Ed Yong profiles a scientific dynasty

Ed Yong

Science is practiced by people, and people never work in isolation. Scientists train their students, who grow up to be scientists in their own right and train students to follow in their own footsteps. Along the way, scientific dynasties emerge, working together to establish new ways of thinking and applying their ideas to new problems. This sociological fact of science gets lost in most journalism, which typically focuses on single pieces of new research.

Ed Yong decided to rectify this wrong with a piece called “Dynasty,” which appeared in the January 17, 2013 issue of Nature. In his article, Yong profiles Robert Paine, an ecologist who in the 1960s changed the way we think about the natural world — and who also trained some of the most influential ecologists of later generations.

Here, Yong talks to TON guest contributor Carl Zimmer about the challenge of the task:

Zimmer: How exactly did you get the idea? Doing an article about a dynasty is unusual as science writing goes. Was this your idea from the start, or did it suddenly morph from something else?

Yong: It was definitely the idea first of doing a dynasty story and looking at the ways scientists influence each other over generations. The idea came from reading a piece by John McPhee. It was a piece of autobiography and talked about some of the stories that he’d written, and one of them was a set of profiles that were all linked by this central character. I read this and thought maybe I could do something similar for science, because science has these chains of academic influence. I thought it might be quite interesting to study that aspect of science, which is so important to the endeavor, but which, as you say, no one ever talks about very much.

I pitched it to Helen Pearson at Nature without really any idea about which dynasty I would look at or who this person would be. It would just be about a chain of scientists. I would definitely recommend not pitching a story for which you have no story idea.

But this one seemed to work. Helen had had the same idea herself, and so we had converged on the same concept. Then it became a matter of finding someone to write about. She came up with the idea of writing about Paul Nurse, because he was very influential. He basically kick-started the use of Saccharomyces pombe [fission yeast] as a model organism. And I thought maybe doing the people who worked on telomeres. They’re quite a rich dynasty and have a couple Nobel Prizes. But both of those families have been written about a lot.

I wanted someone who had a big influence in science, who had an important dynasty, who had interesting stories, but was still alive so I could still interview them, but who hadn’t been written about loads and loads of times before. So that was relatively difficult.

I went to Science Online in 2012 and I was chatting with a few people about this, and Nancy Baron, who runs COMPASS, said, “Hey you could write something about Bob Paine.” I had never heard of him.

Nancy told me about his work and said, “This is the guy who came up with keystone species” — that is, species that are disproportionately influential in its environment. So I pitched that idea to Helen and she liked it. And that was when we finally had a story and not a nebulous concept.

So did you immediately call up Paine and say you wanted to write a profile of him, or did you skirt around and talk to other people before you approached him?

I decided to call Bob first to make sure that he would be amenable to the idea and that he would be a good interview. I didn’t know him, and if he turned out to be really dull and uncommunicative it wouldn’t work.

So I had a chat with him in March 2012 and it worked out really well. He’s a natural storyteller and he has very strong but interesting views, and he’s clearly done a lot for ecology. We had a quick chat to get a few details down and talk about what he thought his influence might be.

I knew that he was going to a conference for the Ecological Society of America in August, so I arranged to meet him there. I also knew a lot of his students were going to be there at the same time, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to have a chat. In the intervening months I started reading his research and his students’ research, but also talking to as many people as possible — his students, close colleagues, old friends. Just to get a sense of what his influence was.

You say Paine had these great stories. Was there one particular story that he launched into when you were on the phone?

The starfish story was the obvious one because that’s the one that led to the idea of keystone species in the first place. This is the one with him on the coast of Washington, he’s a newly minted professor, and he’s trying to find the ecosystem that he really wants to work on. He finds rocky shorelines, and he falls in love with them. He starts looking around and playing around, and he sees these starfish and wonders what would happen if he removed them.

So he starts prising up these starfish and just throwing them into the sea. He complete denudes this piece of coastline. What happens is that the beach slowly gets invade by barnacles and then by mussels. And the entire community changes. Rather than this dense network of life with starfish predating on these other creatures, you have a mussel monopoly.

It’s such a lovely image of this guy throwing these starfish into the sea and coming up with this idea that’s now central to ecology. I think I knew right from then it was going to be the lead. That’s the start of Paine’s story and his dynasty.

I wanted to get his friends and associates to talk about him, but it could end up sounding a bit thin. They would say he was very supportive, but that’s telling me, not showing me. Getting people to come up with stories in greater detail about what he was like was quite hard. The most common reaction was, “Ah, it’s very hard to remember because it was a long while back.” It would slowly snowball into a coherent picture of what he was actually like.

Did you have a moment when you thought, “Oh my God, I’m not going to have any good stories here?” Did you start to question this whole idea?

Yeah, there were times when I worried it wasn’t quite working. Before I went to the conference, it felt like it might end up being a bit puffy. It was just going to be a straight bio of what he did. What changed at the conference was getting a lot of face time with him and a lot of face time with his students as well.

Jane Lubchenco was particularly interesting and helpful. At the time she was the head of NOAA and a big government official who was well trained in ecology. And from her, I got my first taste of proper conflict in the family. Her work on policy was quite rebellious. It was quite different from what Paine’s interests were in terms of basic science.

This conflict really gave a center to the piece. It added a narrative drive, because it showed his ideas progressing — staying true to his ideals but also challenging his viewpoints and taking them in new directions.

Can you guess how many people you talked to in total?

