At age 28, Shane Crotty already has accomplished what many scientists
take years to achieve.
As a graduate fellow at the University of California at San Francisco,
Crotty discovered how high doses of ribavirin cures some people
with hepatitis C by causing the virus to mutate uncontrollably.
Most recently, Crotty, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Vaccine
Research Center (VRC) Director Rafi Ahmed, wrote a critically acclaimed
biography on one of the most controversial and noted scientists
of modern times.
In Ahead of the Curve, Crotty explores the remarkable
career of David Baltimore, who at age 37 won the Nobel Prize in
physiology and medicine for his co-discovery of reverse transcriptase,
the enzyme that allows retroviruses like HIV to replicate. At the
pinnacle of his career, Baltimore made a series of groundbreaking
discoveries in virology, immunology and molecular biology, but his
entanglement in a scandal involving allegations of scientific fraud
would mire his reputation for more than a decade.
The Baltimore Affair, as it came to be called, began as a disagreement
over the interpretation of an esoteric immunology paper and exploded
into one of the largest scientific fraud controversies in U.S. history,
sparking extensive investigations by the National Institutes of
Health, the FBI and the Secret Service. The scandal also attracted
some half-dozen front-page headlines in The New York Times.
Baltimore eventually was vindicated, but his name came to be synonymous
with the scandal. Today, he is a leading molecular immunologist
and active in AIDS vaccine development.
“Baltimore’s life had all the needed ingredients for
a compelling book, including conflict, controversy and achievement,”
Crotty said. “But it was his influence on so many areas of
science that I most wanted to understand. How was he able to make
such hugely important contributions?”
Through extensive research and interviews, Crotty learned that
Baltimore had an uncanny ability to anticipate the next major scientific
advances and position himself in the fields where they would occur.
This central feature of Baltimore’s career, Crotty explained,
is reflected in the book’s title.
Crotty’s initial interest in Baltimore stemmed from an undergraduate
science writing seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It took Crotty an additional seven years after graduating from MIT
before Ahead of the Curve was published in 2001.
“Writing a book about how science gets done is generally
tough,” Crotty said. “You have to check thousands of
facts. You also have to be sure to provide people with a basic foundation
on which they can base their opinions. It’s similar to how
you need an understanding of the rules of football before you can
read the sports pages.”
Crotty isn’t planning to take on a new book project anytime
soon. Instead, he will continue focusing on research on virology
and immunology. In Ahmed’s VRC lab, Crotty has been studying
specialized immune cells called B cells and conducting immunology
research for the new anthrax vaccine program.
Meanwhile, Ahead of the Curve has garnered positive reviews
from both The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
Crotty and the book also have been featured on the C-Span program
“Book Notes.” He has spoken at a number of universities
and even at the California Institute of Technology, where Baltimore
currently serves as president.
“Baltimore has been genuinely happy with the book,”
Crotty said. “The press really dragged him through the mud
over this controversy. But I tried to bring out the human aspects
of the scandal that weren’t published before and show the
tremendous influence that Baltimore has had on science.”