Book Club – The Coming Plague

I think we’ve all heard a lot about Zika in the past few months.  Hardly a single story about the Olympics is written without the mention of this virus. Major discussion surrounds who’s going or not based on Zika. For the Center for Disease Control’s take, read here. In fact, I was planning on going to the Olympics with my girlfriends until I decided to get pregnant earlier this year.  I do not want to contract Zika and the possible debilitating birth defects associated with it.  But, I’ll also be late in my third trimester and unable to travel. Definitely a bummer, but better than microcephaly.

comingplagueWith all this talk of disease, it reminded me of a fascinating book I read nearly 20 years ago: “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance” written by the brilliant Laurie Garrett. This tome tracks over the history, outbreaks and social outcomes of diseases including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Lassa Fever, and influenza. I was a much younger scientist when I read this book. I hadn’t considered the social and economic effects of disease.  In particular, I remember the stories about how HIV/AIDS in Africa. This virus has devastated families who often had both mother and father die from the disease leaving millions of orphans. But not only that, AIDS eliminated much of the workforce in certain parts of Africa, decimating the economy.

My thoughts on “The Coming Plague”

After reading this book, I insisted that my Mom, who was  substituting teaching at the time, read it too. She called one day to let me know that she told all the teachers in the break room that some deadly disease (likely a version of the Spanish Flu) was going to re-emerge and likely kill millions of people.

I think even just 20 years ago, this fear would be extremely well founded.  Today, I have high hopes that modern science has the funding, political support, and skill to quickly diagnose and develop a treatment for a newly emerging disease.  Zika provides a modern example.  In mere months, scientists have been able to confirm that Zika is linked to birth defects (one original article using animal models here) and less than a month ago, the first clinical trial of a Zika vaccine was approved by the FDA (article here).

Is the Zika response good enough, fast enough, or certain to be effective?  Only time will tell.  Does this science mean that we don’t need to concern ourselves with emerging infectious disease?  Not at all!  In fact, it may mean that we should be even more vigilant so that scientists will have the funding to study, understand, and help treat these diseases as quickly as possible.

Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Thanks to Wikipedia for the image

In 2002, one of my first set of experiments in graduate school was treating the prostate cancer cell line (named DU145) with a chemotherapeutic drug and comparing how these cells responded to how HeLa cells responded to this chemotherapy. Little did I realize at the time that 51 years earlier, these cells were removed from a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks without her even knowing. She subsequently died, but her cells have lived on for over 60 years being used by researchers around the world to better understand cancer. It’s estimated that over 60,000 research papers have used HeLa cells (I just searched the literature for “HeLa” and found over 83,000 results). HeLa cells helped to develop the polio vaccine (HeLa cells were easily infected by polio, and therefore ideal to test the vaccine).  In 2013, HeLa cells were the first cell line to have its genome fully sequenced (the genome of HeLa cells is a hot mess with more than 5 copies of some chromosomes – likely caused by the number of times that the cells have divided over the past 60 years).  In fact, HeLa cells are so popular and so widespread that they have been found to be contaminating a large percentage of the OTHER cell lines that researchers are using (for example, the bladder cancer cell line KU7 was found to exclusively be HeLa cells in one research lab).

With all of this activity surrounding HeLa cells, you may think that she is famous and her family has received recognition from her donation.  However, as so artfully described in Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” these cells were taken and grown without her consent and her family had no idea that Henrietta was was “immortal” through her cells growing in las around the world. Skloot describes the moral and ethical issues surrounding how these cells were obtained while weaving a story about Henrietta Lacks and her family’s life and discovery of HeLa cell’s fascinating rise to prominence.  Although the story is interesting to a scientist and a biobanker, the book is definitely written in such a way that the public will completely understand the scientific significance.

Book Club: Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks


One responsibility I feel that I have as a scientist is to help people understand the science that affects them and their health. Part of this is to explain the difference between good science, bad science (which is just poorly done science resulting in incorrect conclusions) and pseudoscience (which is a set of claims, belief or practice that is touted as being based on scientific fact).  Some recent examples of my blog posts about bad science or pseudoscience focus on homeopathy, the inaccurate connection between vaccination and autism, and how the media propagates bad and pseudoscientific claims.

The task I’ve given myself with this blog is challenging because as well as explaining the science (good, bad and fake), I ultimately want my readers to be empowered to go into the world, read news stories, visit websites and see Facebook posts and be armed with the knowledge to figure out if what they are reading is legitimate or not.  This is difficult because even as a scientist, I often have to look at the primary data from publications and conflicting information to figure out what’s going on.

