James Valcourt, a third-year PhD student in Sharad Ramanathan’s lab, has written and published a book for the popular science market. Systematic: How Systems Biology Is Transforming Modern Medicine was published through Bloomsbury Publishing’s Sigma imprint just this month, and is the culmination of almost four years of hard work.
“I started the process in May 2013,” Valcourt said. “I signed the deal in February 2014, finished the first full draft in January 2015, and turned in the final draft in April 2016.”
Having graduated from Princeton in 2012, Valcourt wrote the first half of the book before coming to Harvard’s Systems Biology program in 2014. Even with the new demands of lab work at Harvard, he managed to find time for the project.
“The rest of it was finished at night, on weekends, and over winter break,” he said. “I tended to use the book as a way of procrastinating coursework and coursework as a way of procrastinating the book, so it wasn’t too bad in the end.”
“Jim is an outstanding student from the Systems Biology program at Harvard and is at the beginning stages of his PhD,” said Professor Ramanathan. “He is working on early development decisions of pluripotent cells in the embryo. He was trained in systems biology at Princeton through their integrated science program which has produced excellent students, Jim among them.”
Although Valcourt never took any classes in science writing, his own scientific ambitions were started through his admiration of popular author Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. The initial idea for his own book came from his search for a book on the microbiome to give to his mother for Mother’s Day. At the time, he couldn’t find exactly what he was looking for.
“So that same night I wrote a wrote a quick, one-page pitch for a microbiome book that I then cold-emailed to eleven literary agents,” Valcourt said. “Two of them expressed an interest, and it all snowballed from there. Once I got an agent, she quickly convinced me that writing a microbiome book would be a bad idea. Several of them were already in the works, and I had no reason to think mine would be any better than those. With her help I refocused on writing about systems biology.”
Valcourt’s plan for the book developed through his interest in telling fun science stories, all connected through their illustrations of systems biology topics.
“I usually say that the book is about how simple biological parts work together to do complicated things: how neurons work together in the brain; how the microbes in the gut might interact with the body to influence one’s weight, disease risk, and even mood; how bamboo flowering patterns in India create swarms of rats every 48 years; and how gerbils in the deserts of Kazakhstan get bubonic plague,” he said. “My motivation for writing was primarily to tell the stories that I think are cool, so I’d like to think that I write the same way I would tell the story at a cocktail party.”
“Walking into the Barnes and Noble in Union Square in New York [the other day] and seeing it in person was pretty surreal,” Valcourt said.