Scientist Among Wolves: A Silicon Valley Scientist’s Thoughts on Theranos
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Science is hard. Science is complex.
Like Ms. Holmes, I too was at Stanford University at the age of 18.
I too had shoulder-length blonde hair and a rebellious streak. Although my rebellion mostly took the form of occasionally taking a Dean’s parking spot when I was late for class.
At 18 I was taking a summer course at Stanford: Human Physiology. It was being offered to incoming Stanford Medical School students before fall course work started and somehow I had managed to get myself enrolled.
That is when and where I fell in love with physiology: during a long warm northern California summer, working as a lifeguard, a summer swim coach, surfing with friends on the occasional day off. This sounds idyllic, but in reality most of my time that summer was spent with my nose buried in a physiology text book, curled up in a quiet, hidden corner of the Stanford Medical Library, Lane Library. I aced the class.
That physiology book has been packed and unpacked for numerous moves during my career. First in a move to University (BS in Biochemistry-Molecular Biology, Minor Chemistry), then Graduate School (PhD in Physiology and Biophysics), next in an international move for a research fellowship I was awarded in Europe, and finally that physiology textbook now sits on my book shelf here in my home in San Francisco, CA.
At University the challenge of understanding the beauty of our natural world became a core part of my being; from Chemistry to Quantum Mechanics to Immunology. I voraciously devoured and learned every scientific fact and nuance I could. I did well in courses that requested concept application, poorly in ones that enforced rote memory.
Being the only woman in numerous courses was later pointed out to me as unusual, but I barely noticed at the time. I was in love, and I fought through or simply ignored all obstacles. I was driven by a deep passion.
In short, I did not drop out of that course, or scientific study at the age of 19.
Opting out of education in science, is to immediately out date yourself. Over 2 million (est.) scientific articles are published every year. Science is a powerful, unrelenting juggernaut of collective human achievement and collaboration.
This juggernaut marches forward daily as thousands of research articles are published, conference proceedings go live, and collaborations are born. Each representing years of work by numerous well educated, passionate people, that are part of an international community known as Scientists.
Unlike Tech, where an app is born of, or an idea is implemented by, application of a given rule set, the rules of science are deeply complex, nuanced, and sometimes not well understood. Short-cuts to ultimate truths do not exist, unless handed to you by a set of competent scientists who are looking to share their life’s work.
It is whimsically, and perhaps willfully naive to believe that the savant tech mentality can be applied to the complexities of deep science.
The nuance, the difficulty, the challenges of science are so often and easily overlooked.
Scientists themselves are sometimes guilty of underestimating the gravitas and importance of a sister field. As it is with languages, maintaining fluency in more than one or two at a time requires repeat exposure and practice.
But this is where advances are born, the cross-over space between siloed, deeply focused branches of scientific research. It is beautiful when engineering is seamlessly melded to biology and we move forward with novel applications, products, and offerings to assist people in need.
“Biotech is hard” has often been said to me. Indeed it is.
Biotech is an entirely different beast from Tech. In Biotech incremental advances are the typical reality. Incremental advances don’t often catch the eye of the “10x-disrupt” investor. The pressure and counter-currents to raise funds in the face of proving your tech is good are enormous, stifling.
It can be so tempting for a brilliant 18 year old to believe in an insight passionately, believe that science will catch up. It can be deeply attractive to a rising bio-hacker to attempt to save millions of people by circumventing all rules. An echo of, a nod to, Jenner and Smallpox, Pasteur and Rabies, Salk and Polio.
It is the story we all want to believe in, this is the archetype of a hero.
It is not one to give up on, but rather to approach thoughtfully.
There are a few examples of Science launching itself forward with mind-boggling discoveries. They are rare, typically the result of years of research. Many times, significant issues arise with these novel advances years later; crispr, and stem cell biology have already had their share of set-backs.
True advancements in a field; the vaccines, the complex surgeries, the curative results of CAR-T cell therapy, are usually decades in the making.
We as scientist-entrepreneurs are most certainly standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.
But to get there, you have to know who those giants are.
As it becomes clear what the repercussions for Elizabeth Holmes as a result of her catastrophic misuse of the ‘savant’ mystique and bold-faced lies — I can only hope that investors and popular opinion do not see this as the norm among scientist-entrepreneurs.