However, in my ongoing effort, I found that this book “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre provides a great primer on bad science, pseudoscience and how the media hypes both. In the book description, they ask ” How can average readers, who aren’t medical doctors or Ph.D.s in biochemistry, tell what they should be paying attention to and what’s, well, just more bullshit?” and this book is a good first start.  With chapters on homeopathy, the placebo effect, the “science” behind nutrition, the absurd story of an MD offering multivitamins to “cure” AIDS, and the media’s role in propagating these “quacks” and “hacks,” you will get an education on how this terrible science is pushed on the the unaware. I think you’ll walk away illuminated, perhaps a little bit disappointed, but much better armed to understand all the science and “science” you encounter every day.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club: The Water Knife

waterknifeI grew up in New England – Rhode Island, specifically. Rhode Island is green, with big, green, leafy trees and lots of green grass.  There’s water everywhere – rivers, brooks, streams, lakes, oceans – and people water their yards and gardens daily.  In 2009 I moved to Arizona and as my dad says, “everything here is really brown.” It’s dusty and dry.  When it rains, I go outside as if it’s a special event.  I don’t pour leftover water from making coffee or tea down the sink – I use it to water my plants. Next door, in California, I watch as the drought forces people to cut their water usage by 30% and a reservoir in Los Angeles is covered with 96 million shade balls to decrease evaporation. Nearly every day on NPR is another story about how water, or the lack of water, is affecting someone in Arizona or nearby. Just in the past weeks are stories about the impact of rivers being contaminated with over 3 million gallons of toxic waste from an abandoned gold mine and farms popping up in Northern Arizona in the midst of a drought by drilling wells into the aquifer. Just over the weekend at brunch, we were discussing proposals to cover the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which diverts 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River to Arizona each year.  Water and drought are a central part of the conversation here is the Southwest.

This is why, when reading the Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, I was struck how this story could be our future reality. The novel is set in a United States where water is scarce and senior water rights are viciously fought over.  Texas no longer exists because it’s water is gone, and their people are treated worse than refugees in neighboring states – assuming they can get in. Vegas has been set up as a utopia with self-enclosed “archologies” that are protected from the dust storms, heat and lack of water by Catherine Case who ensures that Vegas gets its water.  She does this by using her “water knife” whose job is to cut the water supplies from cities and towns who don’t have the water rights.  Folks in these cities that have been cut off either move or die.  It’s a stark book depicting a stark future.  It’s not about biology or health so, in a way, it doesn’t even fit as a book club for my blog, but I can’t stop thinking about it (and since it’s my blog, I can do whatever I want). Water is an issue that needs to be addressed now, otherwise we may find ourselves on the other end of a water knife. Read this book.  Think about it.  And then let’s see if we can find ways to prevent this apocalyptic future from coming true.

As a follow up, I had the opportunity to meet with Paolo Bacigalupi at a lecture entitled “The Imagination Drought: Speculative Fiction as a Tool of Warning and Empowerment.” He described his process for writing these  “cli-fi” thrillers and how he thinking about two different things: black swan events, which are things that happen that aren’t expected but change everything, and a narrative tunnel, which essentially assumes that because something happens yesterday, that’s what’s going to happen today.  Using these two concepts, he sees how people don’t expect the massive changes that may be coming.  But he presents these changes as an opportunity to see a dismal future before it happens so that we may take the chance to change it.


Paolo (center) and me (right) after the lecture,

Book Club: The American Plague, The Untold Story of Yellow Fever

american_plagueYellow fever is an awful disease that over 200,000 people per year contract, causing over 30,000 deaths. This disease causes fever, chills, nausea, muscle pains, and in severe cases (~15%) the symptoms progress leading to liver damage and bleeding in the mouth, nose and eyes. Yellow fever is caused by the yellow fever virus that is transmitted to humans through the bit of a mosquito.  There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, and currently the best protection against yellow fever is the yellow fever vaccine.

Although primarily a disease of Africa today, in the past, yellow fever was a disease of the Americas, with 25 major outbreaks in the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries that caused hundred of thousands of deaths.  At that time, nothing about the cause of the disease, but less a vaccine, was known.  This is where The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby comes in. This riveting book takes us back to trace the history of this disease, highlights a horrible yellow fever outbreak in Memphis Tennessee in the late 1800s and then brings us on a journey of discovery in Cuba to identify how yellow fever is caused.  It’s a story about a disease, but also the people who studied the disease (and contracted the disease themselves in the process of their work).

The history described inn this book laid that groundwork for the development of the yellow fever vaccine that was developed in 1957 by Max Theiler that led to him being awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club – A Short History of Nearly Everything


Thanks to Amazon for the image

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a brilliant book. Bill Bryson is known for his travel writing and humorous writing style, but it this book he focuses his talents on explaining science. He starts at the beginning looking at the advent of our universe to understanding atoms and quarks to delving into our planet to the beginnings of life itself.  In particular, he has a chapter called “Cells” that provides one of the best descriptions of cell biology written for the public that I have ever read.  A few chapters later in “The Stuff of Life” he describes DNA and genetics in an equally accessible way.  This is one of the few popular science books that I would unreservedly suggest to anyone from ages 15 to 115.

