Monday, January 5, 2015

The Inside Story on Biologists Who Become Writers

Today my friend biologist/author J.L. Greger gives some insight on why she writes. Welcome, Janet!

Did you ever wonder why so many physicians and other biologists write novels? Maybe we all secretly dream we’ll write a best seller like Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, or A.J. Cronin. Note: I said dream not expect. What are our other reasons?

Medical thrillers and mysteries are an opportunity to educate readers about science.
Like most scientists and physicians, I shrink into the corner when I hear acquaintances disparage all vaccines. I’m usually too polite, or maybe cowardly is a better word, to make comments, but these experiences remind me science literacy is suboptimal in the U.S.
The trick to doing science education in novels is to do it so gently the reader doesn’t realize (s)he learned a little science. Readers mainly want to be entertained.

Let me show how I turned science into a fast–moving adventure in my latest novel Malignancy. Recently Cuban scientists patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat a rather rare type of lung cancer (non-small cell). This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These immune cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.
Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. Boring!
What’s the social relevance? This patent demonstrates Cuban scientists are doing competitive science, and Cuba wants to market it through the free enterprise system. That suggests political changes in Cuba.
It’s getting more interesting. Right?
I also discovered U.S. scientists were trying to augment existing scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, despite the embargo on Cuba. Check out the editorial “Science diplomacy with Cuba” in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.
Now I’ve got the basis of sending Sara Almquist, a scientist and the heroine of my previous medical thrillers, to Cuba to do a little “scientific diplomacy.”
Let’s add a bit more info. Cuba is in a special trading alliance with Bolivia and Venezuela, and one of Bolivia’s biggest exports is coca and its derivatives (i.e. cocaine). I’ve got the ingredients for a thriller.
Accuracy is important in medical thrillers and mysteries, but shouldn’t seem labored.
In my third novel, Sara Almquist learns silver miners in Potosí, Bolivia carry little food or water into the mines. In order to endure the pain caused by thirst, hunger, and heavy exertion at a high altitude (13,000 feet), they chew coca leaves. The active ingredients in coca leaves and its derivative cocaine are not analgesics that dull pain. They are stimulants and help users ignore pain. Accordingly, I named the book Ignore the Pain not Dull the Pain, but didn’t discuss the pharmacological effects of coca.
Medical novels are a chance for biologists to introduce readers to their colleagues.
First off, I should note no character, except Bug, Sara Almquist’s Japanese Chin dog, in my novels is real. Bug (the character) is based on my own Japanese Chin named Bug. He is a pet therapy dog and a black and white ball of fuzz who outsmarts me daily.
Although I show my protagonist’s warts, I don’t trivialize her into being a bumbler, who clumsily forces her way into police investigations, as the authors of many cozies do. She’s a smart, attractive, and assertive (Isn’t that a nicer word than pushy?) middle-aged woman. Typical of many women scientists.
As an epidemiologist, Sara, in essence, is a professional snoop who analyzes all types of data to discover patterns, which suggest factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of health problems. The analyses of epidemiologists are sometimes the basis of public policies, and experienced epidemiologists are often public health consultants in foreign countries. Thus Sara’s trips to Bolivia in Ignore the Pain and Cuba in Malignancy are logical and allow me to show the locations from a different perspective than that of a tourist.
In Ignore the Pain, I tried to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty in Bolivia. My description of how the indigenous people handle twins when the mother can’t produce enough milk is, I believe, a more effective way to illustrate the dire situations faced by many in Bolivia than to cite statistics, i.e. six percent of the children born in Bolivia die before their fifth birthday.
In Malignancy, Sara meets with sophisticated Cuban scientists who know much more about the U.S. than their counterparts, including Sara, know of Cuba.
Now do you want to know the rest of the story?
I’m a retired biology professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bug and I live in the Southwest. My website is:, my Amazon link is I can be reached at
Here are thumbnail sketches of my novels:
● In the suspense novel, Coming Flu, learn whether the Philippine flu or a drug kingpin caught in the quarantine is more deadly. Coming Flu:
● In the medical mystery, Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, discover whether an ambitious young “diet doctor” or an old-timer with buried secrets is the killer. Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight:
● In the thriller, Ignore the Pain, feel the fear as an epidemiologist learns too much about the coca trade while on a public health assignment in Bolivia. Ignore the Pain:

● In the thriller, Malignancy, know the tension as a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba. Malignancy:


  1. Welcome to my blog, Janet. As I've told you, I always learn something new from your books.

  2. Thanks for hosting me. I'm hoping your readers will want to learn more about modern Cuba and ask questions here. I, of course hope, they'll also read MALIGNANCY<

  3. very interesting, I never really considered how novels with accurate science can covertly teach before!