Between 15 and 20, something like that.

So you come home from this meeting. Are you ready to write?

Yeah, the story structured itself pretty easily. It’s a chronological tale, and I knew I wanted three generations. I had an easy chain there, and I knew I wanted to do them in order. That just seemed to make sense. I just started writing, and it flowed reasonably well.

But because I was writing about three generations of work, it was an absolute bitch to find all these old, old papers and go through them. I had this sinking feeling all the time that I’d read all these papers for two hours so I could write one paragraph for this story — which I’m about to cut.

Did you look at any articles or books as models or guides as you were working the piece?

I remember loading up my iPad with a lot of really good profiles I had read recently and mainlining them on the flight over to Portland.  I definitely remember panic-reading really good profiles and holding the iPad up to my head, hoping that some of that would osmose across.

I had no idea if someone had written something like this before. A few people had written short pieces about small parts of the story. But I hadn’t read anything specifically about dynasties. Only really close to the end of writing did I find out that Robert Kanigel had written an entire book that was basically about a dynasty. He’d look at these guys at MIT who had founded the field of drug metabolism.

I spoke to Robert, and that was really useful. The MIT dynasty that he looked at was very different than the Paine one. The MIT experience was quite similar to my experience in academia, which was quite competitive. The mentors would make their students do their own projects, and they would tell the students what to do. Which provided a really nice contrast with what Paine did, which was to send them off to different parts of this rocky island and look at nature and come up with their own ideas. He was supportive and didn’t make students compete with each other, and he even kept his name off of papers where he didn’t think he contributed significantly to the work. Talking to Kanigel to get this picture of this very different dynasty was a nice way to end the piece — by saying that Paine shows the opposite approach can work.

The idea of a dynasty can seem kind of abstract to people who aren’t scientists. But you had this island where Paine worked for decades, this physical place, to anchor your story to. Did you think about that? Did you consciously deploy it?

I knew I wanted the island to be a character early on. (I sound like I’m writing Lost.)  If it was just going to be 2,000 words about a dynasty, it would be people saying, “Oh, yeah, I learned a lot and he was really supportive,” and it would be really boring.

The island provided a vivid setting, and it grounded what these students got from Paine. They would go out to study barnacles or fish or whatever and come back to the campfire to trade data. They would get challenged by their boss and they would go to sleep in these old abandoned garages to the sound of sea gulls screaming.

When I first talked to Paine, I had in mind that I would probably need to go to the island and see what it was like. And he basically said, “No.” It’s treacherous to get to and very expensive. So no trip to the island. But I didn’t think the story needed it. I didn’t need to describe exactly how rocky it was.

Now that you’ve finished the piece, do you think this is going to influence how you write in the future? Are you going to write more dynasty pieces, or pieces that are different in one way or another from standard science writing?

I think it was a massively useful writing experience. I learned a lot about doing fairly basic tricks of the trade. I don’t know about doing more dynasty pieces. I still love it as a concept. One thing this piece proves to me is that it’s a difficult thing to pull off. It’s totally contingent on finding the right people. I don’t know how it would have gone with a different group of people.

On the Nature web site, there’s a comment on the piece that says, “This would be a lovely book.” There’s probably some truth in that, but I think in this piece I’ve told the story I want to tell. I think if you went all out with it, it might be a book, but equally it might end up being a bit list-y. Here’s a guy, and here’s another guy, and here’s another guy, and here’s what they all did. I think it works nicely as a tighter chain, so you’re exploring one path of branches and twigs rather than the whole tree.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

 

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Guest contributor Carl Zimmer has written about science for the New York Times since 2004. He also writes frequently for magazines such as Wired and National Geographic, which hosts his blog, The Loom. He has also written 12 books, including Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life. Follow Carl on Twitter @carlzimmer.


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4 Responses to “Ed Yong profiles a scientific dynasty”

  1. [...] It was a gruelling battle, much like the time Neal Stephenson fought William Gibson. But as we crawled out of the wreckage, bloodied and battered, a transcript emerged. You can find it here. [...]

  2. TON programming note: As a young writer learning the ropes, I’d like to mention that I appreciate the “behind the scenes” materials included here. Just seeing how people go about things helps relieve some of the “am I doing this like a proper writer?” angst. Interviews often reveal general process, but it’s sometimes nice to see how the Ts are crossed, too. It’s simple, but I always get something out of it when I run into things like this. So if that was Carl’s idea- good idea, Carl!

  3. Joan Stephenson says:

    After skimming the Q/A, I went back and read it more thoroughly and found I missed Ed’s reference to Kanigel’s book. It’s refreshing to read that Paine has a different mentoring style that elicits great work without excessively fanning the flames of competition.

  4. Joan Stephenson says:

    This is a great topic and I salute Ed Yong for delving into exploring a “keystone” scientist and his influence. The topic may well sustain a book-length treatment. For people who would like to explore this topic further, I strongly recommend Robert Kanigel’s book, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, published in 1986, which is a compelling read and also provides a view of early days at the NIH. I’m glad to see it’s still in print. A couple of snapshot reviews (on Amazon.com): “Making extensive use of interviews and anecdote, Kanigel depicts how, in a mentor-to-protege chain starting with James Shannon and moving to Bernard Brodie and then to Julius Axelrod, the legacy of creativity and empirical style has passed to Snyder and then to Pert.” (Science) and “As compelling as a Jackie Collins novel, though with bigger words.” (Chicago Tribune)

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