book was well detailed, but did not feel realistic. Perhaps the book could have focused on an authentic scientific phenomenon, like intragenomic conflict in sex chromosomes (some discussion of the topic here). For me, this was the most successful of the many lab lit books I have read. However, it feels a bit more like science fiction than the other titles. Indeed, Life won the Philip K. Dick award in 2005. 

1 comment:

  1. I updated this post for the Cell Press CrossTalk blog: