Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Experimental Heart: A Novel

tags: , , ,

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin
    April 30, 2009

    Looks good. I will add it to my reading list. I have to confess I don’t know how to square your (justified) hatred of Michael Crichton and your devotion to the fairy tale world of Harry Potter.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    April 30, 2009

    harry potter doesn’t claim to explain science, whereas crichton does (and he does it horribly, while rowling does a very good job at defining and explaining her world of magic).

  3. #3 Kevin
    April 30, 2009

    Ok, i can see that…and on a somewhat related note, I hope the Chicago museum exhibit comes to New York so you can see it. enjoy

  4. #4 DeafScientist
    April 30, 2009

    Not sure I’d read a romance, but it’s nice to hear of a “proper” lab-based setting in all it’s glory ;-) Maybe it’ll get me started on “my” science novel…

    Thanks for introducing her blog.

    Off-topic, you might like this one about dancing birds:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/oddstuff/2378267/Boogie-birdie

    The paper this is based on is in Current Biology.

  5. #5 Ian
    May 1, 2009

    Thanks for the review.

    Now I have a question. How do you manage to get your blog to start at the top of your page, whereas pretty much all the other bloggers at SciBlogs have their blog forcibly pushed to the bottom of the page where the sidebars run out?

    Whatever you’ve done to achieve this, keep it up! There’s not a lot that’s more annoying than having to page down about eight times to get past the sidebars and actually find the blog to read – which was the reason you came here in the first place!

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    May 1, 2009

    Ian – I haven’t experienced anything like the problem you describe in years of lurking through sciblogs.

    Throw in some info about your browser, OS, and hardware, and maybe the GrrlScientist will pass your plaint along to the tech gnomes toiling in the labyrinths beneath the Seed Citadel.

    Also, try other software & other machines!

  7. #7 Bob O'H
    May 3, 2009

    I still wish Jenny had chosen a better surname for her main protagonist. I’m worried it’ll really spoil my reading of the book. I mean, the suggestion that O’Haras aren’t perfect superheroes is clearly fiction.

  8. #8 rpg
    May 4, 2009

    Nice review, Grrl (mine appears here).

    You might be interested in the podcast we made when Jenny’s book was torn apart by savages at the Ri.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!