Exorcising the Ghost of Carl Sagan

James Valcourt Blog
posted: 12/21/2017
listed in Fellows

by James Valcourt

I almost didn’t write a book because of a story I once heard about Carl Sagan. According to this rumor, Sagan, one of the finest science communicators of all time, was blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences because of his public advocacy. The preeminent scientists of his time had been impressed by his research but had thumbed their noses at his books and television appearances. Such activities were unbecoming of a Serious Scientist.

For a researcher at my early career stage, this was a terrifying idea. I had always been interested in communicating science to non-specialists, and I thought I could do a good job of it. But if academia had punished Carl Sagan—Carl Sagan!—surely I would be utterly pulverized. Watching the scientists of Twitter pounce on the Pulitzer Prize-winner Siddhartha Mukherjee for an (admittedly painful) article on epigenetics further cemented my anxiety.

I wrote a book anyway. I wrote about the research around me in systems biology that most non-scientists never get a chance to see. I wrote about the cancer immunotherapy that put Jimmy Carter’s cancer into remission. I wrote about fecal transplants and gerbils in Kazakhstan and mind control and the trillions of microbes that live in everyone’s gut. All of these stories were joined together by the core idea of systems biology: that new technology is finally allowing biologists to understand how simple pieces work together to make living things live.  And everything I wrote was imbued with a sense of wonder at the scale of the systems scientists must grapple with: if we had one gumball for every cell in the human body, those gumballs would fill Fenway Park 1,000 times over.

While I was writing, Carl Sagan was never far from my mind. I’m still not sure exactly what got me over my worries. Perhaps it was stubbornness paired with a deontological instinct: I think it would be best if everyone with the ability wrote about science in a responsible way, so I was going to do it, consequences be damned. My conversations with my mentors also helped. But I also drew courage from an unusual source: the Hertz Foundation.

Since I joined in 2012, I have found that the Hertz community values the unusual. The same instinct that attracts fellows with innovative research also ensnares the kinds of people who dabble in using drones to deliver vaccines to patients in developing countries. This ethos inspires confidence when doing things a little differently. If drones are on the table, why not a book?

The Hertz network also helped the writing process in other, more tangible ways. Whenever I needed to reach out to a fellow for advice or information about the topics I was researching, I knew that my overtures would be met with enthusiasm. Other fellows went even further; MIT Professor Ed Boyden and 2012 fellows Dr. Kelly Moynihan and Dr. Vyas Ramanan all graciously agreed to extended interviews for the book.

For other people, the Hertz Fellowship has been a launching pad for rock-star academic careers and successful companies. I don’t yet know how my story ends, but for now I can add another small entry to that list: in my case, the Hertz Foundation helped me say goodbye to Carl Sagan for good.

James Valcourt is a student in the Systems Biology Ph.D. program at Harvard University. He is currently studying when and how stem cells commit to specific lineages during early development. “Systematic: How Systems Biology Is Transforming Modern Medicine” is his first book. Before beginning his Ph.D., James worked for two years at D.E Shaw Research in New York, studying GPCR allostery and broadly neutralizing HIV antibodies using long-timescale computational molecular dynamics simulations on custom-built computers. James holds an A.B. in molecular biology and a certificate in quantitative and computational biology from Princeton University, where he was awarded the Pyne Prize.