While Cynthia Graber isn’t new to reporting on regenerative medicine, her interview with Tufts University biologist Michael Levin led to some unexpected stories. In research that recalls the toils of Dr. Frankenstein, Levin uses electricity to initiate regeneration of body parts in living organisms. In light of recent advances in DNA research, the field of bioelectricity has been largely abandoned. However, this hasn’t stopped Levin from incorporating his childhood passion for science into a lifelong pursuit of human regeneration. “Electric Shock,” Graber’s profile of Levin, appeared in Matter on December 18, 2012. Here, Graber tells Melanie Bauer the story behind her story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
First off, what lead you to interview Michael Levin? And why did you decide to write a profile on Levin rather than a traditional feature?
I wrote a story three years ago for The Boston Globe Magazine about regenerative medicine in Boston. While doing that research I met a source, who is very well known in the field, who pointed me to Michael Levin at Tufts. As soon as I met with him I thought, “Wow, this is worth more than the two paragraphs that were going to end up in my story.”
I followed his work over the years and decided I needed to cover this, so I talked to different editors but they were skeptical. Levin had been covered here and there in short pieces, but I thought that a lot of the strings of his research weren’t getting pulled together along with the significance of it.
What was your goal with telling Levin’s story?
What made Levin’s story interesting as a narrative are two things: First, the thread of the science goes back to the 1700s, to the science that inspired the story of Frankenstein, which looms so large in our cultural history; and also that this line of research had mostly dropped off the map after the 1950s. But there was some really key research done in this field in the ’70s and ‘80s.
This type of research in bioelectricity is only now starting to gain more attention, and I found it very interesting. I like stories that are a little contrarian, and this story is a bit contrarian and says that there is a whole other line of research that had been forgotten that seems to be incredibly important. In this field of bioelectricity I’ve spoken to nearly, but not quite, everyone in the field to make sure Levin’s research is as key as I thought it was. They all say that he has taken it to an entirely new level; he’s doing really exciting things that nobody else would have thought to do or has been able to do until now. So it just reaffirmed to me that this was an important story, and the story of who he is is tied to that.
Why did you choose Matter as the outlet for this story?
In late 2011, early 2012, I started talking to some editors and I realized I had to just write the story. I had been talking to editors at Wired and a couple other places, but when I wrote the story, I convinced Levin to work with me on it even though I didn’t have a definite publisher. I spent much of the spring working on it, in addition to doing what I was doing to earn a living, and in the end I had 9,000 words. I wrote a story and it was very long. Then I was talking to a friend of mine who said there was a new long-form online science magazine called Matter, and she told me they were also taking freelance. So it just seemed like the obvious place to go. It was long and complicated but still narrative, and about basic research, and told a story, so this seemed like the right place, and I got in touch with them.
The way Matter works is that all their stories are at least 5,000 words. I will be their second story, but their first story was longer than 5,000 words as well. The benefit of e-publishing is that you’re not necessarily limited by words, but by the story.
What was your process for interviewing? The article is set up chronologically, from childhood to adulthood. Is this how the story unraveled as told by Levin, or did you piece it together post-hoc?
I actually started with questions about his childhood. I wanted to loosen him up a little bit, so the first thing I asked him was, “Tell me how you first got interested in this topic [bioelectricity].” He started telling me a story that I could tell was what he told everyone. There’s actually only one piece I’ve read about him that was a profile—that had been written in the Tufts magazine—and this was the same story he had told the Tufts magazine reporter. Obviously, I didn’t want the same story he’d told them. I knew there had to be more than that. So after questioning and questioning, I got some of those personal details about his childhood. It made me think, “Wow, this is even more interesting than I thought.”
How long did you spend interviewing him to create such a full story of his life?
I sat down with him three different times for hours of interviews. I visited the lab a number of times and I would chat with the lab members. I interviewed post-docs. I interviewed his co-researcher. I hung out in the lab and just watched people. I actually knew I hadn’t done all the reporting I needed, but I had gotten to the point where I felt that I had to stop reporting because without a definite buyer I needed to stop and just work on what I had. Once Matter said yes, I had to go back and do additional reporting—met with his father, talked to him again about personal details—to get things I knew I needed in the story but hadn’t pushed too hard on the first time around.
Scientists love to talk about their science, but I can imagine when it comes to their personal lives they could be more reluctant to share. While Levin seemed to provide a quite open story of his life, did this take some encouragement?
