Sloppy Technicians and the Progress of Science

Entry 6 March 11, 2010 (from One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

Then, in 1953, a geneticist in Texas accidentally mixed the wrong liquid with HeLa and a few other cells, and it turned out to be a fortunate mistake. The chromosomes inside the cells swelled and spread out, and for the first time, scientists could see each of them clearly. —Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Okay, Ms. Skloot, no fair teasing a geneticist reader like that. Who was the scientist in Texas? What was the wrong liquid? How long did it take for the scientist to realize he had launched the entire field of cytogenetics with his mistake? This inquiring mind wants to know. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home Tuesday night and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. And so, I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 2 February 8, 2010

First Point Henrietta wasn’t the only person whose tissue was taken without her consent. Continue reading

The ‘Podium Grabbers’: Winners Who Have Medaled With Biology

As many of us commence our holiday festivities toasting the year’s end while earnestly drawing up personal lists of events that have shaped our lives, I would like to take a brief look at three achievements in the biological sciences—two historical and one more recent—that have struck me as nothing short of momentous in their significance. The first is the publication of a book that today continues to be an outstanding and extremely readable overview of the state of research in the genetics of animal embryology. The second is a landmark study that has brought into sharp focus the molecular mechanisms through which specific epigenetic factors modulate animal behavior. The third is the functional characterization of recBCD, a DNA-unwinding protein complex that plays a crucial role in bacterial recombination.  I consider the scientists involved in each of these achievements to be pioneers— ‘podium grabbers’ if you will who have performed medal-winning science in their respective fields of expertise. Continue reading