For years, journalist Lauren Gravitz had planned to write an in-depth feature on Rockefeller University physician-scientist Ralph Steinman, highlighting the dendritic cells that had been his life’s work and his efforts to use those cells to treat his own cancer. Formerly a science writer at Rockefeller, Gravitz had spoken often with Steinman and knew his work well. She checked in with him regularly after she left the university, each time asking whether he might be ready to share his story, but every time he demurred. Last month, when it was announced that Steinman had died just three days before being awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, Gravitz was heartbroken. She also knew that the story she had nurtured in her mind was no longer hers alone. Soon, though, she saw that most news outlets had overlooked the part of the story she cared about most—the collision of Steinman’s pioneering work with his disease. “A Fight for Life that United a Field” appeared in Nature on October 11, 2011.
Here, Gravitz tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did this story come about?
This was a story that had actually been knocking around in my mind for a while. I worked at Rockefeller for a couple of years, and I was there at the time when Ralph was diagnosed with cancer, in 2007. I had covered his lab for a couple of years and was really familiar with his work, and familiar with the fact that he had been putting a lot of attention into trying to use dendritic cells for therapies for HIV and cancer.
It was one of those stories that was so poignant, in the sense that it’s painful anytime a researcher studies a disease and then ends up being diagnosed with the disease that he studies. So when I heard that he was working with other immunologists to develop a therapy for the disease, I told him that I’d like to write about it and to highlight the work that he had done on dendritic cells.
I left Rockefeller in 2008, and told him again that I would be interested in it. He said, “Yes, yes, maybe sometime.” That was his response every time I would check in with him over the next couple of years. You could tell that he was putting a lot of pressure on himself to get as much done as he could in the time he had left, and a pesky reporter hanging around was not part of that plan. Anyway, he didn’t become available, and I also was not particularly pushy about asking regularly.
And then what?
On October 3, as soon as I woke up, I went to the Nobel website to see who they’d announced as the winner. I do this every October on the day that the physiology or medicine prizes are announced. When I was at Rockefeller, every year people were anticipating that Ralph might receive it—he was one of the people believed to be on the shortlist. So every year since my time there I’ve been pretty faithful about checking. And not even a week prior to the announcement this year, I had emailed Dr. Steinman, checking in, and hadn’t heard back. So when I saw his name, I was just elated and wrote to the folks at Rockefeller to say so. Within about 10 minutes, I received a reply from one of my former bosses, saying, “Yes, but the news is very bittersweet—we just got word that he passed away three days ago.”
I went from feeling totally elated to feeling pretty devastated within a couple of minutes, as I’m sure anyone who knew him did. At that point I stopped thinking about the story I’d wanted to write. I felt like this story that had been mine—the sense of possession every reporter feels when they have a bead on something—that story was suddenly out there for everyone who wanted it to grab and run with it. I had been envisioning it as a feature, something that allowed a pretty deep exploration of the person and the people around him, his science, and the narrative of the developing disease.
Then all of the sudden, the story changed. Now it was being driven by the awarding of the prize and Ralph’s dying just a few days before receiving it. So I wasn’t sure that a feature of that sort would work anymore because people had leapt on it, to some degree—although they seemed to leap on the much more poignant piece of the award, as opposed to everything that preceded it. Some outlets did give it a little bit more space. But the more I read, the more I realized that nobody had paid much attention to the research element, which was something I cared about a lot—the fact that he used the cells he’d discovered to treat himself. So I kind of bemoaned the fact that my story disappeared.
What made you pursue it after all?
I was describing the situation to a few science writer friends, and telling them how sad I was that this feature I’d been imagining, this story with such a touching narrative, was now as good as dead. One of these friends was Alex Witze, who used to be an editor at Nature, and she urged me to pitch it to them anyway. And I did, I guess with the hope that I could bring a fresh perspective to it and add something to the story that wasn’t already being talked about ad nauseam.
So I wrote up a pitch letter and sent it at 9 p.m. Pacific time that night. I woke up to a reply from the news editor at Nature saying that they were interested, with a pretty specific set of elements that they’d like me to include [editors’ note: see supplemental material below]. One of the questions that the Nature editor was particularly concerned with was that Ralph appeared to have been involved in multiple clinical trials, and you really can’t be involved in more than one at a time, according to the FDA. So he wanted to know the specifics of how that worked—how each of the different therapies fit together and whether it was all above-board, which it very much was, as it turns out. They were all compassionate-use protocols and single-person clinical trials.
What were your first steps in developing the story?