I just kept on asking questions. He’s a scientist, and he was reticent to talk about his personal story and his personal life. He was so focused on his science that it took a while for him to come around to the fact that this [his life story] was a key part of it. I’ve been told by many writers that you know you’ve gotten to the right depth of questioning when the subject says to you, “Why are you asking this?!” So I would hear something that sounded interesting and I would just keep asking questions, they way you do when you want to recreate the scene that happened 30 years ago.
How did the editing process go, choosing what to include and what to omit?
Really intensive. For something this long I struggled a lot with the shape of it. I worked hard on what I thought would be a format that would work for the story. I wrote some things and had non-editors, but very smart readers, read it to make sure it made sense and captured their attention.
But once I was paired up with my editor, Seth Mnookin, he had much more experience than I do in this format, very long-form narrative science writing, and he helped out a lot. I’m a huge fan of this editor’s reporting and writing. As I said, I had played with the shape of the story, but he said we had to be a lot more chronological with something of this length, so we rearranged it. He pushed me to go even deeper than I had in some of my editing, asking me to ask more questions and get more details on particular things. He’s a great editor and I think it’s a dramatically better story for his work on it.
Did you know about Levin’s lifelong interest in bioelectricity before interviewing him?
No, I had no idea. I had a feeling he was an interesting character when I was pitching the story originally, and I knew that he was quirky, but I didn’t quite know the depths of it. It wasn’t until I started sitting down with him for these hours and hours of interviews—which he fortunately granted me, trusting that I would be able to tell the story and sell the story—that he would say things and I would reply, “Wait, what? I want all the details about that!” When he first told me the story about programming Pac-Man when he was 11 years old, I said, “Wait a minute! How old were you? What were you doing? Where were you? What was the computer? What did it look like?” I was so stunned by this. A lot of the stories of his life I had no idea [about] until I started reporting it, which is kind of a strange fact about reporting. I had a sense that this was a really good story but didn’t know how strong the narrative was until I actually reported it.
What background research on bioelectricity and regeneration did you do before interviewing Levin? Did you read The Body Electric, Levin’s scientific Bible? (Just kidding.)
(Actually, not kidding.) Yes actually, the day he mentioned it after my first interview with him, I went to the library and I ordered it. It’s kind of a weird book. It’s very scientific at the beginning and a little nuttier towards the end. I think this was his reaction to the book too, and he looked into the parts of the book that detailed the parts of the bioelectricity studies he was most interested in. It’s not a particularly fascinating book to read, but it was for me from a historical perspective.
There was also another book, called Blueprints for Immortality and written by a researcher on bioelectricity and regeneration in the 1940s, that he’d mentioned was influential, and which I also read. I continue to research this topic because I am not done with this field. What also helped me prepare was the research I had done on regeneration for the piece I mentioned earlier, for The Boston Globe Magazine. Otherwise, anything he talked about I went back and read.
How did you handle balancing the amount and level of description of the science with the life story and “portrait of the man?”
I just tried to make an interesting story, and I think one of the things that draws people into an interesting story is understanding the people behind it. I love reporting on science but at my core, like most of us, I’m a storyteller. It’s one thing to tell the story of the science, which I tried to tell as dramatically as I could, but a huge part of that is the story of who he is, so that to me was a very crucial part of it. Also, because he was doing work that nobody else was specifically doing, in the way that he’s doing it, it was important. But it was a juggling act, and it was hard, and creating the balance was also something I worked on with my editor: figuring out where the science was going on too long, where I needed to pull back a bit, and the same for stories about his life. Both the history of bioelectricity and the story of Levin’s life were very important to me as part of the narrative.
What a great moment when you found out Levin ordered lab equipment and supplies under the guise of the “Saint Augustine School of Science.” Did the anecdote come up naturally in the story-telling process?
Yes, he was telling me about the first time he got interested in computers. When I probed him about the first time he got interested in biology, he started me telling these stories like, “I had a biology lab. I was just a kid. I used my Bar Mitzvah money for it. I had to come up with this really strange name.” I just kept on asking him questions about it. I love that this Russian Jewish kid would call to order lab supplies and equipment, and when asked for a purchase order he would just make up a number and they would send it to him! I thought that was hysterical.
A glimpse behind the scenes: