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August 5, 2002

Shane Crotty starting out Ahead of the Curve

By Poul Olson

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.”