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Dissecting science scandals & lab culture

Posted by Delia Cabe  August 17, 2010 11:00 AM

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The plot usually goes like this: A laboratory publishes its research findings in a journal—possibly even a breakthrough in its field. Someone notices some irregularities in the data. Maybe the person works in the lab and becomes a whistle-blower. Perhaps the person is another scientist who tries to replicate the findings and finds the task impossible. An internal investigation ensues. Was it sloppy record keeping? Big ego? Thirst for fame and fortune? Fears of funding drying up? Competitiveness in overdrive? The journal that published the original study retracts it. A scientist goes on leave, his or her career damaged. The lab is left in disarray, reputations ruined.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading Allegra Goodman’s novel, Intuition, which tells a similar story. In this case, the lab is a faux institute with Harvard ties. The novelist includes all the familiar landmarks in and around Harvard Square. By coincidence, a real scandal about scientific misconduct made the news last week. The Boston Globe reported that Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser was placed on a one-year leave following an internal inquiry.

Goodman Intuition.gifI followed the Hauser story in the Boston Globe and New York Times, digesting every detail. But I couldn’t help wonder what was missing, specifically, all the juicy behind-the-scenes tidbits. That’s how Goodman’s novel gripped me. The author provides such a great insider’s look at life in a lab: the relationships between the lab’s co-directors and among its postdocs, their passion for research and their career aspirations. She didn't just depend on her imagination for her novel. Goodman did much research. According to her website, Goodman, a Harvard grad who lives in Cambridge, says, "I spent time in laboratories and in animal research facilities so that I could write with authority about the sights and sounds and smells there."

As a health and medical writer, I am drawn to such stories—nonfiction and fiction (except science fiction). While the research is fascinating, the people behind it intrigue me. They have extraordinary minds and drive. Novels and nonfiction books provide a window into this world of how science is done—the slow progress, the struggles and the problem solving. A well written one will portray scientists as human, prone to the same pitfalls as any mortals. They make mistakes, big and small, whether out of oversight or hubris. (Recently, Adam Marcus, managing editor of Anesthesiology News, and Ivan Oransky, M. D., executive editor of Reuters Health, started the blog Retraction Watch. There, they track research papers that have been pulled from journals after publication.) These books make the reader feel like an observer at the lab's door, taking in all the action.

Until the definitive inside scoop of what happened in Hauser’s lab is revealed, if it ever is, you can dip into a few books, including Goodman’s. Another example of "lab lit" is Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn, which I’ll put on my “to read” list. For nonfiction, you might check these out:

0395924723_th.jpgNatural Obsessions by Natalie Angier

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Angier spent months observing two teams of cancer researchers. One group is at MIT’s Whitehead Institute, the other at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

cover_small.jpgScience Fictions: a Massive Cover-up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo by John Crewdson

Crewdson, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, examines the controversy over which lab discovered the virus that causes AIDS in 1983: Gallo of the National Cancer Institute or a group of scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Gallo claimed to have discovered the virus. The Pasteur researchers sued Gallo in 1985. After much investigation, the National Academy of Sciences determined in 1992 Gallo was in the wrong. In 2008, the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to the French scientists.

Read these two side by side:

9780743216302_th.gif Rosalind Franklin.jpg

The Double Helix by James Watson
This classic tells about the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Francis Crick.

Rosalind Franklin and DNA by Anne Sayre
This biography describes the role of Watson and Crick’s co-researcher.


For more books about laboratory culture, visit Lab Lit.
Bloodbook.jpgIf you’re interested in the history of science and medicine, be sure to read posts on the blog Wonders and Marvels, edited by Holly Tucker, author of Blood Work: A Tale of Murder and Medicine in the Scientific Revolution, due out next spring.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at!/DeliaCabe, More »

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