Career Q&A: From Science to Fiction

Amàlia Lafuente is a professor of pharmacology specializing in pharmacogenetics and vice chair of the Department of Pathological Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Microbiology in the School of Medicine at the University of Barcelona in Spain. In addition to her teaching and research, Lafuente is also a novelist. Her first novel, Código Genético, was published in Catalan in 2009 and translated into Spanish in 2011. The novel won several prizes in the Catalan-speaking region.

The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.

“The novel is dedicated to postdocs and graduate students, because the young scientists have an idealistic view of science.” —Amàlia Lafuente

Initially, I wanted to become a physician, but I discovered the possibility to choose academia and I enjoyed it very much. Moreover, by that time I already had three kids and I found that I could better balance my profession and motherhood within academia. But I always kept in touch with my physician background because I like to do research from a physician’s perspective.

My project was to look at biomarkers for exposure to carcinogens. I did my Ph.D. in Reus, in the south of Barcelona [at the University of Barcelona’s former Reus campus, which is now Universitat Rovira I Virgili], and it was a very industrial area, very contaminated. So we looked at some metabolites in urine, and I observed that not everybody eliminates toxins to the same degree, so that means genetic differences. That was my first step towards pharmacogenetics.

I finished my Ph.D., and the same year I had a professor position at the school of medicine in Reus. I moved on from studying genetic differences in the metabolism of environmental toxins to studying genetic predisposition to diseases. I worked in cancer for many years, but then I realized that the future would be in neuroscience and mental diseases, so I moved into this area some 15 years ago. Meanwhile, in 1995, I got a position here at the University of Barcelona.

I’ve always liked writing but I was studying, having children, and so on. Now, the children are independent adults and I am fully established in my workplace. I have a lot of work, but I have more time for myself. So I took a 4-year course in a writing school, going there one evening a week. The demands of the course were to write a chapter of a novel every 3 weeks. By the time I left school half the novel was written and I finished it during the next year.

Our writing teacher always recommended us to write about things we are familiar with, so that’s why I chose to set the story in a research lab. Also, it’s the only thing I can do, because I have no time to do research for a historical novel, for instance. I realized that my classmates were really interested in the research world, in how experiments were run. They were amazed by how scientific success is measured, by the competition, that we fight to be able to do our work. I told them that it’s more frequent to fight for a bench spot than for a patent.

It’s difficult for people to understand our world. Sometimes people think the scientists, especially the biomedical scientists, are almost mystical. But we have the same personal problems and the same conflicts as in other workplaces.

It is about a young woman who is doing a 3-year postdoc researching a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. She runs into a situation of conflict when a “superstar” researcher arrives to Spain from the United States to take over the direction of the institute. The famous researcher sexually harasses her, and one consequence is that she is shunted from her own research at the institute and transferred to a clinical project in the nearby hospital. For her, it is like a punishment. But working with patients and the people who care for them changes her approach to the disease and her priorities in life and in research. Meanwhile, in secret, together with a Ph.D. student, the postdoc continues her original research project, finding by chance a new molecule with the potential to help Alzheimer’s patients recover memory. But the superstar researcher finally discovers what they are up to and wants to get there first. This is the thriller part of the book. It’s a little bit like David and Goliath because the superstar researcher has all the necessary infrastructure, and they have a very low budget.

The novel is dedicated to postdocs and graduate students because the young scientists have an idealistic view of science. This motivation to touch heaven is the best driving force to do science. When you get older, you have to invest all of this energy handling funding and bureaucracies. Also, sometimes the pressure to get data, to publish, and to compete—it all makes you miss the point of doing research. The young people are the pure kind of researchers. I think it’s a pity that you lose all of this idealistic way of doing research during your career.

Q: So does your book aim to help young scientists?

The novel is not a self-help book for scientific life. But I think it can help young scientists face these ethical problems. The graduate students and postdocs are very vulnerable because they have to do research, and you can train them, but you cannot give them a position. The problem is principal investigators who take advantage of this for sexual harassment or to decide authorship. There are a lot of unethical practices that are not reported or punished.

Amazingly, if you combine your research with another enriching activity, it gives you more creativity in your research. I don’t trust a very highly specialized researcher who cannot think beyond his molecule. You have to be open-minded and not be scared to explore out of your comfort zone.

It has also been a good exercise to reflect about the job and the responsibilities. It was never meant to be a moral book, but fiction is the best way to think about these things.

I was bold enough to be critical of some influential academic factions. I was afraid that I would not be able to secure funding in the future. However, right now I have a lot of projects going on. And when the book came out in Catalan, researchers here in Barcelona played at identifying who could be the characters in real life. Then, when it came out in Spanish, researchers in Madrid identified other people. Ironically, nobody identifies any of the portrayed personalities as themselves.

I think the methodological background helps very much. I am very organized, disciplined. I prepare a book as if it were a project. My second novel is very well structured. I have determined chapter by chapter what I will write about and what are the different ingredients that ought to be in each different chapter. Other people say, “You don’t need to be so rational. You should be freer.” But I feel the most confident if I already know the structure of the entire novel right from the beginning.

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