The book won numerous, well-deserved awards including the 2004  Aventis Prize for best general science book and the 2005 EU Descartes Prize for science communication.  Please feel free to continue the conversation once you read the book by commenting below or by Asking me a Question.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club – Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukerjee is a brilliant book that combines masterful storytelling with the story of the history and biological underpinnings of cancer.  I was planning on suggesting this book when I started talking about cancer on this blog, but Ken Burns has partnered with Barak Goodman and PBS to transform this book into a three night miniseries “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” starting tonight (see the trailer and visit the website).

In lieu (or in advance) of reading the book and our discussion here on the blog about cancer, I encourage you to watch this film.  I read the book quite a while ago, but some of the stories still stick with me.  Stories about massive, disfiguring surgeries to remove breasts, lymph nodes, and chest muscles to treat breast cancer before trials were done to prove that smaller surgeries had the same effectiveness.  Stories about the discovery of the first chemotherapy – from work in a dye factory.  Stories about scientists and physicians who pushed the bounds of knowledge to find better ways to treat patients.

Use this as a backdrop as you think about genes, hereditary, and biology as we move (soon – very soon!) into our discussions about cancer, it’s causes and cures.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club – The Genome

genomeOur second book club book is The Genome The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters written by the fabulous popular science author Matt Ridley.  So why do you think there are 23 chapters to this book? Do you remember how many pairs of chromosomes humans have?  Have 23 chromosomes, and Ridley devotes one chapter to each chromosome. The chapters weave stories about genes that are found on each of the chromosomes and how they affect our life (e.g., blood groups) or disease (e.g., Huntington’s disease). He also takes the time to provide information about the history of human evolution, genetics and biology, bringing the biology and its implications all together. What’s interesting about this book is that it was published 2 years before the first draft of the human genome sequence was complete in 2001.  It would be interesting to see how different this book would be if written today, 16 years later with the added knowledge and technology.

Besides really enjoying Ridley’s books, he was a visiting scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where I attended graduate school.  He presented to graduate class (which only had 6 people in it) in my first year Scientific Exposition and Ethics class two years after this book was written.  He also received an honorary doctorate from my graduate school the year before I received my PhD.  Although we met only briefly, his insight and ability to describe science is impressive and all of his books are worth a read.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club: The Double Helix

doublehelixIn case you missed why I’m creating a book club, check out my previous post.

The first book in the book club is The Double Helix written by the Nobel Prize winner James Watson.  He won the Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 by discovering the structure of DNA (learn more about DNA in my earlier post What is DNA?).  This is a provocative book written by a provocative scientist about how he came to discover this structure (a great review of the book can be found here).  Much of it deals with the relationship with Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who created the images that provided Watson with the information that allowed him to determine the structure, and his other colleagues. This book also gives you insight into the mind of a scientist (though please don’t use this book to judge all scientists because his personality really is a unique one). If you’re interested in the original scientific publication, you can find it here – it’s incredibly short, considering its significance.

After my mom read this book, she put it down and asked me “I understand that they solved the structure and all, but why was it so important?” This was so important because this structure indicated that the bases (described here) paired together: A with T and G with C.  This meant that the sequence of either strand could be used as templates to copy the DNA. Copying DNA needs to be done every time a cell divides – and considering that humans (who have 37 trillion cells) come from one original cell (the fertilized egg), that’s a LOT of dividing that needs to be done.

An interesting aside – I’ve met and talking with Jim Watson many times since he was the Chancellor at the graduate school I attended.  He was an interesting character.  His legacy is very much defined by this discovery, but also of his vision for the laboratory that he ran on Long Island, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  My Mom has met him several times as well, and I suppose both of us can legitimately say that we have learned a few things from a Noble Prize winner.

For more Book Club books, click here.

Book Club: An Introduction

I spend hours each day (or at least it seems like hours) reading science for work.  This reading ranges from reading peer-reviewed journal articles to better understand a scientific topic, researching something by Google-searching the heck out of it, or reading grants, manuscripts or reports that I’m about to submit.

In my spare time, I also read.  When I was a kid, my mom would tell me to go outside in the summer, and I would take a blanket, lay it under and tree, and read outside.  It was also nearly impossible to punish me by sending me to my room, because I would happily sit there and read.  I read everything from sci-fi to fantasy to literature to poetry to books on leadership and management.  I also LOVE popular science books!  And as I read these books, I often suggest them to my Mom, who then also reads them.  We then discuss and usually, her insightful questions help both of us understand the science better.

In that spirit, this blog will also have a book club.  Once every couple weeks, I’ll introduce a book and some of my thoughts on it.  If it’s something that interests you, please read and post questions, thoughts, and ideas in the comments.  First book will be posted tomorrow!