A Profile of a Famous Chinese-American Scientist Opens on … Chicken Feet
Stat, the shiny new life sciences publication funded by the Boston Globe’s billionaire owner, just dropped an exclusive profile of Feng Zhang, one of the most important biologists working today. At the age of 34, he’s had a hand in two discoveries tipped to win Nobels. So how did Stat choose to begin its profile of Zhang? Let me quote: “As the dish of steamed chicken feet clattered onto the table…”
It goes on. As GenomeWeb reporter Andrew Han tweeted:
— Andrew Han (@HanAndrewP) November 6, 2015
Han and I sort of have a supernerdy ongoing Twitter DM conversation about Crispr—the revolutionary gene-editing tool that Zhang invented, or maybe not, depending on who you ask. (More on the Crispr patent fight later.) When Han pointed out the Stat profile, “so many feels” was the first response I could muster. And maybe you’ve already noticed why the story pushed my buttons: Yes, Feng Zhang and I have the same last name. No, we’re not related, but yes, I’m also Chinese-American.
But I was also excited to read Stat’s Zhang profile as a someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about Crispr and who gets credit for its discovery—according to the media, to scientists, and to the patent office. In case you aren’t up to speed, Zhang won a patent for Crispr over Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who came up with the idea independently and actually filed first. Easy gene editing with Crispr could one day cure any number of diseases, which is why the stakes for credit are so high.
The fight is often framed as Zhang versus Doudna, who is also the more famous of the two women. Doudna has gotten the lion’s share of media coverage up to now, while Zhang has the patent. But as I wrote in October, a third team in Lithuania came up with many of the same Crispr insights at the same time—and they get virtually no credit in the media. Who gets recognition is function of prior fame and institution backing. Zhang and Doudna work at MIT and UC Berkeley, respectively, and were well-known in their fields even before Crispr.
I didn’t say it explicitly then, but I’ll say it now: Race and gender likely have some role, too. Does this look like the mighty Broad Institute putting down two women scientists, my editor asked at the time. Is this the media preferring an attractive blonde woman over a guy with an accent and foreign name, I privately wondered. Any biases are almost certainly unconscious, but that doesn’t make their aggregate impact any less problematic.
What frustrated me about the Stat profile was not that it simply opens with “steamed chicken feet” (delicious, by the way), but that it doesn’t really follow up to explore what being a Chinese immigrant means for a star scientist, aside from a cursory mention of “immigrant’s ambition.” Without that heft, the allusions seem like lazy ways to dress up a science story. Certainly not every profile of a non-white, non-male scientist needs to dwell on identity politics, but this lede sets up a story to do just that.
And that could have been a different but interesting story, too. As an undergraduate biology student who briefly worked in a lab headed by a Chinese woman, I saw how her colleagues talked about her lab full of young female Chinese grad students. As the daughter of a biologist, I heard my father compare notes with colleagues on which professors were and were not willing to take on Chinese students and postdocs. And as a reporter on deadline, I’ve worried about calling up sources with foreign-sounding names, afraid that their accents could be inscrutable over the phone or their quotes difficult to parse.
Also, searching for Chinese names on PubMed is the worst. (PubMed is a search engine for scientific papers, especially in biomedicine.)
I don’t know how to solve that last problem, but we can start by acknowledging some of the others.
See the original article here: