For the past five years, University of California, San Francisco genetics researcher Jane Gitschier has been having conversations with people about genetics. The interviews, originally published one by one as a series in PLoS Genetics, are the author's attempt to "capture the essence of doing science" and to show the joy and excitement of the individual researchers in their work and discoveries. Her new book, Speaking of Genetics, is a collection of some of these interviews with such scientific luminaries as Evan Eichler, Svante Pääbo, John Sulston, James Thomson — and even a couple of non-scientists like Judge John Jones, who ruled on a case involving teaching creationism to Pennsylvania schoolchildren.
Gitschier's interviewing style is easygoing and personable, resulting in a series of warm conversations, rather than formal interviews. Perhaps because of her background in genetics and her knowledge of the field, Gitschier's questions are sharp; she does not waffle about when it comes to the science. In certain instances, she goes a bit too far on a tangent, asking the researchers about their roots and their families. But even those questions flow smoothly into the more pointed ones, and make it clear that for her, this is not just about the science — it's about the people who do the science.
Gitschier also is not shy about knowing her limits. She does not pretend to know everything about all the science that is being done by these researchers, leaving her readers floundering in the dark from some unknown term, syndrome, or gene. She asks for clarification for herself, but also for her audience, making the reading experience more enjoyable. To that end, she also prefaces each interview with a little introduction about the science itself, leaving the conversation to be centered more on the researcher's experience with that science. In her interview with Mary Lyon, for instance, the conversation is less about Lyon's groundbreaking discoveries, but more about her memories of what it was like to do the work, how it felt to make her breakthroughs, and the experience of being a woman pursuing a PhD in 1948.
All too often, stories about scientific achievements lack a human touch, as if the researchers were secondary to their discoveries. Gitschier brings the researchers back into focus in this series of interviews. That is not to say that she relegates the research to the background, but she does remind readers that real people conduct that research.
Gitschier says she is thinking about publishing a second volume of interviews. Considering that she has been having these conversations for five years, it is likely she still has a lot of good material that would serve to continue this series. And if her interviewing style remains as consistent as it seems in this first volume of Speaking of Genetics, then readers will look forward to continuing the conversation with her.