Special thanks to Kat Arney for answering 6 questions about her recently featured book – Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding how our genes work
Dr Kat Arney holds a degree in natural sciences and a PhD in developmental biology from Cambridge University, followed by a post-doc at Imperial College, London. For her day-job Kat is a professional science communicator, media spokesperson, award-winning blogger, podcaster and general comms dogsbody for Cancer Research UK. She counts among her achievements saying the word “boobs” and discussing oral sex on the Today programme, the infamous “drink it down your face” interview, and likening part of the cell division machinery to something out of Star Wars. In her spare time Kat is a a freelance writer, broadcaster and public speaker, appearing on the highly successful Naked Scientists for the past decade and producing & presenting the monthly Naked Genetics podcast, as well as co-presents the weekly national BBC Radio 5Live Science show. – Adapted from Kat’s Homepage
The Naked Scientist podcast: http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/podcasts/genetics/
Kat’s Homepage: http://katarney.com
Kat’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/harpistkat
#1 – What was the impetus for Herding Hemingway’s Cats?
I got the idea for it while sitting in a scientific conference at the Royal Society in London, which was all about how genes get switched on and off. Bob Hill, from Edinburgh, was talking about the six-toed cats that roam Ernest Hemingway’s Florida estate and his work studying the genetic fault that causes it. It’s not a mistake in a gene itself, like a gene that ‘makes toes’ – it’s a fault in a control switch for a gene that enables cells to make decisions during development. And that switch is miles away, in molecular terms, from the gene it acts upon. This got me thinking about what scientists really know about how genes work, what the public understand about it, and how I as a science writer and broadcaster working in the field, explain it to them.
#2 – What is the significance of ‘Hemingway’s Cats’?
The Hemingway cats demonstrate a really important point that the control switches that turn genes on and off at the right time and in the right place to build a body – whether that’s a cat, mouse, human or anything else. In a few of the chapters of the book I explore how these switches are evolution’s playground, enabling organisms to make relatively big changes in a short period of evolutionary time (there’s a whole bunch of other stuff too). And by the end of the book, I came to realise that the idea of herding cats was also a metaphor. There are so many new ideas in genetics, so much dogma and so many things that we just don’t know. Trying to gather all these ideas together and explain them became a bit like herding cats!
#3 – What are some of the common misconceptions that people have about genes? Why do you think we have these misconceptions?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that genes are ‘for’ traits, or diseases – for example, a gene ‘for’ alcoholism, or Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, genes are like ‘recipes’ that our cells use to make molecules called proteins and RNA, which are used to build our cells, bodies and brains, and do all the functions that are needed for life. And the other misconception is that our DNA is some kind of perfect, deterministic blueprint like an architect’s plan. Biology is really wobbly round the edges, and our genes are more of a flexible recipe rather than a definite programme or plan.
#4 – Your book is replete with stories to illustrate what people are doing in genetics research. What was your favourite story?
The story of the Hemingway cats themselves is very nice, and also the tale about the differences between sticklebacks that live in freshwater lakes and those that live in the seas. And, of course, the penis spikes – if that’s not a teaser to read the book, I don’t know what is…
#5 – When communicating science in your book, do you have a philosophy about how your readers will best understand what you are trying to communicate to them?
I do love using metaphors and analogies – I spend a lot of time thinking about them, and making sure they work. But I also love to include personal stories and details about scientists. They’re real people, and science is a human activity. I want to move away from dispassionate reporting about “a clever scientist who discovered a thing” to unpicking the stories, arguments and uncertainties in the real world that sometimes get swept under the carpet.
#6 – Are you working on any new books/projects you want to tell us about?
I’m currently about to leave my day-job – I’ve been a science communicator at the research charity Cancer Research UK for over 11 years – to see if I can make my way as a freelance writer and broadcaster. I’m currently on air every week with the Naked Scientists BBC radio show and podcast, as well as my own monthly Naked Genetics podcast and a bunch of writing in the pipeline. Then I’ve got at least 30 talks booked up around the UK over the next few months, and am planning to come to the US in May (fingers crossed). And there are certainly plans for book two in the works, as soon as I get a minute to think about it!
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[Image Credit: https://katarney.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/kat-20150815-140510.jpg ]