An arsenical profile

Popular Science writer Tom Clynes gives us a long profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who became a lightning rod for criticism after she authored an article claiming some bacteria were using arsenic in the place of phosphorus in their DNA (“Scientist in a Strange Land”). I’ve been following the story as it has become a case where traditional methods of peer review have conflicted with more open approaches to science.

This article tells a story that hasn’t come out fully before, while emphasizing repeatedly the reasons why many have criticized the approach to the media by Wolfe-Simon and NASA’s role in hyping the findings.

Wolfe-Simon says that otherworldly is the word that came to mind when she first visited the lake in 2009 on a grant from NASAs Astrobiology Institute. She was there with several other researchers, including Ronald Oremland, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park who has studied the biogeochemistry of Mono Lake for 30 years. The two had met at a conference in 2006. She was always persistent, Oremland says. She kept on talking about arsenic substituting for phosphorus. Every two years, her argument became a little more complicated and a little more compelling. Finally, I said, Look, I dont think this is going to work, but it might. Come on out to the lakewhat have we got to lose?
Now, for the first time since last summer, Wolfe-Simon has returned, not to do fieldwork but to pretend to do it for the benefit of a two-part Nova television documentary that will air this fall when NASA launches its Mars Science Laboratory, a mission to determine the habitability of the Red Planet and to search for chemical signatures of life. The video crew has flown in from London for what will turn out to be a one-day shoot.

I just don’t get why NASA and NOVA are continuing to present this to the public instead of getting to the bottom of it as quickly as possible. I would be in my lab constantly until I knew the answer, or I wouldn’t feel like I could tell the story honestly to anyone. It is difficult for a young scientist to turn down the kinds of invitations Wolfe-Simon has received, but I think the whole situation is poisonous. In the article, she worries that her career in science may be over (she’s been dismissed from Oremland’s lab), and in my opinion her mentors and funders bear a lot of responsibility for the series of public relations mistakes.