Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (2011)
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In The Honest Look, Jennifer L. Rohn has given life, as only a writer can, to one of the most important aspects of scientific research and science itself—the human aspect. For that reason alone, it is a significant novel about science, but it is also a very beautiful and touching story. The Honest Look could dramatically change the way readers who are not scientists understand the scientific method and what scientists must do in their pursuit of ground breaking research.

When Claire Cyrus arrives in Amsterdam to begin her job as a senior scientist at a biotech start-up called Neurosys, she is immediately perceived as an interloper by her peers. She quickly falls in love with Amsterdam, only to realize after she takes an apartment there that, while the city is a great tourist destination, it’s not a comfortable place for most expats.

Undaunted, Claire, perceived as an offbeat prodigy, responds to her outcast status by disappearing into her work, putting in long hours and often sleeping overnight in an armchair she commandeers for her lab. Enterprise and hard work seem to  pay off. She demonstrates that she can ready the company’s only drug to begin its Phase I clinical testing. Simultaneously, a most unlikely romance develops with one of the firm’s principals. But then, just when the success of her contributions promises to solidify her place in the company, she accidentally finds something that doesn’t fit into the working hypothesis on which the company’s only drug is predicated.

What makes Rohn’s book so noteworthy is that it turns a negative result into a vivid human drama. Most of the time scientists focus on finding evidence that “supports” a general hypothesis, theory or principle, but they also understand that a single negative finding can ruin the generality of every principle and theory in science.

When a slip of Claire’s thumb takes a sample outside the cells she’s studying, her curiosity and belief in the scientific method lead her to run the incidental sample through her apparatus instead of disposing of it. To her surprise, the analysis doesn’t come out the way the Universal Aggregation Principle predicts it should. And if the principle isn’t true, then Neurosys’ only drug shouldn’t work.

Now what?  This is where research can get either nasty or exciting, and for Claire, it is both.

Rohn’s sensitive and perceptive handling of characters’ feelings, a complicated love triangle,  evocative descriptions of Amsterdam, and a realistic glimpse of the daunting years that young scientists must endure to make their reputations add up to a compelling  and engaging read.

The Honest Look by Jennifer L. Rohn is a thought provoking and riveting  “Lab Lit” novel that draws you into this specialized world and the competitive environment of research scientists.  Highly recommended.