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GMO sabotage and other tales

Novelist Rebecca Nesbit

Jennifer Rohn 17 August 2014

Controversial field: detail from the cover

There is still a lot of out-dated information being spread by people who are against GM, and unhelpful insults going both ways

Editor's note: We recently caught up with Rebecca Nesbit, a regular contributor to the site. Her debut lab lit novel A Column of Smoke is just published by Brambleby Books.

You used to do science for a living. Tell us a little bit about your research back then.

For my PhD I studied butterfly migration, particularly how the painted lady makes its annual migration from North Africa to Europe – I wrote about it for Then I trained honeybees to detect explosives, working for a spin-out company trying to develop the technology to use bees in airport security.

Why did you want to become a scientist, and why did you eventually leave active research to become a professional science communicator?

As a child I was really interested in the environment and wildlife so biology was a natural choice at university. One of the things that encouraged me to continue in science was volunteering on nature reserves such as Skomer Island and Feltar (Shetland). Doing a PhD meant I could get paid to lead an ecologist lifestyle, which included surveying wildlife in interesting places. I also think that scientists make a major contribution to society.

I loved my PhD and it provided some extremely valuable experiences. Some of the reasons I moved on from research are explored in the book. I found the career insecurity difficult to deal with, and I disliked other aspects of the career structure. I think the academic system is poorly set up to recognise the skills of young scientists (as researchers and as teachers) – you are simply judged on which journals you publish your papers in, which is a flawed system for many reasons!

I also have very broad scientific interests, and my career in science communication is allowing me to explore them more widely than a career in research. There are things I miss about research though (fieldwork and conferences rather more than processing data and writing up my methods).

How did your background in science inform the plot, ideas and themes in the novel?

A great deal, both in the science and the experiences of being a scientist. I did my PhD at an agricultural research station and this is what sparked my interest in genetic modification. The knowledge I gained from other scientists there was extremely valuable. My friends and I experienced many of the issues faced by the characters in the book. For me, the fear and self-doubt experienced by Amy as she contemplates employment after her PhD was particularly close to home!

Did you make up any science in the novel? If yes, how did you feel about having to do that?

I only made very minor modifications to the science (pun intended), and nothing that isn’t entirely plausible. What I was far less sure about was the changes I made to the interactions between scientists and the regulatory system, and the aspects I skimmed over. The regulatory system for GM crops is extremely complex, even at the stage of research rather than commercialisation, and I adapted it for the benefit of the story. I expect some people will say I should have stuck more closely to the truth.

You are a regular at the lab lit Fiction Lab book group, which meets every month at London's Royal Institution to dissect and critique novels about scientists. Was this experience of any use in your own writing – which lessons did you find really useful?

Most of the book was written before I joined the group (polishing and publishing were long processes) but I still think it has been valuable. Other people in the group pick up on bad writing, such as clichés, so it is a constant reminder not to be lazy. I also think you read a book differently for a book club and that’s valuable in itself. Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from Fiction Lab discussions is that you can’t please everyone!

What in your view is the biggest challenge about writing about science for a non-scientific audience?

For me, there was a danger of getting bogged down in science which interested me but was irrelevant. There were times when I wrote sections which I was very pleased with only to be told by members of my writing group to cut them. They were always right – my digressions into the science didn’t help the plot. A common criticism I have of lab lit novels is that I would rather have read a non-fiction version, so I had to work hard to remove any passages that belonged in a non-fiction book rather than a novel. I am writing a blog about genetic modification to give me the scientific outlet I need!

How much of your real-life experiences ended up in this book?

Lots and none! I don’t have a mother who reads the Daily Mail, a boss who pressurises me into unethical behaviour or protestors set on destroying my experiments. I have, however, encountered many of the attitudes of the scientists and other characters in real life. The challenges of starting a scientific career were ones I had encountered, and I also drew upon my experiences of relationships with people outside the world of science. For example, one of the key relationships in the book is between Sally and her housemate Mel. As a lawyer, Mel’s view of the world is entirely different to Sally’s, and I identify with Sally’s discomfort as Mel makes her wonder if she’s being extremely naïve.

Do you think a widespread acceptance of genetically modified crops will ever take hold of the world? Is so, why? (If not, why not?)

It’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. In some ways it already has – GM crops are widely grown in many parts of the world. Even in these areas, however, there is still a lot of resistance. In Europe we seem a long way from widespread acceptance (though I think there is some movement in that direction). One of the reasons there isn’t widespread acceptance is that there are some genuine risks and challenges associated with GM, and the debate tends not to recognise that different GMOs have different benefits and risks. If our own food supply is threatened by climate change maybe people will reassess their opinions and be more open to innovations. A mature public debate would be a good first step – there is still a lot of out-dated information being spread by people who are against GM, and unhelpful insults going both ways. Novel breeding techniques are emerging (which are basically more precise ways of altering an organism’s DNA) and this could lead the debate in interesting directions.

Do you know any scientists whose GMO test crops have been destroyed by activists? If so, what consequences did it have for the researcher(s) in question?

No, but I have a good friend whose experiments were threatened by protestors. Along with her colleagues, she spent a lot of time doing media work rather than concentrating on science (a wise move in my opinion, but a big strain on time and energy). The security bills for the field trial were huge, which I think further added to the pressure for the project to get good results.

Are more lab lit novels to follow? Can you tell us anything about future projects?

I hope so! I’m currently working on one from the point of view of a scientist whose son has been accused of rape. It was inspired by a New Scientist article about free will and criminal responsibility. This isn’t something I want to explore as non-fiction because I would feel I should have some answers– a novel allows me to simply ask some questions.

Who is your favorite scientist in a work of fiction, and why?

I’m tempted to say Michael Beard from Ian McEwan’s Solar – he’s horrible but very funny. His treatment of his wife’s lover crosses a line though, so I should suggest someone I would be happy to meet in real life. I really like the characters in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, particularly Dellarobia. Science shouldn’t be solely the domain of people with a traditional academic background, and Dellorobia is a good reminder of this.