Conversations in Genetics

As formal and methodological as it sometimes appears, science remains at its heart a process of storytelling.

By | December 6, 2004

"We can invent only with memory"

- Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes, 1843

<p>OUR STORIED PAST:</p>

Graphic: Jennifer Stortz

1) L. Shapiro, W. Gilbert, F. Jacob, 1985; 2) J. Crow, R.A. Fisher, M. Kimura, 1961; 3) F. Jacob, c. 1942; 4) L. Hartwell, 1960; 5) D. Lindsley, L. Sandler, W.K. Baker, 1961; 6) B. McClintock, I. Herskowitz, 1980; 7) E. Lewis, 1960b; 8) G. Beadle, A. Sturtevant, E. Lewis, 1952; 9) A. Motulsky, J. Goldstein, 1985; 10) M. Delbruck, G. Stent, E. Wollman, J. Monod, R. Hershey, 1952; 11) S. Benzer, 1963; 12) F. Mitelman, J. Rowley, 1982; 13) E. Witkin, 1988.

As formal and methodological as it sometimes appears, science remains at its heart a process of storytelling. But published papers and texts bornfrom key discoveries don't tell the whole story. They are highly oversimplified, giving an abbreviated, often artificial account of why experiments were done and how ideas originated. Beneath them rest the personal tales, in essence the lore of our intellectual heritage, which shape our collective identity.

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Courtesy of Rochelle Easton Esposito

Rochelle Easton Esposito is a professor of genetics at the University of Chicago, past president of the Genetics Society of America, Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research interests are in the genetic mechanisms controlling meiotic development.

Inspired by the power of what might be the oldest pedagogical technique – the passage of information by storytelling – we have initiated a highly ambitious project called Conversations in Genetics, recently launched with seed support from The Genetics Society of America (GSA) and the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG). As well as being a permanent record of the driving forces behind genetic discovery, we hope this project will cross-pollinate disciplines in a palatable, readily accessible way, helping to avoid repetitive work while encouraging more novel experiments by past example.

In Conversations in Genetics we are developing a unique collection of videotaped interviews with prominent scientists from around the world who have made major contributions to the conceptual foundation of modern genetics:individuals like Leland Hartwell, François Jacob, Seymour Benzer, and Janet Rowley. The presentations reflect investigators' thoughts and feelings as they recall the paths that led to their groundbreaking work. These informal interviews, conducted by renowned expert colleagues, provide intimate, probing, and enlightening exchanges about how critical ideas and major concepts emerged. The research milieu and contributions of pivotal individuals are described with humor, appreciation, and thoughtful reflection. They highlight the roles of serendipity, synchronicity, individual creativity and intuition, technological breakthroughs, and welcoming environments that encouraged the crystallization of new ideas.

THE INSPIRATION

The idea for this project developed more than a decade ago during a visit to the University of Washington, where Herschel Roman, my PhD mentor, had founded an influential genetics department and major center for the growing field of yeast genetics some 30 years prior. During this particular visit, I was able to spend time with students who bombarded me with questions about the department's early days. In turn, while dining and visiting with former professors in the evenings, I found myself asking about their experiences and the scientific climate during theirearly days. This dialog was part of a learning allegory that human beings have engaged in for millennia, the passing of information from generation to generation by storytelling. It brought to the fore that at any given moment we are at once student and teacher, elder and novice, with a strong desire to know our roots as we forge our future.

It was soon apparent that many of the stories I'd heard, and related, were not written down anywhere and would ultimately be lost. The recollections were at once personal and of wide interest, describing a historic period in the field from the discovery of DNA as the genetic material to the beginnings of cloning and gene manipulation. Clearly this anecdotal information needed to be preserved. As a houseguest of David Stadler (one of my graduate professors), I was often exposed to his wife Anne's impressive work in television documentary production. It was thus a natural leap to think about the potential of doing video interviews to record this information.

