Sylvia Pagán Westphal, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, New Scientist and the Los Angeles Times, currently writes about science and health for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. “High Hopes for a New Kind of Gene” is her first feature published in Smithsonian.
You have a PhD in genetics from Harvard Medical and then went on to study science journalism at Boston University. What made you want to go into science writing?
I have always loved writing but when I was young I never thought it could be my career. Then when I was close to finishing my PhD and I started thinking about the next steps in my life, it became clear to me I didn’t want to be spending my days inside a lab doing experiments. I loved reading about science and thinking about science, but the life of a scientist didn’t appeal to me as much anymore. That’s when I realized I could combine my love of writing with my interest in science, and turn the two into a career. I’m very glad I made that decision because I enjoy what I do very much.
Was Italian scientist Carlo Croce how you expected him to be? Any surprises?
I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what Carlo would be like, but I do have to admit he was much more eccentric and charismatic than your stereotypical scientist. His mansion looks like an art museum, and it’s not every day that you get a ride on a red Ferrari, so seeing that side of Carlo was a bit of a surprise to me.
How much time did you spend with him? What did you do?
I spent a couple of days with him, both in Ohio and later in Boston when he came for a scientific meeting. In Ohio we went out for dinner, I visited his house and I also spent time in his laboratory getting a tour of the facilities and meeting with some of his key researchers.
What did you find most interesting about him?
I found his passion for art to be the most interesting thing about him. He was just born with this love of art—he told me the story of how he bought his first painting when he was 12 years old, with all his savings. This is an age when most boys want to buy a bike or some toy car, and here was Carlo in Italy making his first art acquisition. He showed the portrait to me, it's in his house. He might disagree with me, but that made me think his love for art might define who he is even more than his love for science. He has this whole different life that revolves around art and is separate from his science world—a life of bidding at auctions, of interacting with other art collectors, scholars and museum curators—and I think that's really interesting.
What was your favorite moment during reporting?
Definitely going to his house. It’s really spectacular—this man truly lives inside a museum. He walked me through the whole house and I remember thinking it was sad that he barely got to enjoy all those treasures, since he is rarely ever home.
What would you say surprised you the most about microRNA, how it was discovered or how it’s being studied?
For sure how it was discovered, since it shattered such a basic dogma of biology. When I went to graduate school we were taught a gene was a stretch of DNA that coded for a protein. That does not apply anymore, thanks in part to the discovery of microRNA. These tiny genes are part of a new universe of biology that’s been unveiled, which was hiding in plain sight, so that’s really fascinating.
What challenges did you come up against in trying to convey this science to the lay reader in a way he or she can understand?
It’s always tricky to find an easy way to explain the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins, and how information flows from one to the other. You don’t want your readers to feel overwhelmed with too many definitions, but at the same time I knew that if I didn’t explain these concepts clearly, the significance of the discovery of microRNA would be lost.
I thought it was interesting that understanding microRNA was an intellectual barrier, and not a technological one. Did you expect that?
I didn’t expect it, but it doesn’t surprise me, because other major discoveries in biology have happened once someone decides to think outside the box and look for alternative explanations to a puzzle.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
I hope this story inspires in people, as it did with me, a sense of awe at the complexity of life. I marvel at all the things that go on inside a cell in order for an organism to function, and this story made me realize there are probably hundreds of other processes, à la microRNA, going on inside our cells that we might not even know about yet. Our genome is still such a big mystery to us, and I wonder if and when man will be able to decipher its inner workings completely.