Weiner visit launches medical issues consortium

November 15, 2004

By hammersmith

Arizona scholars, educators, bioscientists and physicians gave warm welcome to science writer Jonathan Weiner and children’s book author Deborah Heiligman during their guest appearances at a recent series of events inaugurating the Arizona Consortium for Medicine, Society and Values.

Weiner, best known for his Pulitzer-winning tale of contemporary evolution, The Beak of the Finch, delivered a public lecture at the Arizona Science Center titled On the Edges of Medicine. The talk explored the ever-receding horizon of biomedicine at the start of the 21st century, echoing a central theme in his latest book, His Brother’s Keeper.

At the Science Center’s Flinn Auditorium, Weiner elaborated on remarks he’d made at a public policy roundtable earlier that day, particularly concerning institutional issues surrounding the funding of innovative science research—the opportunity for profit through “big pharma” vs. the more labor-intensive marshalling of funds as a non-profit enterprise. The risks of experimental therapies—to patients, to clinical trial subjects, to the research physicians and their institutions—formed another cluster of topics with which Weiner engaged his audience.

In addition to the evening lecture, morning policy talk, and an invitational reception, Heiligman and Weiner wrapped up their Consortium weekend in conversation with selected honors students at Arizona State University about the craft of writing from their different authorial vantage points.

Students present at the craft talk had a veritable backstage pass to a household headed by two writers, as Weiner and Heiligman talked of their complementary professions. They described a dynamic house in which each helps the other by reading rough drafts or drafting tricky emails, though they have differing writing styles, address different audiences, and need separate home offices. While Weiner said he goes into hiding when he starts a book, Heiligman craves social interaction during the writing process; she told participants that she is more inclined to answer even telemarketer phone calls and cooperate with their surveys when on an editorial deadline.

But though one writes about slime molds and sickness, and the other about everything from past presidents to family pets, much of their advice to aspiring writers was the same. They echoed Annie Dillard’s dictum, “Put everything you’ve got into the book you’re working on.” For both Weiner and Heiligman, getting interviewees to explain tough material in a way that they can make it accessible to the reader on the page sometimes requires coaxing their subject to approach the topic as if addressing a five-year-old (albeit one who has done her homework!)

Perhaps the most interesting congruence was that each benefited from different series of fortuitous accidents that shaped the direction and destination of their authorial paths. And they are each dedicated to cultivating in their audiences—as in their two sons—a commitment to taking the best of what is known to make the world a better informed, more reflective, and wiser place.

The Arizona Consortium for Medicine, Society and Values explores the ethical, humanistic, legal, and policy facets of medicine within its larger social context. The Consortium’s partners hope this collaboration will prompt the interaction of medical professionals, scholars, and students as it enhances community awareness of the role each partner plays in the widening biosciences landscape of Arizona. The partners include the ASU’s Center for Biology and Society and the Barrett Honors College; the Flinn Foundation; Mayo Clinic Scottsdale; the Translational Genomics Research Institute; and the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

The Consortium has several more events slated for 2005, including a regional undergraduate bioethics conference at ASU on Feb. 25-26, and the visit of National Book Award winner, physician-writer Sherwin Nuland, who will be in residence in March in conjunction with the Barrett Honors College’s Staging of Illness course, and will present a public lecture at Mayo Clinic Scottsdale on March 9.

For more information:

Arizona Consortium for Medicine, Society and Values

Scholars converse with Pulitzer Prize-winner,” 11/15/2004