Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Jane Gitschier (ed.):
Speaking of Genetics: A Collection of Interviews.

Paperback: 259 pages
Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor; 1 edition (September 15, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1936113031
ISBN-13: 978-1936113033
Price: 19.00 EUR

Behind the Scenes

Jane Gitschier reminds us that science is often built upon those moments of observation, concentration and ‘why not?’ moments of fun. Photo: UCSF/Jane Gitschier

There is a story behind every scientific discovery. Jane Gitschier turned on her recorder to capture the stories of 22 people who have shaped the field of genetics.

The theory of evolution, Mendeleian laws and the DNA double helix structure are fascinating aspects of science. But what are they without the stories of Charles Darwin’s expedition aboard the Beagle, Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments in the garden of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, and the excitement and controversies along the road to the discovery of the structure of DNA?

People do the science, and their stories add the oohs and aahs to the results. Sometimes they even help us to get a better grasp of their ideas. Jane Gitschier, a UCSF Professor of Medicine and Pedia­trics, looked into these stories by conducting 22 interviews with people engaged in genetics. Through their anecdotes, written down in Speaking of Genetics, we get to know the human side of important events which took place over the last decades.

The eureka moments behind

The topics tackled are diverse, going from basic science such as the study of evolution of animals and the Mitochondrial Eve to more technical ones such as the discovery that led to the use of DNA fingerprinting for the identification of individuals. Although all these concepts might be familiar to most life scientists, the book offers the opportunity to immerse themselves into the events and eureka moments behind the big results.

In this collection, Gitschier also includes people who are not scientists but have, nevertheless, played a role in the recent history of genetics. One of those is federal judge John E. Jones III who was in charge of a trial where ‘intelligent design’ was questioned as a science in the US and whose decision has influenced the perception of the concept around the country. This lawyer’s testimony, together with those of a science journalist, an executive director of two societies of genetics and a historian of science, confirms the painful relevance that creationism has outside the scientific community.

This variety of people also shows us what it means to be a scientist. The career path is not as linear as we sometimes assume. We tend to associate it with a series of well-delimited stages, each serving as a stepping stone for the next. But many great discoveries have been encouraged by passion and curiosity outside of academic duties. Some of the interviewees illustrate this nicely.

Science: a not-so-linear adventure

Who might have imagined, for example, that Svante Pääbo, well known for his contributions to the study of ancient DNA, did a PhD in an unrelated topic and, “as a hobby on late evenings and weekends, secretly from (his) thesis advisor”, he extracted, cloned, and sequenced the DNA of an Egyptian mummy? Or take Spencer Wells who, after a PhD spent studying fruit flies, decided to follow his passion for human history and now travels the world as the director of the Genographic Project, which aims to track the migration history of humans. Some great projects narrated in the book started as hobbies, others by serendipity and only a few of them as the result of stated research goals. This confirms that the adventure of research is never the same for everyone.

As an inexperienced interviewer, Jane Gitschier demonstrates that she has a talent for the job. She makes good use of both her knowledge as a human geneticist and her interest in people’s stories, conferring on the book an optimal combination of science and personal life. Her enthusiasm is contagious. The interviews were originally published in PLoS Genetics between 2005 and 2010 and are therefore targeted at people familiar with genetics. The dialogues get a bit technical sometimes and the details of the discoveries are more enjoyable for readers with a background in genetics.

Finally, the cover sums up the whole idea of the book: a page from the notebook of John Sulston, also interviewed, showing drawings of cells crossed out, pointed at with arrows or labelled, accounting for the time during which the biologist was mapping the cell lineage of Caenorhabditis elegans (for which he won a Nobel Prize). This reminds us that science is also built upon those simple but fruitful private moments of observation, concentration and ‘why not?’ moments of fun.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013