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Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between him posing questions and dropping hints, we, as a class, were made to build a conceptual framework that accounted for these phenomena.  The sleuthing, the moments of insight, the discovery that a simple rule or idea could account for a scrum of disparate data… I frequently found those lessons exhilarating. 
When I wrote about the placenta in the book, it was essential to convey how one simple but easily overlooked fact accounts for so much – and so I described this by making Ian teach it in an imagined class. 

Why this book?

The accurate historical answer, as told in the book, is that I was once struck in the groin by a very fast-moving football, and that from the embers of my pain, I wrote a long essay about the evolutionary biology of testicle externalisation – a rather radical act that has only ever occurred in mammals (but that has evolved on, at least, two separate occasions.)   

I wrote this on the side as I worked in neuroscience, and although it began as a somewhat frivolous exercise, I loved immersing myself in evolutionary biology (something that is strangely underrepresented in contemporary neuroscience) and in learning about the history of mammals.

Upon publication, this essay caught the attention of Bloomsbury who invited me to pitch a book idea. Crucially, this invitation arrived not long after the birth of my first daughter.  The entire process of becoming a father had left me in awe of human reproductive and developmental biology.  And in pondering a book, I saw that this biology was, at heart, mammalian biology.  I asked Bloomsbury if I could write an account of all the traits that distinguish mammals from other animals, and they said yes.

The final book is, however, quite different from that original pitch.  This is primarily because I quickly felt that a sequence of separate essays about different mammalian traits wouldn’t make a satisfying whole - and, besides, the traits were hardly independent innovations.  My first task was, therefore, to work out how to meld these chapters into a single narrative. I kept the basic idea but the story that emerged laid in the way the stories were connected. 

What's next?

I’m now writing full-time and, currently, I’m writing feature articles. At present these seem to be converging around, 1) mortality and 2) the fact that our modern habit of overindulgence is really not very good for us.  

In terms of another book, I have a big, amorphous idea in my head that is insistent I attend to it.  This will almost certainly be my next book, but until I can sum it up in a sentence or two, I will keep schtum about it.  

What's exciting you at the moment?

Having spent 15 years in academia focusing on very narrow questions for three-to-five-year chunks of time, I’m really enjoying moving around biology and learning new things.   Also, instead of worrying about what I’m discovering (if anything) and whether my academic competitors are doing a better job, this career allows me to say 'Wow!' again, and to enjoy being really impressed by what scientists are doing.  Something that occasionally feels like a really good A-level biology class.    

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