I am a Mad Scientist: Using Real Science to Help Write Science Fiction

I am an actual, real-life "mad scientist." Don't believe me? In the past five years, my scientific expertise has helped create a horde of engineered monsters rampaging their way across a secret island research base, an evolutionary off-shoot of humanity that feeds on the weak of San Francisco, and a ever-adapting intelligent disease that violently "bioforms" the human body while the host watches in horror. So, yeah, I consider myself a mad scientist even though all of those things are works of imagination.

I'm a career applied molecular biology researcher that provides sound science consultation to cutting-edge, hard-science fiction author Scott Sigler. My main goal is to help make his visions of the weird, fantastic, and terror as accurate and plausible as possible.

A little bit about my background. I earned my bachelors in Microbiology, dabbled in Philosophy, and ultimately completed my Ph.D. in Developmental and Cell Biology where I studied TGF-ß signaling in Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies as they are commonly known). I generated countless strains of modified flies all in pursuit of understanding the role of three secreted ligands in fly embryogenesis (a fancy term for how a single cell turns into an adult). Why study those little critters? Someday this research will undoubtedly contribute to new treatments for those with a variety of illness that result in defects in these types of cell signaling pathways.

I'm also an entrepreneur who co-founded a biotech company (http://www.transgenada.com/) that helps create better shrimp foodstock. So with all that education and real-world biological engineering, why consult for science consulting for fiction authors? Simple: because I like it, and because — if given the opportunity — I can help make stories better.

As do most scientists, I enjoy a healthy dose of fantasy and sci-fi but I have a hard time losing myself in the story if the story is plagued with scientific misrepresentations, misinformation, and information that so grossly missed the mark I wonder if the errors were intentional (I'm looking at you, RED PLANET, saying DNA consists of A, T, G, and P? There's only four letters in DNA, and you got 25% of them wrong).

I hate to break people's bubbles, but no, aliens won't look like Spock. We won't be sexually compatible. All aliens in the galaxy won't be of similar technological advancement. Yes, there is gravity on the moon. No, using humans as batteries for machines does not make sense. Things that get exposed to radioactivity don't spontaneously grow in size. There are many more examples, but I'm already getting depressed, so let's move on.

Scientifically accurate storytelling is hard. Few creative individuals take the time to work out the details. You see, science fiction that operates in the universe we actually live in not only feels true, it also feels honest. If the creator is playing in my world that I know, experience, and study every day, I can become truly immersed and enjoy that world. Waving the wand of "Quantum Mechanics" or "it's nanotech!" can make for a fun story, but it strains the concept of "science" fiction when misused.

Knowledge of and use of science reveals amazing revelations, curiosities, and unexpected truths that can enrich and guide story telling. Therefore, whenever I find a bit of science fiction that rings true to me it is a rare cherished event. This is my story of how I came to meet and work with Scott Sigler.

As a technology fan I was an early adopter of Podcasts. Scott Sigler pioneered the phenomenon of audiobooks in a podcast format with the release of EARTHCORE in 2005. I was smack in the middle of my graduate studies at the time, but got sucked in anyway. His fiction stayed true to science. I won't go into detail to avoid spoiling the story, but some of the "creatures" in the novel had some very interesting implications from a biology point of view. Scott's website listed his email: on a whim, I asked about his science in the novel. Surprisingly, he responded the next day. Huh, an author that actually responded to my inquiry and he actually had logical responses to my questions.

It was exciting to a) meet an author that clearly worked hard to get the science right as often as he could, and b), was open to discussing — and correcting, when possible — the science within that work. So, I offered my help: I told Scott to feel free to contact me with any questions. Little did I know that this would set off a firestorm of emails that continues to rage to this day.

I didn't really expect him to take me up on the offer, so it surprised me when he sent me a copy of his manuscript for ANCESTOR with the note: "Any scientific errors, just let me know."

In ANCESTOR, the characters try to create a herd animal with human-compatible organs in an effort to solve the organ donor shortage that kills thousands of people every year. We could save lives if we had enough hearts, lungs, etc., but we don't and those lives are lost. Scott's plot involved a cogent hypothesis that, with sufficient information, you could essentially rewind the clocks of evolution to create the ancestor of all mammals (which overcomes several significant problems for xenotransplantation, an important goal, but if you want to get into that just read the book). Scott almost had the science right, but made minor errors or slight misrepresentations how molecular biologists work with or refer to various scientific concepts.

So there I was, helping improve the fiction that I loved. I was rewarded by hearing the characters in these stories parrot back snippets of my emails. All of this from simply emailing an author? Quite a thrill.

My involvement grew to a new level with Scott's INFECTED series, which finishes up with the novel PANDEMIC (out Jan. 21 from Crown Publishing). He pulled me in on the project very early to help build some of the fundamental aspects of the story. It was an honor, a thrill, and a headache mixed together and stir fried. Email after email rolled by where I would spend countless hours explaining and re-explaining scientific concepts. I often was needed to provide options. Scott: "I need something that does this to make the story work." Me: "Here are five possible explanations that make sense scientifically, choose one."

Before you write this series off as just another ham-handed attempt at a doomsday story, I will tell you that there is nothing like this tale — the "infection" in question is complex, realistic, and delves into not only genetic restructuring, but smart materials and biological Von Neumann devices. Crazy stuff, but completely plausible, and that's what makes it such a riveting — and terrifying — read.

Working with Scott opened up a world of consulting opportunities. I'm registered with the Science and Entertainment Exchange (http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/) and I have worked closely with five creative professionals on more than fifteen projects spanning art, novels and screenplays. The pure adrenaline of seeing your ideas on the page of a Best Sellers list, becoming an evil possessed scientist in a story, or your name in the back of a book sitting on the shelf of a local bookstore doesn't fade.

I've come a long way from a wide-eyed graduate student merely geeking out on a scientifically literate author. I now manage and direct research at an independent clinical research and diagnostics laboratory where I work with the cutting edge bioscience technology akin to the "God Machine" from Scott's novel ANCESTOR. I also own and operate my own aquaculture biotechnology company, that shares its name sake with the fictional company in that novel, that in 2013 was awarded a grant from the USDA to provide next generation solutions for our planet's food needs.

You see, working with the authors isn't only about making the world a bit more scientifically literate, or even making fiction that I enjoy a bit more accurate. The creativity, enthusiasm, and optimism from the creative like Scott has significantly impacted my life and helped inspire my work. I now see that the sky is the limit and that I can write my own story, here, now, in the real world, all around us.

Not bad for a mad scientist. Now where did I put that vial of magic nanotech stuff … ?