The scientific laboratory where incredible discoveries are made a nanometer at a time. It’s a place teeming with technology, chemicals, living and dead organisms, and an abundance of acquired knowledge. It’s also an enclosed space populated by human beings with emotions, desires, dreams, insecurities, and ambition. Andrea Rothman’s novel, The DNA of You and Me (Harper Collins), captures the some of the interpersonal dynamics that can make the empirical analysis more of an art and less a science.
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: What inspired you to write this book?
ANDREA ROTHMAN: The initial inspiration for this book stemmed from the desire to share my experience of science research with a reader who knew nothing about it. Talking with people about the challenges most scientists face as they climb the academic ladder, I realized they had a sugar-coated view of the system, so my goal was to turn that world inside-out for them, for everyone.
Of course, this is fiction, and there are many other aspects to the story in my novel aside from the science. There are plenty of science-based novels that have been published but not one of them, to my knowledge, entails a love story that mirrors the cut-throat world of science research, so that is an aspect of the book, along with Emily’s inner struggle and her quest to find some semblance of truth about herself, that eventually took precedence over everything else and propelled my journey as a writer working on this novel.
SI: Can you discuss the science in The DNA of You and Me? You obviously have a background in neurobiology and olfaction. How did you go about creating the science in the book?
AR: The science of smell is real, but not Emily’s scientific project or her discovery of a new family of guidance molecules specific to the sense of smell, for which she is nominated to receive the Lasker Award at the beginning of the novel. The feasibility of her project and of her discovery are based on gaps in knowledge in the field of olfaction from the early 2000’s, which is when Emily joins the lab in New York as a young scientist fresh from graduate school.
I read a lot of papers in olfaction, neuroscience, and bioinformatics from that specific time period and took notes, and based on these notes came up with a feasible project and a putative discovery. Since this is fiction, many aspects of the science are also metaphorical to the story, including the titles of each of the five parts in which the novel is divided: The Wrong Genes, A Bridge, Recombination, Chimera, and The Issue of Memory.
SI: The DNA of You and Me is a love story on multiple levels. It’s a love story between Emily and Aeden and it’s a love story between Emily and science. Can you compare the two?
AR: I love this question, because the two are intertwined. Emily’s love of science is ancient. It goes back to her days as a child with her father Roger Apell (who is also a scientist) in his lab in Rockford, Illinois, and in the forest behind their home observing birds—their mutual love of science and nature. There is something almost primal there, in Emily’s upbringing. And its essence, the irrational side of that essence, seeps decades later into her unexplained attraction for Aeden and their string of furtive sexual encounters behind locked doors in the lab once they begin working together.
Eventually passion turns into love when Aeden realizes he has feelings for Emily and also much later in the novel when Emily finally allows herself to envision a life with Aeden outside of the lab, in a small rural home similar to the one of her childhood, but I will stop here because I don’t want to spoil the novel for those who have not yet read it.
SI: Your book also highlights the importance of human relationships/interaction in a laboratory setting. How important is it?
AR: I think the novel highlights the importance of human relationships in science research by showcasing the opposite of what they should be and need to be to foster a friendly working environment and portraying what can happen when these basic human values are not set in place and when competition and abuse of power take precedence over basic human needs and the happiness of those involved.
The situations described in my novel are not uncommon, unfortunately, and I speak not solely based on my experience of twenty years doing research in highly competitive labs in three different continents but also based on the experience of other scientists I have known and met throughout the years. A dearth of basic human values in the culture of science is perhaps one of the reasons why so many scientists (both men and women) leave academia early on in their careers.
SI: Among the other very important and timely issues you bring up is the role of money in academic research. From your experience, is there a problem there?
AR: Funding has always been an issue in science research. It’s costly to do science and it’s also risky. Leading Institutes like the NIH tend to stay on the safe side, fund those projects they feel are more reasonable and likely to succeed and generate results that will advance human knowledge, and to an extent I don’t blame them, but this leaves very little room for failure and creativity, which to my mind is an essential part of doing science. Thinking outside of the box. Most scientists pursuing research today in most labs are limited by financial circumstances to the scope of their project. And these are the lucky ones who actually have funding.
SI: Another important issue your book deals with on numerous occasions is women in STEM and in a lab setting. Emily makes sacrifices that men would not have to in order to remain in Justin McKinnon’s lab. Can you discuss this?
AR: I think that in my novel there is to a great extent gender equality in the lab. Both men and women (including Emily) are faced with the same challenges, which are abuse of power and limited funding as well as the competition that is endemic to science research.
Early in the novel, Emily needs to accept all of these things, and much later in the novel she also needs to accept and learn to live with a boss who has betrayed her personal trust. This liaison with Justin is what sets her apart from the other characters in the novel, along with her inability to explore other options outside of his lab for fear of the unknown and also because she loves her project and fears relinquishing it. This is where Aeden comes in and tries to alter the course of her life, and what he does is one of the biggest challenges Emily confronts in the novel.
In the real world, I think the main issue for women in STEM is having children. At a certain point in their careers women in STEM who want to have a family are faced with the challenge of a demanding career and taking care of young children, and it is at this point that nearly half of women scientists (according to a recent article in Nature) leave their full-time jobs in science or leave science altogether. This is known as the leaky pipeline, and unfortunately it is all too real. In Emily’s case not having children is not a sacrifice as it would be for most women, and this aspect of her personality is tied to her upbringing and it is what makes her such a compelling and unique character. I think that most readers, picking up my novel for the first time, don’t know this. They think that Emily is meant to represent all women in STEM and this is just not the case.
That said, there are parts of the novel that depict the difficulties facing women who aspire to have a career in science, such as when Aeden takes Emily on a visit to his parents and Emily is confronted with a domestic household in which women are expected to cook and clean and to take care of the children. Clearly this is not meant for her, not the life she ultimately wants to have, and it’s a source of tension between her and Aeden and his family.
SI: How did you first get interested in science? Writing?
AR: I’ve always had an interest in both, science and fiction writing. Though they may seem very different they’re actually similar in fundamental ways. They both require patience and hard work and mainly the ability to find joy in the small stuff, in discovering things along the way that may feel like nothing at the time but that are essential pieces of a larger puzzle whose image is beyond us to see or understand.
In science as well as in writing the joy of the work is in the journey, and the outcome is never quite what one imagined at the start of that journey. I for instance discovered many things about my characters and about myself as a person as I was writing this novel, and I think this holds true for most people writing literary fiction.
SI: Finally, what is next on your plate?
AR: Short stories and a novel. I’ve written many short stories after finishing The DNA of You and Me, and I’m also working on a new novel that surprisingly has nothing to do with science.
Memory is an old preoccupation of mine (what we consciously remember and what we consciously or unconsciously choose to forget) and I want to explore this in the context of people leading ordinary lives.
I’m also very drawn to science fiction, or rather, to surreal and extraordinary things happening in everyday life, but for now I think I’ll limit this interest to my short stories and stick with realism in my novel.
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IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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