Sunday, December 7, 2008

Deciphering a personalized history of telomere research

Book review: Catherine Brady, Elizabeth Blackburn and the story of telomeres, MIT press 2007.

In Brady’s biography, Elizabeth Blackburn’s life is depicted with two thematic threads: what does it mean to do science for Blackburn; and what does being a woman add to this particular career. The nature of science and the gender discrimination in scientific fields has been discussed and contested by philosophers, sociologists of science for several decades. Intently or not, Brady seems to enter this discourse by her particular approach of a biographer, with a narrative of Blackburn’s career which overlaps with a developmental period of molecular biology as well as an outcry of gender issues in the scientific arena. As an extra, juxtaposing scientific discussion with concerns about a woman in science also provides an outlet to bypass the difficulty scientific biographers often face with – the difficulty in balancing a scientist’s professional life with his/her unique passion, personality and experience, to avoid telling a “Hamlet without the Denmark prince”.

Biography as an important genre of public rhetoric on science is a tradition which can be traced to the eighteenth century. Since mid-twentieth century, however, with positivists’ definition of science as a detachment from individual practitioners, and sociologists’ analysis in picturing science as economic and political processes, biographical approach has been gradually marginalized in academia. In a trend of reviving the tradition scientific biography as a revealing source about science, Brady’s account provides an example how the features and problems of a scientific field can be revealed by the scientist’s specific life story.

Blackburn has done her graduate study in renowned Sanger’s lab. Remembering how Sanger influenced her in the early career, Blackburn mentioned that she learned how to just “wade in and try” using a “curiosity-driven, pragmatic approach”. She was reluctant to theorize extravagantly about the replication mechanisms of the end of the chromosome after she uncovered the repeating sequences and the varying lengths of Tetrahymena’s telomeres. Instead, based on the results, she “frame(d) new questions in highly specific terms”. After all, unlike physics, biology is essentially not a hypothesis driven field. As what Darwin did before his theorizing work, painstaking observations and collections on species, modern biologists’ task, after a novel discovery, resides in conducting meticulous experiments to confirm, to exclude any influence of artifacts and to test a variety of other organisms to examine certain phenomena’s universality. Brady phrases the judicious choice of what to experiment on, according to the features of the organism and the experimental tools, as an outcome of opportunist’s insight.

(As a side note to my aging research, Blackburn’s cautious attitude of drawing theory had much to do with her refusal to link telomere shortening with cell senescence as causal relationship. In stark contrast, Geron, a biotech company, rushed in venturing the elongation of telomeres as an anti-aging drug development. The contrast of attitudes towards theorizing has constituted a general tension in scientific culture. This tension has been only intensified by the advent of medical research funded by private sectors, in that the immature theorizing can be taken further by biotech companies to venture a technological medical “fix”.)
The theme of gender issues Blackburn encountered through her and her woman colleague’s life stretches in a more dramatic pattern. Regarding a time when woman began to enter scientific professional realm, Brady put Blackburn’s experience as a demonstration how gender problems were manifested and coped with on an individual level. Here the author’s sensitivity and sympathy as a woman biographer came into play. In Brady’s account, as a young girl, Blackburn used to hide her ambitions and determinations under a crust of gentle, well-behaved demeanor – a “protective coloration”. When she entered the scientific profession, a men-constructed field, she evaded the gender issues by working single-mindedly, assuming the gender difference as irrelevant to science – a “protective discoloration”. Although Blackburn understated the discrimination towards women during her early career near to null, she nevertheless mentioned how Gall celebrated Pardue’s tenure promotion because it was rarely given to women. The incoherence of Blackburn’s narrative betrayed the real situation which she strategically or inadvertently neglected. These protective “discoloration”, however, turned out not helpful when she took the post of a department chair in UCSF. Her want of political maneuver and sensitivity towards gender nuances made the power exercise as a department chair a stark frustration. By taking both the strength and limitation of her “discoloration”, the character of an introspective researcher is brought out by Brady vividly.

Brady also touches on the merits of varied model organisms, the organizations of scientific community, such as the peer review tradition and many other disputed topics when Blackburn’s scientific life encountered relevant episodes. Her particular biographical approach, with respect of using her material, is also an opportunistic one. Therefore we may doubt if her stress on Blackburn’s opportunism in science was due to her original embracement of opportunism by herself. This drives us back to the lasting question about biography: to what extent do biographers select certain features to depict because these features reflect themselves?

As implied before, Brady not only attempts to depict this scientific heroine’s life, but also to shed lights on discourses on sociology, philosophy of science with her biographical approach. In a moderate sense, her work used “collage, narrative discontinuity, multigenre narratives, unsuspected time-shifts”, as Söderqvist suggested, in order to illuminate the links between a significant individual’s life events and scientific development in larger scale. An invaluable experimental attempt as it is, however, Elizabeth Blackburn probably will not fully satisfy either public readers or historians of science, due to its ambivalence between a person and a career as the subject matter. The most-likely readers may remain in the scientific community itself, if the latter would pardon Brady’s public oriented treatment of technical terms. Especially, to read and contemplate on the messages about scientific excellence Brady brings out can be more than helpful to a novice of molecular biology and biochemistry.
Reference: Michael Shortland & Richard Yeo (Ed), Telling lives in science, Cambridge, 1996
Dec 6th 2008

1 comment:

eyesopen@bdwm said...