Innovation Ecosystem

We are our stories

An interview with Katie Hafner, science writer and storyteller, about her new podcast series, “Lost Women of Science,” and the initial episode looking at the life of Dr. Dorothy Andersen, a dedicated researcher who solved a medical mystery when she identified and defined cystic fibrosis in 1938

Photo by Michelle Claire Gevint

Katie Hafner, science writer, who is the host of a new podcast series, "The Lost Women of Science," whose first episodes focus on unraveling the story of Dr. Dorothy Anderson, who identified and defined cystic fibrosis.

Image courtesy of Lost Women of Science website

A new podcast, the "Lost Women of Science," made its debut last week, with the first episodes telling the story of Dr. Dorothy Andersen.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/8/21
An interview with Katie Hafner, talking about the launch of a new podcast, “The Lost Women of Science,” and the first episodes about Dr. Dorothy Andersen, who identified and defined cystic fibrosis.
Would Brown University or the University of Rhode Island consider launching an entire academic year focused on Women In Science, in parallel to the initiative at Barnard College? What stories are important to preserve about scientific discovery in Rhode Island led by women? What are the best metrics to determine how podcasts have supplanted written materials as a source for news? Who will hold Big Pharma accountable for the exorbitant prices of life-saving drugs?
The writing of obituaries has become the way that stories about our lives get told, it seems, as a kind of last will and testament to our accomplishments: how long we lived, where we lived, what jobs we held, the members of the family who survived us, and sparsely told tales of our interactions with the world around us.
Obituaries these days, of course, which have become part of the corporate world of funeral homes, are expensive to run in the newspapers of record.
But they are very limited in their ability to share the stories about our lives and the interactions with the people in the community around us. Because our lives are much more than the legacy of our DNA and the genealogical records of our families.
What often is left out of the storytelling about our lives are the acts of kindness that bind us together as neighbors, as a community. As the lyric goes, "Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph, preserve your memories, there's all that's left you."

PROVIDENCE – It is always a challenge to interview another journalist about her work. It did not take Katie Hafner long – some three minutes into our conversation, even before I could ask a follow-up to my second question – for her to turn the tables and begin to ask me questions.

The conversation took place on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 3, a day before the official launch of Hafner’s new podcast series, the “Lost Women of Science,” and the first of four episodes featuring an exploration into the life of Dr. Dorothy Andersen.

Hafner likened it to writing a mystery story, but she chose to work in an audio format, in part because so little was known about Anderson and her actual life.

Hafner is an accomplished science writer, the author of seven books, and a veteran reporter with The New York Times. She described her decision to tell the forgotten stories of women scientists in podcast form as if it were a natural progression of her career at this juncture in her life – and the importance of her own work as a storyteller.

“I’ve written a lot of books. I have written seven books. Six nonfiction, one fiction,” Hafner explained in the interview with ConvergenceRI.

“And yes, I’m a writer, I’ve always written, but there is something about the story [of Dr. Dorothy Andersen]; I worried there wasn’t enough material to sustain a book.”

In choosing a podcast over writing another book, Hafner said she was influenced by the change in the way people now get their news and information. “I think that the mood has shifted; we are getting our information more in audio form than we ever have.”

As part of the new endeavor, Hafner and her team are also considering the idea of launching a children’s book series, arranged thematically, targeted at middle-school students, with prospective titles such as “The Lost Women of the Manhattan Project,” “The Lost Women of the Manhattan Project,” “The Lost Women of Computers,” and “The Lost Women of Mathematics.”

Further, Hafner shared her own experiences – about how she herself had been, unwittingly, a part of the problem.

Her grandfather had been a renowned physicist; her grandmother had also been an accomplished biologist. But the family rarely dwelled on her grandmother’s work as a scientist, instead focusing on the acclaim of her grandfather.

She begins the first episode of her storytelling about Dr. Dorothy Andersen with a mea culpa: “I have been writing about science and technology for decades, most of that time for The New York Times…

She recounted how she had interviewed numerous prominent male figures, including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Serge Brin and Bill Gates, among others. “But I can’t think of a single woman who was a major figure in any of the stories I wrote. I don’t remember it bothering me very much at the time. It just seemed [a pause here] normal.

Hafner continued: “These days I write obituaries for The Times, and I still face resistance when I am writing about lesser-known women in science whose work was pivotal to their field, which leads me to the central thesis of The Lost Women of Science podcast – for every Marie Curie whose story has been told, there are dozens more tales of innovation and just plain genius problem solving done by great female scientists who swam against the current.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Katie Hafner, discussing her work in creating the podcast, “The Lost Women of Science.”

