Science journalist and Milton graduate, Cynthia Fox ’79, recently visited campus to talk with biology students about her newly published book Cell of Cells: The Global Race to Capture and Control the Stem Cell. Anne Harding of The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, reviewed Cynthia’s book less than two weeks later. Ms. Harding’s review points not only to Cynthia’s sound scientific research, but also to her ability as a writer to engage the reader with lively and compelling detail.
During her recent classroom visit, Cynthia attributed her interest in writing and science to her teachers at Milton: “At Milton I became interested in writing thanks to classes like those of John Charles Smith (English department), who has a gift for making students aware of beauty in the way that writing has let us see, hear, touch, understand and celebrate the world through the ages. Because of JC and other unusual Milton English and history faculty, I knew I wanted to be a writer as I neared graduation. But I knew I had to write about something, and Milton’s biology classes—which outranked many college biology classes—were compelling as well. They were so compelling that I, at one point, took the two-hour “cross country jogging” class because it let me jog off into the hills, then sit down to read the biology book for Anthony Domizio’s class that I had earlier planted there. This is admittedly evidence of the kind of spectacular athlete I was not, but it is also evidence of the kind of spectacular teacher Mr. Domizio was.”
From The Lancet; April 21, 2007
Peopled with quirky characters and crowded with strange and beautiful places, Cell of Cells reads like the best travel writing, but the author doesn’t stint on the science, or the politics, of her subject. Cynthia Fox spent years touring the world’s stem cell hotspots, staking out labs from Egypt to Israel to Singapore, and peering over the shoulders of scientists and surgeons. Her exhaustive legwork has produced a highly entertaining book.
Dozens of key stem cell scientists get personality profiles, as well as a thorough accounting of their work and thought, including Israel’s Shimon Slavin, the bone marrow transplantation pioneer who is now using stem cells to create dual immune systems; Jerry Yang of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Regenerative Biology, the first scientist to clone an adult farm animal; and Harvard’s Jonathan Tilly, who overturned decades of medical dogma by demonstrating the existence of mammalian oocyte stem cells. We get to know patients treated with stem cells, and are offered a surgeon’s-eye view of their operations.
Fox’s often wry tone is ideal for capturing the excitement, and the hype, that accompany any promising medical advance. Fascinatingly, she was researching the book during the spectacular fall of Seoul National University researcher Hwang Woo Suk, whose reports of making the world’s first human cloned stem cells were eventually exposed as fraud. We follow Hwang on his way up, basking in the attention of admirers at international meetings and whisking Fox through his state-of-the art lab. And when the time comes to tell of Hwang’s disgrace, Fox does an excellent job of helping the reader keep the characters involved, and their misdeeds, straight.
Cell of Cells opens with the words of researcher Susan Fisher: “Science is like a stream of water. It finds a way.” And Fox provides us with a compelling account of just what this means in today’s world of “presidential lines,” Singaporean billions, and scientists as rock stars. Let’s hope she brings us along on her next voyage.
Founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakely, The Lancet is well-known for taking strong, and sometimes controversial, stands on timely and important medical issues.