The need to preserve the stories of our intellectual heritage in genetics becomes even more compelling upon further reflection. The last fifty years witnessed a remarkable revolution in genetics and molecular biology. Fundamental insights into gene structure, function, and regulation set new paradigms for scientific investigation in nearly all areas of biology. Consequently, a level of biological manipulation unimaginable only a few generations ago is now possible. The unfolding of this new "Century of Biology," spurred largely by rapid advances in genetics, is bringing with it exciting applications in human health, agriculture, and economic development, as well as new legal and ethical challenges.

Crucial decisions to be made on the implementation of these applications demand better efforts to educate the public, young researchers, and key policy makers worldwide about the origins and effects of these discoveries. Yet many researchers and educators are themselves not fully aware of how key ideas and concepts originated and evolved. This partially derives from the fact that scientific literature presents the complex paths that give rise to new findings in a cursory and circumspect way, often relying on hindsight's perspective. While certain detailed memoirs, biographies and historical texts may fill in gaps, they are relatively few. They typically remain in print for a limited period and can become lost in the ever-rising tsunami of new information.

IMPLICATIONS AND APPLICATIONS

The primary goals of Conversations in Genetics are: 1) to enrich the education of scholars and teachers of genetics about how key ideas arose, 2) to promote full integration and use of our intellectual heritage to advance current work, and 3) to preserve a more diversely accurate account of the history of modern genetics including important anecdotal information otherwise lost to future generations. The project takes advantage of a rare window of opportunity to learn about historic advances in genetics directly from the scientific pioneers still present to share their stories. It uses a precious resource, the collective memory of scientists, and weds it to contemporary communication technologies to capture the often circuitous routes that lead to major discoveries. Had these technologies then existed, how wonderful it would be to now have video recordings of Darwin, Mendel, Morgan, and others talking in their own animated fashion about the origins of their ideas.

The interviews create a rich library of primary-source material for scholarly analysis by historians, educators, and practitioners in the field. This resource offers a more accurate, informed, and balanced view of the conceptual development and technical advances in the evolution of modern genetics, as well as a concise overview of individual contributions. The conversational format with an informed colleague is designed to provide a unique vehicle for eliciting critical information, allowing for the emergence of human factors involved in creative thinking. It permits a direct view into the excitement and tension of the unfolding creative process1 that is generally excluded from formal scientific publications.

As a learning tool, oral histories have specific advantages.2 Because information is presented in a dynamic and inspiring way directly from the discoverers themselves, it is often easier to absorb and remember than written text. These recordings thus address the need for more realistic and memorable instruction on the metamorphosis of scientific ideas and how science is performed. Finally, in the rapidly growing field of genetics it provides a unique glimpse into the relatively unexplored terrain of how creative minds interacting in a focused way can propel a field forward.

Many of the interviews give compelling arguments for being more mindful about our heritage. Nobel laureate Paul Berg observes that currently a shocking lack in knowledge of genetics' history among graduate students leaves them less prepared to recognize and take advantage of opportunities for creative input. This observation also applies to scholars who are becoming increasingly specialized and unfamiliar with the origins of ideas in other areas of the field. The video collection offers a new educational tool to help bridge these gaps. In another interview, Piotr Slonimski points out that increasing awareness of genetics' history can revive important problems that were not soluble in the past but may now be attacked with new methodologies.

The ultimate legacy of Conversations in Genetics, we believe, will be its impact on broadening academic and public appreciation of genetics. The project should enhance awareness of how to recognize and nurture human potential by leaders in academia, government, and private industry, and create more prepared minds within this field to meet future challenges. It is our vision that this series will become a precious archival asset for anyone interested in the evolution of scientific ideas, and in particular for those who want to understand in depth the influences and pathways leading to the astonishing breakthroughs currently occurring in this field.

Information about the project (with further details on aims, history, and personnel) can be found at http://www.genestory.org and http://www.cshlpress.com.

Acknowledgements

The generous support of the GSA and ASHG is gratefully acknowledged. Special thanks to Elaine Strass and Iris Sandler for helpful discussions and efforts on the project, to Mara Esposito for her insights on storytelling as a learning paradigm, to her and David Crotty for comments on this article, Jennifer Stortz for her design work, Anne Stadler for advice and encouragement, and Aaron Stadler for his fine work on video production.

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