A Novel Look at Postdocs

Allegra Goodman (Courtesy Random House, © Keller & Keller)

With the South Korean stem cell scandal still fresh in scientists' minds, what could be more relevant than an examination of the pressures and practices that might tempt or permit researchers to overstate, misinterpret, or otherwise enhance their results? The most intriguing recent examination of this question comes not from some report by a blue-ribbon commission or white paper by a board of academic big shots. Rather, it emerged from the imagination of novelist Allegra Goodman, whose recent book, Intuition, may scant the details of inks used in lab notebooks and the appropriateness of statistical measures but probes instead the far more complex and mysterious domain of the human mind and heart.

The story, Goodman told Next Wave in an interview, is not a whodunit but a "mystery of character" that untangles a case of purported scientific fraud. It also differs from most mystery books in that the main characters are not dashing gumshoes, inquisitive eccentrics, or cynical cops. Instead, the book's most important people are scientists; indeed, all the important characters--the detective, the romantic leads, even the suspected villain--are postdocs working in a single small lab.

So when's the last time you took a break from analyzing your data to speculate on which Hollywood hunk should portray the handsome male postdoc, or which famous actress projects the right combination of brains and sex appeal for the postdoc working at the next bench? Although theoretical at present, these questions may become fodder for fan magazines if interest already expressed in Intuition's movie rights turns into a green light for production.

Dazzling Data

Until cancer virology goes Hollywood, Cliff Banneker, Robin Decker, and the lab techs, postdocs, and PIs of the Mendelssohn-Glass lab live only in Goodman's precise and vivid prose. The lab is part of the Philpott Institute, an independent institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's the mid-1980s, the David Baltimore-Thereza Imanishi-Kari scandal has not happened yet, and the great majority of postdocs can still look confidently forward to landing faculty jobs at research universities.

As the story opens, the lab's two PIs, clinical researcher Sandy Glass and bench scientist Marion Mendelssohn, are on the verge of giving Cliff the heave-ho because he has been noodling around with an idea of his own rather than pitching in on the lab's main projects. But suddenly Cliff's sideline begins to produce stunning results. The mice he has injected with cancer cells and then with the virus R-7 start having dramatic remissions. As rapidly as the animals' tumors shrink, Cliff's stature expands, until, before long, he has co-authored a major paper with Sandy and Marion, NIH has given the lab a big new grant, and People magazine has arrived to photograph the researchers on the way to curing cancer. But Robin, Cliff's erstwhile girlfriend and his senior in the lab, is instructed to replicate his results, which leads her to doubt his sensational numbers. Sandy and Marion suspect her motives rather than his, and the rest of the lab falls silent. What happens when Robin pursues her suspicions all the way to NIH and the hearing rooms of Congress is the source of the story's tightening suspense.

It also powers Goodman's examination of both the postdocs' lives and the institutions and ideas that shape them. One day, she writes, "it occurred to [Cliff] that he's spent his whole adult life in a prison workshop. Years and years of manual labor went by. New results filter through only on the rarest occasions, and always to other people. Miracles didn't happen, but Cliff and his friends kept on working. Like scientific sharecroppers, they slaved all day. They were too highly trained to stop. Overeducated for other work, they kept repeating their experiments. They kept trying to live on their seventeen-thousand-dollar salaries. There was not much poetry in that, or if there was, Cliff certainly had not been privileged to see it."

There is poetry being created in the lab, however, by Sandy, "a poet of the NIH form," whose "statements of purpose and declarations of intent [were] polished to such a sheen the reviewers would see themselves reflected there." An oncologist with a busy practice alongside his lab work, Sandy lives in the tastefully restrained splendor of one of Boston's tonier inner suburbs. Marion, a less flamboyant Ph.D. scientist, makes her more modest but still very comfortable home with her husband, a professor at one of the city's not-quite-tiptop, but still quite respectable, universities. Goodman's observation of the species Homo academicus in its native habitat around Cambridge is one of the pleasures of this book, although her grasp of nuance is less sure when her characters venture into the alien wilds of Bethesda and D.C.

Still, her picture of the postdoc life rings true, at least to this reader. It's a world where the wise and experienced know, Goodman writes, "that talent hardly mattered if you couldn't get results. Lots of people were talented. Talent and intelligence, not to mention tireless hard work, got lab scientists through the door, but—this was the dirty secret—you needed luck. You might be prepared and bright and diligent, and fail and fail and fail. The gene you sought to isolate, the phenomenon you thought significant, could still elude you; the trend and significant pattern of disease could devolve into a hell of ambiguities."

Postdocs as People

Intuition affords such revelations because, as Goodman told Next Wave, "my subject is people." What interests her about labs is not the whiz-bang that provides an excellent living to writers such as Michael Crichton, but the values and experiences that shape lives in different situations. She knows a lot about scientists because, although herself a Ph.D. in English literature, she is the daughter, sister, and wife of university researchers in various fields.

"I was interested in the sort of working families that develop in the lab," she said. "These families consist of more than one generation of people; there are the mentors or the PIs and the junior scientists." And like real families, they need to work on trust and loyalty. The lab family also has a real family's "intense personal relationships" that in this case "come from working closely with other people with different backgrounds, from different countries, from different cultures, and different ages. All of this is a very rich subject for fiction, rife with possibilities for conflict and dysfunction."

Another thing that drew Goodman to writing about labs is "the old-fashioned nature of some of these relationships. It's a bit like a medieval guild in which the junior scientists are not kids any more. They're adults in their late 20s, 30s, some of them pushing 40, yet they're journeymen in their field because the training is so long. ... They're really trying to earn membership in their guild by creating a masterpiece so that they can set up their own shop," she said.

"Nowadays," she continued, "people have much more freedom in their personal lives and professional choices than they did when they were sold to an apprenticeship in the old days, and yet, at the same time, they're buying into this almost feudal system in which once you dedicate a certain number of years, you are bound by the amount of time you've spent. There's the sense that sacrificing youth and time and energy and pouring more and more and more time into something that you're hoping will eventually turn around and produce results. ... This drew me to it, the dedication that these people have, the heartaches that can come with that."

Intuition doesn't describe any real lab. The Philpott is both independent and imaginary, because, although she wanted the story set in her hometown of Cambridge, Goodman strove to create "a fictional space" rather than getting distracted by having to recreate the details of life at Harvard or MIT. Unlike scientists and journalists, she says, a novelist works "away from the facts." She did, nonetheless, consult and observe working scientists and manages to make the research at the center of the story plausible yet unintimidating to her regular audience of nonscientist readers.

Although these days many universities and funding agencies seem to take postdocs wholly for granted, not even bothering to count these indispensable workers accurately, Goodman has achieved serious knowledge. With postdocs playing a central and grossly unappreciated role in the nation's scientific enterprise, it's encouraging to watch a writer of her ability and stature take a serious look at their largely unexamined lives.

Intuition, by Allegra Goodman, is reviewed in this week's issue of Science.

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