On the death of a young scientist, Allison Tovo-Dwyer

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Alli
  • Alli
Last Saturday morning Chris Hayes was wondering on his MSNBC talk show why climate change had never showed up as a presidential campaign issue. A guest, WBAI Radio's Esther Armah, shared his regret. "One of the big challenges," she said, "is the degree to which the science has become so politicized that evidence matters less than which party politician is articulating what may happen."

I played this back and wrote it down because I thought it might help me work through something I'm trying to say here about science. I think scientists, by and large, and despite the ones who are certifiably mad, are smarter than the rest of us and think things through more clearly. Yet what respect do they get? The larger question for Hayes to raise is this: how can America advance as a nation when science is so widely mocked, misunderstood, and subordinated to the interests of politics, superstition, and religion?

I catch Hayes's morning show when I can, but it's been a while since I've seen him except on television. For a few years after college he lived in Chicago—and wrote for the Reader— and from time to time he was a visitor to our weekend house in southwestern Michigan. This is a house that plays an important role in the story I'm about to tell. It's a white frame house on a bluff looking down on Lake Michigan, and about 40 years ago three friends and I bought it for a song because the lake was rising and houses on the water's edge a few miles away were falling in—and also because the owners of the house, having rented rooms to weekenders, made the mistake of listing it as a hotel. Over the years we've painted over the numbers on the bedroom doors, gingered the place up quite a bit, added a couple of rooms, and lived an enormous amount of our lives there.

As four friends, we filled the place on weekends with young journalists, lawyers, and political reformers. As two husbands and two wives we married there and raised children there, organizing softball games on the long holiday weekends and giving the kids extra swings. In time the kids didn't require those swings, and before long when picking teams we began choosing them early rather than late, and the time came when we waited for them to choose us. A few years ago I was allowed into the game to play catcher. Chris Hayes hit a high pop foul I staggered under, and when it came down in my glove I felt so ashamed to feel so triumphant at catching a foul ball that I have not played softball in Michigan again. Our kids now use the house much more than we do. They might be happiest when we're back in Chicago.

But because the house throbs with ideas and intelligence and energy it remains an excellent place to be. Hiding behind my newspaper, I listen to the next generation planning new businesses, savoring new careers in law and education, and weighing America's most important young writers against each other. It goes without saying that everyone has always held science in high regard, though actual scientists have been about as uncommon at the lake house as West Point graduates, and hanging a new smoke detector tests the outer limits of anyone's technical expertise.

Four years ago Jon Baskin, son of the other owners, began showing up with some new friends he'd met as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. With some of them he launched the Point, a quarterly journal of ideas. Another of his friends was Allison Tovo-Dwyer, an undergraduate at the U. of C. She was different in so many ways. Though it would be unfair to say that anyone in Jonathan's (and my daughters') generation exactly puts on airs, to be young is to want to cut a figure; and Alli stood out in all the hubbub at the lake house in that so far as I could see she gave the figure she was cutting no thought at all. There was to Alli a bit of the ingenuousness of the farmer's daughter. She was into the Kardashians, as someone said the other day when friends gathered at Jonathan's parents' house in the city. She could talk at length about the Real Housewives of every major city. She read Us from cover to cover. When the conversation swung to Franzen versus Wallace she did what I did. She listened.

At the lake, ideas have always been coin of the realm. Alli let others toss them about. What mattered to her was knowledge. She studied chemistry and mathematics at Chicago, graduated with honors in 2010, and then entered an elite graduate program at MIT. From behind my newspaper I listened to Alli discuss the research she was doing there. What I could understand made me feel strangely triumphant. Alli—our Alli—Alli of this house—had enlisted in the war to conquer AIDS. I could close my eyes and think of names and faces, but beyond mourning the dead there was nothing I could do for them. Allie had taken on the disease that killed them.

Arup Chakraborty, director of MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, put Alli to work on the frontier that I'm tempted to say most fundamentally divides the scientific from the nonscientific cast of mind. Scientists get randomness; nonscientists too often don't. We like to think there's a cause for every effect—be it the hand of God, a conspiracy, coal, the one percent or the 47. We'll stay up all night arguing over what that cause is, full of faith that if only the rest of the world could see as clearly as we do the culprit for every human woe, the transformation in human affairs would be nothing short of miraculous.

Scientists know better. They even have a phrase—stochastic effect—to describe unpredictability. Science will brave a general prediction—say, that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere will raise sea levels over the next century—but it wouldn't presume to describe next year's hurricanes. This isn't cowardice or hypocrisy—it's humility in the face of randomness. Biology is full of stochastic processes. For instance, heavy exposure to radiation increases the probability of cancer, but there is no amount of radiation you could be exposed to that would guarantee you'd get it. That depends on too many unknowables.

One of the baffling mysteries of the HIV virus is that its effect on any infected individual cannot be predicted. Viral loads in the blood plasmas of the infected differ widely, and so does the time it takes for them to come down with AIDS. There are some "elite controllers" who are infected but never get sick at all. Why? Alleles are alternate forms of genes that may show up at particular locations on a chromosome—say one for blond hair and one for brown—and scientists know of correlations between certain alleles and resistance to the HIV virus. But the correlations are far from absolute. Possession of these alleles is no guarantee of resistance—even among identical twins, the status of one as an "elite controller" is no guarantee that the other will be as lucky. Furthermore, some infected people without the alleles never get sick.

Armed with algorithms and computers, Alli went to work trying to make a dent in the mystery. To quote the abstract of the paper that reports her research, though stochastic effects were believed to be unimportant when the viral load is high, she found that they actually "can have a profound influence on disease dynamics." The highly mutable HIV virus probes the body's T-cell defenses, and the times it defeats them are "infrequent and stochastic, resulting in divergent disease outcomes in genetically identical individuals." Her insights into the "genetic determinants" of this clash between virus and T-cells "provide clues for vaccine design."

I would like to tell Alli that it's the coolest thing in the world that someone who stayed in our lake house, raided our refrigerator, and pondered the sun setting across the lake outside our dining room window has done her bit to eliminate AIDS and now has much more to do. As far as I'm concerned she did it for all of us, for everyone who has passed through this house in the past 40 years. But that's not going to happen. About a year ago, when she was deep into her research, doctors told her her body was riddled with cancers that were virtually unheard of in someone her age. Joined in Boston by Jon, who largely put his own interests aside, she continued her work until she was too weak and frail to continue. Chakraborty and Elizabeth Read, a postdoc research fellow, completed the paper she was writing, and it was published on October 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, less than three weeks after Alli died at the age of 25. Chakraborty told the MIT newspaper, "Allison was a brilliant woman who would have developed into a great scientist."

Her death was utterly random. There is nothing about her disease or her life or work or even divine mischief that would have caused anyone to predict it. It just happened. Perhaps it would take another scientist to accept. I knew Alli only as someone who came out to the lake and was happy there. But where is her like? The rest of us diffuse knowledge. We barter it. We show off with it. Alli dug in and found it. I write this to say what everyone has lost.

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