Q&A: Biologist previews new book, explains writing process

Q&A: Biologist previews new book, explains writing process

Greg Nathan | University Communication

Jay Storz bleeds Husker red – and he’s authored a forthcoming book, “Hemoglobin: Insights into Protein Structure, Function and Evolution,” that helps explain why we all do.

But hemoglobin does far more than lend arterial blood its signature scarlet color. As a component of red blood cells, the protein snatches oxygen from the lungs and ferries it to the body tissues that depend on it.

The essential protein has also inspired a decade of research from the professor of biological sciences, who recently answered a few questions about his new book. (To pre-order it, click here.)

Why did you write the book?

I saw an opportunity to synthesize research findings from disparate fields at the intersection of biochemistry, physiology and evolutionary genetics. I wanted to integrate across different idea spaces to address big questions about evolution.

The central idea of the book is that research on a well-chosen model protein can be used to address some of the most conceptually expansive questions in evolutionary biology. For example: Is genetic adaptation predictable? Why does evolution follow some pathways rather than others?

Parts of the book draw heavily from my own lab’s research. With my own research program, I felt that we had reached a point where everything we had learned over the past 10 years was ripe for synthesis.

Who are the intended audiences?

The book is aimed at an interdisciplinary audience, including evolutionary biologists with an interest in how mechanistic studies of protein function can be used to address fundamental questions about evolution. (It’s also written for) biochemists and physiologists with an interest in how evolutionary approaches and thinking can broaden and enrich their field of study.

The book should be suitable for graduate-level students taking courses in biochemical physiology and protein evolution. I’m going to use it for a course that I’m teaching next semester while I’m on sabbatical in Argentina.

How long did it take to write?

I worked on it for the better part of two years, but the writing proceeded in fits and starts because I had to balance time spent working on the book with other professional duties like teaching (and) writing grant proposals, not to mention family responsibilities at home. Even though most of the writing was concentrated in that intense two-year period, many of the ideas that I wrote about had a much longer gestation period.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?

One challenge was synthesizing information from disparate fields. Evolutionary genetics provides the overarching conceptual framework for the book, but there are chapters that are mainly devoted to topics as diverse as molecular biophysics, structural biology, biochemistry and physiology. So I had to master the literature in very different areas.

Also, some parts are very mathematical, so I spent a lot of time explaining theoretical and modeling results in a way that would be accessible to a non-specialist. Finally, the initial planning stages required a lot of careful thought … and storyboarding.

What was the review process like?

One of the fun things about science is being part of an international community of people with overlapping interests and different areas of expertise. I was fortunate to get feedback from many friends and colleagues throughout the world. Through friendships and professional contacts … established over the years at national and international meetings, I made sure that each chapter was vetted by a world expert on the topic of that particular chapter.

In addition to the critiques that I solicited from friends and colleagues, Oxford University Press coordinated the official peer-review process, and that wasn’t much different from getting feedback on work submitted to a normal scientific journal.

If someone came to you for advice before writing a book of their own, what would you tell them?

I think it’s important to recognize when the time is right. As I mentioned, many of the ideas in this book had a long gestation period, so I knew the story I wanted to tell by the time I put pen to paper. If I had tried writing the same book five years ago, my ideas about certain things wouldn’t have been as well-formed, and the writing might not have come quite so easily.

In terms of advice about the actual writing process: I felt that it was helpful to focus on one chapter at a time. I viewed it like an alpine-style mountaineering route. Just focus on getting to the next camp or bivouac, then focus on the next day’s ascent.

How do you feel now that you’ve finished it?

I enjoyed the book-writing process so much that I’ve started working on the outline for another one!