Veteran science reporter Constance Holden has died.
Peltonen-Palotie’s research combined basic molecular biology with medicine to provide a better understanding of different diseases, and in a distinguished career she won numerous international accolades and headed research groups at the University of Oulu, the University of Helsinki, the National Public Health Institute of Finland, the University of California in Los Angeles, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Mass. and the Sanger Institute in Cambridge.
Leena Peltonen-Palotie’s passing at such a relatively early age is a huge blow to Finnish science, and in a lengthy obituary on the Academy of Finland’s website, the Academy’s President Markku Mattila noted that: “she has been a role model, both to scientists around the world and to individuals who hope to embark on careers in research. She has left a void in the Finnish scientific community that will be impossible to fill.”
The power of genes, environment, television, humanity and love.
“…Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is. `Us’ meaning laymen. It’s like a million Copernican Revolutions all happening at the same time…”
Every revolutionary idea evokes three stages of reactions: At first people say, ‘It’s completely impossible.’ Then they say, ‘Maybe it’s possible to do it, but it would cost too much.’ Finally they say, ‘I always thought it was a good idea.’
Arthur C. Clarke, 1972
I heard this on NPR morning and it inspired me. In this space from time to time I hope there will be something called Hybrid Vigor, that is, unlikely but somehow complementary collaborations that speak to the power of heterogeneity. First up is what caught my attention on the radio today, two giants who’ve left us within the past 15 months: the late great Luciano Pavarotti and the one and only Godfather, James Brown. Behold.
I regret having to start this blog on such a downer note, but very recently two people I knew died. Both played what I would call small but memorable roles in my life: Marcy Speer and Liam Rector. Both left us much, much too soon. I post this not to elicit your sympathy or to imply that I was somehow close to either of them, but rather just to honor their too-brief lives in some small way.
When I was a callow student getting a master’s degree in genetic counseling in 1989, I came to Duke to do a research fellowship in the Department of Neurology. The name of the game back then was genetic linkage: find a genetic marker in the same chromosomal neighborhood as your disease-causing gene of interest and then work your way toward the gene itself. This was not something for amateurs like me; I knew bupkes about statistics and quantitative genetics (I still don’t, but never mind). Marcy, herself a grad student in statistical genetics, took the time to orient me, answer my litany of dumb questions abut linkage analysis with saintly patience, and generally make me feel welcome. Fifteen years later I found myself sitting in her office at Duke (a place she never left), interviewing her about her work on susceptibility genes and environmental causes for neural tube defects. By then she had amassed a pile of publications and earned a reputation as a whip-smart, tireless human geneticist with collaborators from all over. In a field fraught with dirty politics and backbiting, I never met anyone who had a bad word to say about her–not even close! What I remember about that day in 2004 was asking her a question about complex inheritance of NTDs and listening as she paused, shook her head and said, “I don’t know. What do you think is going on?” Never mind that I had no clue. Her response was simply an honest expression of her own curiosity, grace and humility, a willingness to entertain an idea from anywhere and anyone without ever letting her ego infringe–in other words, typical Marcy.
She died earlier this month after a long struggle with breast cancer. She was 47.
Liam Rector was a poet and director/founder of the Bennington Writing Seminars. I’m no poet, but my sense was that Liam never failed to the walk: he was a TS Eliot worshiper and always gave the incoming class a pep talk about Keats’s theory of Negative Capability (an idea that I subscribe to more and more as I get older and find to be especially relevant to personal genomics). During my first semester, after I had bullied one of the teachers into letting me introduce Loudon Wainwright III before his performance at Bennington, Liam gave me a mini-seminar on the poet Philip Larkin and how Larkin was the Loudon Wainwright of his day. And in my last residency, just after I gave a talk on an obscure Russian short story writer, Liam and I sat together and revisited the idea of the misanthropic artist. Years later we would share some controlled substances at a Bennington party in Somerville, MA, where, as usual, he greeted his alums with warmth and affection, despite his own ill health. I can’t say I knew him well, but from my vantage point, with him in charge, Bennington would always be well looked after–no matter how sick he became, he was always engaged with and fiercely protective of the program and us, his students. Some of my Bennington peers might cringe at the low-brow analogy, but I would say that he was, quite simply, our Dumbledore–he always had our backs. The long shadow he cast over the Writing Seminars will not recede any time soon.
Liam took his own life on August 15, 2007. He was 58.