Reading science fiction books about scientific research inevitably inspire me to claw my eyes out from sheer frustration with the many shocking inaccuracies before I reach page 100 — Michael Crichton’s truly stupid books crammed with scientific faux pas scream immediately to mind. So I was skeptical about reading and possibly reviewing another such book. But this novel, which is part of the newly identified reality-based genre known as laboratory literature or “LabLit”, pleasantly surprised me: I truly enjoyed Jennifer Rohn’s engaging page-turner, Experimental Heart (Cold Spring Harbor Press: Cold Spring Harbor, NY; 2009).
This well-written and gripping story is narrated by Dr. Andy O’Hara, a postdoctoral cancer research scientist at a London university, who is searching for meaning in his professional and personal lives. The novel begins late one Friday night when Andy is distracted from his fanatical focus on his experiments by .. a woman. This woman is easily visible in her brightly-lit lab window across the plaza because she is the only other person who is working so late. Intrigued, Andy later learns that his late-night companion is Gina, a scientist who works at Geniaxis, the start-up biotech company that just moved in to the labs across the way after an infusion of venture capital.
Thus begins Andy’s pursuit of romance in addition to his ongoing quest for scientific fulfillment. Along the way, the reader meets a suite of characters who are familiar to every molecular biologist; idealistic undergrads, dedicated grad students, overworked postdocs, and their mentors — some concerned and nurturing while others are arrogant and overbearing. Many of the practical issues confronting today’s scientists are also here: the lack of community outside one’s research colleagues, the challenge of accurately deciphering one’s experimental results, dealing with ancient equipment, competing with one’s colleagues for lab space and resources and the sometimes overwhelming insecurities of postdoc life. The reader will also find the ethical dilemmas involved with animal experimentation as well as the tremendous pressures for funding and the competition that can occasionally lead to scientific fraud.
I especially enjoyed how the characters’ personalities and relationships unfolded naturally, while an underlying tension developed as each experimental result revealed yet another facet of the mystery itself. Further, Andy is not the annoyingly “perfect main character” who is always one step ahead of the readers that I run across in too many novels. Instead, he is an intelligent yet fallible person whom I can easily identify with instead of resenting.
I also enjoyed the descriptions of “lab life”; the social hierarchies within labs, the personnel and their specific roles, the camaraderie, conflicts and collaborations — and even the pranks — all of which accurately reflect my own experiences working in labs found in universities and research institutions. As an added bonus, the basic processes of molecular and cell biology were described using dynamic and picturesque language, making the essential plot-moving experimental results understandable to those who are not intimately acquainted with these fields of study. This book resonated with me and made me, once again, desperately miss my own lost career in science.
I am a former research scientist at a cancer research center (I studied antigen switching at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), so I can vouch for the authenticity of the science and the social structure of a research center as revealed in this book. This book is an excellent addition to the newly-identified genre known as “LabLit” and I highly recommend Experimental Heart to scientists, especially biomedical researchers, as well as to fans of mysteries and thrillers and to all those people who would like to have a more complete and nuanced experience of the world of modern biomedical research.
Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London and founder and editor of LabLit.com, an online magazine devoted to lab culture and fiction. She writes for various publications including Nature and The Scientist. She blogs about the scientific lifestyle at her blog, Mind the Gap. Experimental Heart is her first novel.