My first step was to just haul ass. I called the PIO at Rockefeller to make sure that people would in fact be willing to speak to yet another reporter, and would be available on short notice, because we were looking at a very short turnaround—it was about two and a half days—for a pretty in-depth science story. I got the OK from him; he said that everybody involved was actually very open to talking to reporters. So I spoke with three or four people who were at Rockefeller when I was there, three of whom are still there. Each of them had suggestions for people to talk to, and I spent the next two days pretty much on the phone, finding out as much as I could about the different therapies that he had tried. I spoke with 12 people over the course of about two days. I think what was most challenging, more than anything else, was simply the idea of talking to that many people and trying to coordinate it in a way that made sure that I got all the information that I needed. But it ended up being remarkably easy. They were all incredibly open to talking, and they were all very, very willing to talk soon. As strange as it sounds, it may have been one of the smoothest interview-scheduling experiences I’ve ever had, because everyone was so interested in talking to me about him—he really had that effect on people.
That’s a lot of interviews in a very short period of time. How much time did you spend on each?
It varied. I would say the shortest was maybe 10 minutes. There were a couple that were that length, including one that was really, really difficult because it was someone who had worked with Ralph very, very closely and who at this point and had at this point been talking to reporters and family and trustees of the university and colleagues and collaborators for 24 hours. By the time I spoke with him, he was so wrecked and emotionally exhausted that it sounded like he was on the verge of tears the whole time. It was one of those interviews that made me feel like just a terrible person for talking to someone during his time of grief. And he was so exhausted that most of what he was telling me wasn’t particularly useful—he either didn’t quite understand what I was asking or didn’t give an on-point answer. By the time he spoke with me, he just was done. It was a very uncomfortable interview, and I think that one lasted maybe 8 minutes, at which point I said, “Thank you very much.” But some of my other interviews went on for about 45 minutes.
Steinman underwent a very complicated course of treatment over several years. How did you piece together the chronology?
It did get pretty complicated, but luckily there were a few people who were involved pretty much from the get-go and who were able to give me the chronology pretty early on in my reporting. So I was able to start with a timeline that I understood and then go back to that timeline with every subsequent person I spoke with. That helped a lot.
You appear in the first person in this story. How did you navigate that?
That was probably the most challenging thing for me. It was something that my editor explicitly asked for in the assignment letter, as he felt it was important to state fairly high up that I had worked at Rockefeller and had known Ralph to some degree. Writing about myself is something I usually shy away from—I usually run in the opposite direction. I don’t like to insert myself in a story, and yet in this one, it was absolutely necessary. I had to do it—you can’t write about someone whose work you used to write about, as an employee of his institution, without mentioning that in fact you used to work at that institution. So it made perfect sense that my editor asked that of me. But it was difficult to put myself into a story in which the grief was really someone else’s. The emotion really belonged to the people I was speaking with, not to me. So to throw myself and my perspective into a story that was so not about me was really difficult.
How did you figure out how to bring yourself in?
It was hard to figure out how to do that, but it fell into place a bit when it became a narrative. In relating it in chronological order, I began to fit naturally into it. I think—I hope—at least what I was able to bring to it was the perspective of someone who thinks, Wait, he’s doing what? He’s using his own cells? By inserting myself into the story in that role, it acted as a device to ask some of the questions that other people were likely thinking: Is this all above-board? Is he just injecting himself in a back room somewhere?
What was the most challenging aspect of reporting and writing this story?
Really it boils down to the fact that I knew him. I didn’t know him really well, by any means, but I covered his lab for about two and a half years, and every time a paper came out of the Steinman lab, I wrote about it, and we spoke at length about different aspects of his research. Trying to keep a journalistic distance was really difficult for me—and I’m actually really not convinced that I did that. I think that the fact that I appear in first person in the story is important, because I don’t think I could claim that I was journalistically distant enough to have an outside perspective. Also, of course, it was an emotional subject. It was the culmination of his life’s work that he never got to see. And that journalistic distance that we all strive for and talk about … at some point those walls broke down for me. Occasionally when I was interviewing, I found myself welling up at other people’s pain, but it was still emotion that bled through.
Why does that bother you?
I think that emotions can make for very good writing; and I think they can get in the way of very good journalism. They can cloud judgment and lead to stories that aren’t as penetrating. Emotion can make for great, lyrical writing, but it can get in the way of critical thinking.
Were there any important lessons that you learned, in writing this story?
This is a very personal lesson, but I’ve been doing a lot of stories that I sometimes refer to as “churn”—they were interesting and I liked them, but I wasn’t particularly invested in them. They were a lot of news stories, or even some features that were very information-dense. Stories like that are great, in that I learn an awful lot while I’m doing them, but because I didn’t care deeply about the subject the writing itself can be very hard. With this story, what I found was that the writing was remarkably easy, because I was so invested in what I was writing about.
The other thing I’d want to relate is how difficult it is to write something like this without starting to feel an inappropriate closeness to the subject. And I think that was harder still because everyone I spoke to, to a person, had nothing but wonderful things to say about him. He was someone who was not only an amazing scientist, but a good, good person who put his family and his friends on the same level as his science—which you don’t always see in a Nobel award-winner.
A glimpse behind the scenes: