Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 23 April 2012

"Are Scientists Human?"

Tania hosting the writers' workshop

Blog by Tania Hershman, Genomics Forum Bright Ideas Fellow

I had a fascinating two weeks at the beginning of April as a Bright Ideas fellow at the Genomics Forum in Edinburgh, which coincided with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. I could tell you it wasn't what I expected, but to be honest, I had no idea what to expect! On the day I arrived, I was shown my own office space, which was a first for me, a quiet room I could use to write in. And then I was swiftly invited to a conference that afternoon – organised by Gengage and supported by the Forum - on Sudden Cardiac Death in the Young.

It was a very interesting event, composed partly of speakers and partly of small round table discussions and even some voting on issues using a hand-held clicker! Participants in Aberdeen and Glasgow joined in via video conference. I learned an enormous amount about these kinds of mysterious deaths, many revealed by post mortem to be caused by symptomless, inherited cardiac problems - in the shadow of Fabrice Muamba's fortunately non-fatal recent collapse on the football field.

We heard from the Scottish Procurator Fiscal, the equivalent, I believe, of the English coroner/Crown Office; from two geneticists talking about the pitfalls and advantages of genetic screening; and from a bereaved father whose healthy 19 year old son had died suddenly mid-phone call, while he was sitting on his bed. I found that any opinions I may have had at the beginning of the afternoon pretty much underwent a 180 degree shift by the end. It was fascinating - and the next day I wrote a piece of flash fiction inspired by something the clinical geneticist said, and then a sequence of four prose poems inspired by the whole concept of genes and genetic screening.

Talking about writing, the other highlight of my time with the Genomics Forum was the science-inspired fiction workshop I ran on my last day, entitled "Are Scientists Human?" (the title coming from two members of the Forum staff!). The group - of writers, scientists and some writer-scientists - and I had a very interesting hour and a half - we did two writing exercises using science, scientific words, and extracts from New Scientist articles. We explored the session title using stimulating and fairly shocking quotes from Michael Brooks' excellent book, Free Radicals, in which he attempts to debunk the notion that science is purely rational, done exactly according to a rigid scientific method, but instead relies on insight, fudging results, hard drug use and some distinctly underhand behaviour on the part of the researchers!

The scientists in our group told us how they felt under pressure to conform to this "rational science myth", and they feel it does science and scientists a disservice, not painting a true picture of what it means to do science. We were greatly entertained by some of the highly imaginative stories written during the workshop, (I started a new story I'm excited about!), and I hope that the result of the workshop was that those who had never thought to use science in their fiction might look at it in a new light!

Back home now, I am champing at the bit to keep writing the story I started, although the imminent publication of my second fiction collection is taking up rather a lot of time... but I know I will get to it at some point. A thoroughly inspiring fortnight!

Tania Hershman is a former science journalist who now specialises in writing fiction.  Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, and has recently published her second collection of short stories: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions.

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