ConvergenceRI: How important is story telling in science? Do you believe a person’s story to be their most valuable possession?
HAFNER: Oh wow. What a great question. We are our stories. I know that sounds kind of existential. But, it is all part of the human condition, in the sharing of our stories.

And then, when you add to that, someone who has done something incredible, like Dorothy Andersen, whose story is in terrible danger of being lost, because of all these reasons that we go into in the podcast. Like, who decides to save your stuff?

All the stuff you leave behind. How does that happen? Who makes those decisions?

I do not think she [Dorothy Andersen] was much of a self-promoter. There was no Twitter. [Hafner laughs.] She was just there, doing her work; she probably didn’t think about it.

The weird thing is, I’m kind of jumping ahead here, because it is [covered] in Episode Four. The weird thing is that she left all of her personal papers to someone named Bessie, and we didn’t even know who that was. It was bizarre. It is so sad.

Here is this woman with this amazing story. Her research papers end up in the Columbia [University] archives when someone moved into her office after she died and was cleaning out the desk.

ConvergenceRI: Has that made you better in thinking about how you store your own personal papers? I have a storage locker, and I have those old, five-drawer, metal file cabinets filled with papers, and I am unwilling to get rid of them.
HAFNER: Let’s parse this: To get rid of them. What does that mean?

ConvergenceRI: That is a good question.
HAFNER: How do you assess what you have got there? You are going to have to go through it.

ConverenceRI: Right. Essentially, as a journalist, I have 50 years of my writings. I am not about to throw those away yet. I have transcribed a lot of them. At some point, I have to translate them into a more accessible form.
HAFNER: Yes, it is a problem, because of digital archiving. It sounds like what you have are these file drawers filled with interviews and transcripts of interviews.

You are going to have to go through that and decide what is important, to be your own best editor.

[Editor’s Note: It turns out that Hafner had faced a similar problem with having to go through her late husband’s files, with the help of her daughter.]

ConvergenceRI: I don’t know whether Cathy [Bennett Warner, the publicist], was able to forward my publication and explain what I do.
HAFNER: She said that you sounded amazing.

ConvergenceRI: Thank you. I believe our paths may have crossed in the distant past. But that is another story.

In the first episode of the podcast, which I listened to, you talk a bit about your own motivations in producing this series, related in part to your own family’s history, and in your experiences writing about science – and obituaries for The New York Times. You mention the resistance you encountered when writing about women and their obituaries. Can you share a little bit more about your motivations?
HAFNER: Oh boy. You mean about obits?

ConvergenceRI: With obits. Yes. I know that The Times has a new series where they are taking women out of the shadows and writing new obituaries for women who were never recognized. I was also curious about your own family history – coming from grandparents who were scientists, and how that impacted your view about what stories get told.
HAFNER: I am embarrassed to tell you that I didn’t really think about my grandmother’s work until I started doing the podcast.

Here is a woman, she was Dorothy Andersen’s contemporary; she gets her Ph.D. in biology from Columbia back in 1937, and I just vaguely knew that she was a biologist.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was a famous, well-known physicist, who worked on the Manhattan Project, who revamped science education in the United States, and, who invented the atomic clock, so we knew all about his work,

And then, it is so embarrassing, that I didn’t even really care, because I wasn’t taught to care about her work. We are the sum of what we are taught, right?

My family didn’t emphasize her work; they emphasized his work. And, it is possible that his work was more important than hers, and more groundbreaking. Who knows? But, she certainly had a head on her shoulders.

For years, I have been writing obituaries for The Times. The most recent [obit] I did is on a woman who got her Ph.D., from Harvard/Radcliffe, in 1949, her Ph.D., in Physics, at age 21. And then, she just stops working and has kids. Don’t you wonder, what happened?

Is that an answer to your question?

ConvergenceRI: In part, I try not to ask yes or not questions, as you may have figured out. We all have the stories that we were told about our families, and the stories that we were not told.

What was it about Dorothy Andersen that intrigued you, say, as differentiated from the story of Rosalind Franklin and her work on DNA [and her work helping to identify the structure of the double helix] for which she never fully received credit.
HAFNER: I think of every single one of those women whose names we have collected. We have a database right now between 150 and 200 women and that is growing, who deserve more recognition for the part they played in this or that scientific achievement.

