1343 Mystery at 41st and Dunbar
In Sight: My Life in Science and Biotech
by Julia Levy, with a foreword by Molly Shoichet
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020
$34.95 / 9781487508319
Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb
The reviewer is reading Julia Levy’s book on the bus to UBC and has just arrived at 41st and Dunbar when he gets to the part where she says she joined a new biotech company and its first office was at 41st and Dunbar. Where, he thinks? Where Lawrence Books is now? The Shell station? The bus loop?
How odd, but the bus moves on, and besides, the company did too, and so eventually did Julia Levy, whose career began at UBC, where she taught immunology and bacteriology, and had her own lab, and was promoted to associate professor.
The early part of this book is quite fun. We learn how little Julia Levy, then called Julia Coppens, transformed herself from an untidy girl whose clothes kept bunching up into a dedicated scientist who knew what she wanted. Unlike the other girls in her high school, who wore cashmere sweaters and wanted to marry doctors, Julia wanted to become a doctor or a scientific researcher.
If you read the dustjacket or the foreword, you will think that she achieved this only by overcoming great obstacles, but in fact the way she tells the story there are hardly any obstacles at all. There was Walter Gage at UBC refusing to give her an exemption he was willing to give to the male students, and there were lecherous colleagues and a supervisor in some of the labs where she worked, but the striking thing about her story as she tells it is how often she was invited to do things: to do a PhD in England, to sit on University committees (even though she hated administration), to go to conferences and sit on grant boards.
And then she was invited to join a biotech startup which would try to produce a drug based on her research into photodynamic therapy. This eventually led to a drug, Visudyne, to treat macular degeneration (a disorder of the eyes) by combining medication and lasers, an idea that came to her because at Sonora Island where she had a cabin her family kept developing rashes from cow parsnip: she later learned that the reason the rashes were not constant was that they were triggered by a combination of a chemical in the plant and sunlight. With sunlight being intermittent in British Columbia, the rashes would come and go.
She thought the same idea could be applied to medications: develop drugs that would be activated by light. And the last half of the book is devoted to her efforts to make this work. Visudyne was the main result, but she also oversaw research into drugs to treat cancer, Barrett’s esophagus, and prostate issues. She did this as Chief Scientific Officer and later as Chief Executive Officer at QLT (Quadra Logic Technologies), the biotech company that started at 41st and Dunbar.
Becoming CEO was again something that happened by invitation, and at first she turned it down, fearing that investors wouldn’t take well to a female CEO, especially one who had been described as “that hippie woman.” But eventually she accepts and serves half a dozen years that seem to have made her increasingly unhappy.
She didn’t like administrative work at UBC, and didn’t like it at QLT either. She wanted to be doing research, science, but she got more and more caught up in market reports and sales projections, flying around the world to meet with investment bankers instead of messing around in a lab, her favourite thing to do. It feels almost sad by the end, though she doesn’t sound sad; she left QLT, but didn’t return to UBC or lab work; she ends by saying she takes pleasure in encouraging new startups to bring scientific discoveries to market as products that will be beneficial.
Still, something goes out of the book in its second half. The first part is full of charm and enthusiasm. There is even humour, as when she describes her refugee father wearing oversized clothing so that when he drove the car it looked like it was being driven by a giant hat. In the second half of the book there are some interesting observations about the interactions between Big Pharma and small startups, and on the ethics of research involving placebos, but an odd thing happens as we go along: she drops out of her own story.
When she steps down as CEO and begins interviewing potential successors, she is put off by those with big egos, especially one who constantly says “I … I … I.” She herself is much more self-effacing, an admirable quality in many situations, but a bit of a problem in an autobiography, which turns into a history of QLT much more than the story of Julia Levy.
She got her last name, by the way, by marrying Ed Levy. She tells us a bit about their courtship, but then virtually nothing about their marriage, not even about any effect her husband’s Jewish background may have had on her. For that matter, her father just fades out of the book; it’s not clear what happened to him, except that he came forward to sign the mortgage papers when, as a woman, Julia was not allowed to.
Also, what about her being “that hippie woman”? Was she? In what way? We do get more about her mother, whose own battle with macular degeneration helped prompt her research, and we hear about the tragic death of her oldest son. But what’s missing after the first part of the book is a sense of her career arc: what exactly did she do at QLT? Especially as CEO. It’s hard to tell, because she eschews “I” and speaks mostly of “we.” This is admirable, and yet …
Of course, beginnings are always the easiest to describe: how someone made it in their career, whether as a scientist, musician, writer. After that what can you say beyond “I wrote another book”? Or you can summarize the book (one of those deadly plot summaries) — the equivalent here is describing the science, which may pose some problems for the non-scientific.
But the main problem is that we lose Julia. Once she leaves UBC and goes to 41st and Dunbar she almost disappears into QLT, and that can’t be quite right.
Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed here by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed here by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb has recently reviewed books by Peter Quartermain, Katherine Bowers & Kate Holland, P.W. Bridgman, George Bowering, Jaime Smith, Jesse Donaldson, and Norman Ravvin.
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