Elena is a scientist writing science fiction, specializing in thrillers, and she’s got quite a yarn to spin.
Here’s my interview with Elena.
Writing is an arduous task, a labour of love. What inspired you to start writing science fiction?
That’s an interesting question, because in fact, I grew up reading the classics and a lot of literary fiction, and indeed that’s all I wrote for the longest time. I studied theoretical math in college and graduate school, and as much as I love rigor and logic, I soon grew tired of all the abstraction with no immediate application. Quoting from a guest blog I did for the STEM Women website
“Pure math is beautiful and perfect. There’s Banach spaces, and then Hilbert spaces, and then Banach spaces of Hilbert spaces, and Hilberts of Banachs of Hilberts… It’s like getting lost in one of Dr. Seuss’s pictures. Oh, the thinks you can think…Yes you can, but… do you want to?”
I switched to genetics in 2004 and never looked back. That’s when I started also envisioning all these fantastic science fiction scenarios because truly, if you think human imagination has no limit, wait until you see what Mother Nature came up with through genetics and epigenetics. It’s mesmerizing! You think vampires are cool? Wait until you learn about epigenetic chimeras! We have alien colonies right in our body, millions of aliens who can actually control how fat and/or lean we are by expressing (or not) certain genes in our guts.
So, in a nutshell, that’s how I started writing science fiction: because I fell in love with molecular biology and genetics. 🙂
As a scientist, can you tell us a little about your work on developing a vaccine for HIV?
My mentor, Bette Korber, designed a couple of vaccine constructs a few years ago, before I started working in her group. The problem with HIV is that the virus mutates so rapidly that the immune system can’t keep up with it. Think of influenza, for example: it mutates fast, too, but because within one season every infected person more or less shares the same virus, we can still vaccinate people with a different strain every year. Well, with HIV, every person has a different virus. Imagine that: with over 30 million people currently living with HIV/Aids, how are we going find a vaccine that can protect from that many viruses?
Bette and the other wonderful scientists working in my group came up with some genetic sequences that could summarize all the diversity in the HIV population, so that by vaccinating with a handful of strains you can protect people against millions of circulating variants. The problem with that is that these genetic strains had to be reconstructed in silico, in other words, on a computer. No HIV virus found in nature right now will be able to give you that kind of protection. However, a vaccine created with a computer instead of being found in nature has to overcome many more hurdles before it can go into human trials.
When I came on board we had ongoing experiments on animals, and my role was (still is) to analyze the experimental data and statistically validate the results. The good news is that the results have been great in animal studies, and human trials just started this past October. We are all very excited about this.
Being a scientist by trade, does it bug you when movies like Prometheus take shortcuts and hash the science? (I couldn’t believe they took off their helmets inside an alien tomb!)
For me, it’s not just the science. I learned a lot of forensics and police procedural when researching for my book Chimeras, so now shows like CSI are totally ridiculous to me.
And indie author to indie author: you wouldn’t believe how many errors I catch in traditionally published books. It drives me up the wall, because these are the same editors who couldn’t believe the science in my books, and then they go off and publish poorly researched (or not researched at all) books.
Can you tell us a little about your latest writing project?
I’m planning and jotting down ideas for a third book in the Track Presius series, a hard-boiled detective thriller where crimes revolve around medical research and genetics. I’m also about 1/3 into the sequel of Gene Cards, which instead is a futuristic thriller featuring Biothreat special agent and Muay Thai fighter Skyler Donohue, her white hat hacker friend Peter Wang, and the extravagant medical examiner Dr. Erasmus Montoya. As if that wasn’t keeping me enough busy, I’m working on a short for Samuel Peralta’s next anthology in the Future Chronicle series, and I’m half way through a YA fantasy novella, which may or may not turn into a serial (we’ll see).
If you could have one of your books turned into a movie, which one would it be and why?
Chimeras, for sure! It’s a hard boiled detective thriller with enough action (but lots of science too!) to make it a fun ride. If I’m allowed a little plug, the audio book just came out, and it is a bit like watching the movie. The narrator did an amazing job! I’ll admit I’m biased, though. 😉
What do you love most about science fiction?
I love just about everything about science fiction, but if I were to pick one favorite aspect, it would have to be the speculative one. When I read a book, I want something that leaves me pondering, and science fiction has that power because many of the premises are drawn from our every day life and projected into other worlds, or other realities. It’s fun to speculate about our future or envision the possible consequences of our behaviors as a species.
Thanks so much for the opportunity, Peter!
You can find Elena’s writing on Amazon and her amazing photography and artwork is available on sale on SmugMug