Our mantra is that for every Rosalind Franklin out there, whose story has been told, there are scores of women who might not have done something as dramatic as discovering the structure of DNA, or played the key role that she played with her x-ray crystallography; however, they are out there, having done amazing things.

So, Dorothy Andersen was, she was someone much like Rosalind Franklin, who lived alone. Nothing was left behind except her [scientific] papers, the research papers she wrote. And, it is thanks to a couple of men, I call them her “fan boys,” one of whom is writing a biography of her.

Another is a pediatric pulmonologist at Dartmouth, Dr. Brian O’Sullivan, who pays tribute to her every single time he starts to lecture to first-year med students about cystic fibrosis and the history of the disease.

I have this note taped to my computer that he wrote to me: “I often hold Dorothy Andersen up as an exemplar for medical students on the importance of being prepared, being observant, seeing and not just looking…”

These are women who faced huge odds. Think about it. Being a woman is one thing. She went to Mt. Holyoke. We have these women’s colleges to thank in huge part for teaching science, early. But they often went into teaching instead of research science.

But Dorothy didn’t. She went on medical school. And, she was basically shut out of surgery, which is what she wanted to do. And so, we actually have all that discrimination to thank for the fact that she became a pathologist, because of her crazy, smart mind.

ConvergenceRI: For women who are at the forefront in scientific endeavors today, one of the challenges is to change the equation moving forward, so that their work doesn’t become lost. How do women scientists change that narrative?
HAFNER: We are partnering with Barnard College [a private women’s college that is one of four undergraduate colleges at Columbia University]. The announcement is being made today [Nov. 3] by the President of Barnard, they are launching a “Year of Science for Women.”

They are pulling out all of the stops, to inspire, to get the conversation going, to keep it going, to work on the pipeline issues, to work on the glass ceiling issues, all throughout science.

Hooray for them. I think it is great. I don’t know of any other school that has done a year of science for women.

What is important is that the president, Sian Beilock, she is a neuroscientist, she is championing this. She went to the University of California San Diego. I went there, too.

ConvergenceRI: What have you learned yourself, about yourself, as part this effort to produce this podcast, in capturing the lost stories of women scientists?
HAFNER: About myself?

ConvergenceRI Yes.
HAFNER: I am not a scientist. I do not have a mind for science. I used to have a great mind for mathematics. That was when I was very, very young, and who knows, what happened in that whole process.

What I have learned is that I am a storyteller. The more stories that I can tell, the better off the rest of the world is going to be, because that’s how I can help.

I feel a little bit like, you may think this is little bit over the top, but I have been wondering lately, especially as I look at my own huge files.

My late husband and I wrote a history of the Internet together, and we had all kinds of primary source materials. And, I knew that I had to do something with all of it, so I donated that to the Internet Archive,

My point is, and you must face this, too, as a journalist. You have this accumulated body of work. What does it lead to in the end?

I feel like I have gotten really lucky because at the end of my career, my skills have kind of been building up to telling these complex stories in a creative way.

You know, I was at The New York Times for a very, very long time. And, I feel like this is an even greater platform. The Times tends to be a little bit restrictive.

ConvergenceRI: Really? I never would have noticed that.
HAFNER: [laughter]

ConvergenceRI: I have my own stories about my interactions with The Times. But that is a whole other story. Do I have time for a couple more questions?

ConvergenceRI: In the podcast, you mention that there is a new drug treatment for cystic fibrosis, but that it is very expensive. Is that part of the story that needs further investigation, looking at how the tremendous work by scientists like Dorothy Andersen have now been monetized?
HAFNER: Yes, I know. In fact, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which was started by a parent whose child was diagnosed by Dorothy Andersen, now has an endowment of $5 billion. That is huge.

There is a lot of money in these drugs to treat Cystic Fibrosis.

ConvergenceRI: I am somewhat familiar with Vertex [the Boston, Mass., pharmaceutical company, which manufactures the drug, Trikafta, which generated sales of $3.86 billion in 2020, and which costs $311,503 per year].
HAFNER: We had some spirited debates about how much we should talk about that. It is really a bit more tangential to the story of Dr. Anderson.

We didn’t harp on it. But it absolutely deserves a closer look. We are talking about a drug that costs about $30,000 a month, basically, and people have to intentionally live below the poverty line in order to get Medicaid that will pay toward the drug.

It is worthy of attention, but I do not think it was really our job to be saying that in the podcast.

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