COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. (Oct. 14, 2008) – It's a scene anyone who knows the intense, intimate world of biomedical research will recognize. Andy—diffident, driven, and close to a cancer discovery—glimpses a woman late at night in the window of a neighboring lab. Despite himself, he's interested. Gina turns out to be clever, outgoing, attractive, and—amazingly—when they meet, she seems to like him. But her biotech company is struggling financially and she's responding, not unwillingly, to a charming pharmaceutical mogul interested in her vaccine work—and in her. Then she abruptly disappears and Andy has to decide: is he ready for life-changing discoveries outside the laboratory?
Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, knows the answer because she's lived with Andy and Gina for years. But not as colleagues: they are the central characters in her first novel, Experimental Heart, playing out their drama among a colorful supporting cast from the world of research science that Dr. Rohn has been immersed in for over a decade. Experimental Heart will be released next month by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (http://www.cshlpress.com/link/exheartp.htm).
Dr. Rohn is unusual. American-born, now a British resident, she earned a Ph.D. at the University of Washington, Seattle, and then did postdoctoral research in London and the Netherlands, before leaving bench science to become an editor and journalist, writing features for professional publications such as Nature and The Scientist. While majoring in biology at Oberlin College, Ohio, she noted the rampant stereotyping of scientists in the media and the public mind as geeks or mad professors, and decided to do something about it. The result was LabLit.com, an online magazine she founded and has edited for four years. LabLit.com is a showcase for all kinds of writing including fiction, focused not on technical details but on the culture of science as a creative endeavor.
"LabLit.com provides a fly-on-the-wall view into the hidden world of scientists," Dr. Rohn says, "and promotes the use of more science and scientists in fiction, which is a subversive way to overcome negative stereotypes about the profession. There's a lot of science fiction out there," she adds, "but I couldn't find more than a hundred general fiction novels ever written that feature realistic scientists as central characters plying their trade—which is ludicrous if you think of how central science is to our lives." She coined "lab lit" for this small but growing genre, a term now in widespread use.
In addition to fiction, LabLit.com publishes essays, humor, poetry, interviews, reviews, and artwork, with contributors from a diverse cross section of literature, science, and the arts. It also has lively forums where people can exchange ideas about science and writing. The site has heavy traffic from readers around the world and has been featured in publications such as Science, Nature, and the Guardian. Even the National Book Award–winning novelist Richard Powers is a fan, calling LabLit "a wonderful venture, and a topic of the most resonant importance."
In 2007, Dr. Rohn returned to full-time research science at UCL but has maintained her engagement in "lab lit." Several mainstream publications now run frequent features on this theme. Dr. Rohn is the chair of a well-attended book club at The Royal Institution in London, blogs regularly at Mind The Gap on the Nature Network, and has appeared on TV, radio, podcasts, live panels, documentaries, and in print as a science/literature/art/culture pundit.
Experimental Heart is Dr. Rohn's first novel. In 2007 it was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, the world's largest literary competition for unpublished novels. Shortly beforehand, Dr. Rohn had been contacted by Dr. John Inglis, Executive Director and Publisher of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York, who shared her concern about science's public image. "I live and work among scientists at Cold Spring Harbor," he says. "To succeed here, people need imagination and drive. They're passionate and diverse, with complex lives and characters." The popular notion that scientists are remote and cold-blooded, he says, isn't just wrong, it's risky, because mischaracterizing them makes it easy to dismiss what they say about things that are vital to our future.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is a publisher of books, journals, and electronic media for working scientists but actively engages the public in science by producing carefully selected books for children and nontechnical readers about genetics and cell biology. Publishing a novel is a new direction, made possible, says Dr. Inglis, by new technologies for producing books and publicizing them. Experimental Heart will be printed digitally on demand in both the US and UK. It will be promoted through the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press website and online bookstores such as Amazon, but also through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. "Jenny Rohn and her LabLit mission have become well-known though web publishing, blogging, and podcasting" says Dr. Inglis, "and it makes perfect sense to use web-based ways of drawing attention to her novel."
So will there be more lab lit in the future for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press? "We're known for quality educational publishing," says Dr. Inglis. "If we find there is an audience for realistic stories about science and scientists by talented authors like Jenny, fiction could well become another interesting way we engage the public in current science."
About the book: Experimental Heart: A Novel (© 2009, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, ISBN 978-087969-876-8) was written by Jennifer Rohn (University College London). It is available in paperback and is 370 pp. in length. For additional information, please see http://www.cshlpress.com/link/exheartp.htm.
About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is an internationally renowned publisher of books, journals, and electronic media, located on Long Island, New York. Since 1933, it has furthered the advance and spread of scientific knowledge in all areas of genetics and molecular biology, including cancer biology, plant science, bioinformatics, and neurobiology. It is a division of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an innovator in life science research and the education of scientists, students, and the public. For more information, visit www.cshlpress.com.