A cautionary tale about research that touches a nerve

Roger Pierson’s tale is a cautionary one, a story that could slot into the comes-with-the-territory category or under the heading “occupational hazard.”’ It is a story about working hard and making important advances in one of those areas of science that elicit intense emotional responses for those with strongly held political, religious, moral or cultural views.

It is about a medical researcher coming face to face with the what he termed as "the thou-shall-not crowd.

"In a very naïve way, I've always known that not everyone would agree with or appreciate my work," said the professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences in the College of Medicine and director of the Reproductive Biology Research Unit, "but my awareness of that is now much more refined."

What sharpened his aware-ness was an incident that took place several years ago, but Pierson remembers it like it was yesterday. He was working to understand what women's bodies do normally, a word he uses with a great deal of caution, when he made a remarkable discovery. In a nutshell, Pierson found that egg follicles in women's ovaries function in a wave-like manner with the waves appearing every 11 to 12 days. And about 33 per cent of women have a follicle prepared to release an egg with each wave. Note that Pierson does not say these follicles do release the egg but rather that they are prepared to release the egg. As it turned out, that is a very important distinction.

Cautious about releasing his findings, Pierson said he "presented little abstracts of the work and felt out the scientific and medical communities." But he admits he was completely unprepared for the tsunami of negative reaction headed his way when the work was finally published.

The first story about his discovery, in
The Globe and Mail, was balanced and fair, he said, but the
National Post turned it into "a very exciting front page headline." The Reuters reporter who interviewed him displayed her own set of biases in both her questions and her writing, he said. "That story claimed women ovulate two or three times a month and that's simply not true."

Then the story really took off.

"Forty-eight hours. That's how long it takes news to travel all the way around the world. When it was all over, I'd done more than 440-odd interviews and I'd made two appearances in the
National Enquirer. When I get in there a third time, I'll retire."

After the reporters quit calling, the hate mail started arriving, from around the world. It ranged from "the mild rebukes like ‘you shouldn't be telling people these things'" to a politely worded cease and desist request from the Vatican, to letters "that called into question my species of origin. They were mostly the natural family planning crowd, the people who think we're working in an area of science we shouldn't be working in, messing about at the beginning of life and at the end of life." It got so bad that Pierson found himself wondering whether there were locks on the doors at the ends of his office hallway.

He smiled when asked how he managed to survive the ordeal: "Kevlar long johns and a bad attitude."

Despite the backlash, Pierson's work has been significant, both for women who want to have babies but can't, and those who help them using assisted reproduction techniques. "This work changed the protocols for assisted reproduction and we've seen an increase in success rates. It's also had huge implications for fertility control, but I've learned that ‘control' is a dirty word for some vocal segments of the population. So from a naïve scientist's point of view, this is a gift," albeit one that is not wrapped up in a nice neat package.

When you ask Pierson what he learned from this experience, his first response is that he does not want to fight with people. Second is that language is important—words like normal and control can be problematic.

"Most people don't have a large vocabulary and the problems come when lay people interpret very precise scientific language. The other thing I'll say is that science is an open-ended thing, an ongoing self-correcting body of knowledge, and if minds are already made up, you don't want to confuse them with the facts."

Pierson still does research and still publishes. His work is profound and recognized internationally. Looking back over his 25 years at the University of Saskatchewan, Pierson notes that when he arrived from the U.S., Canada had eight clinics using assisted reproduction techniques and the success rate was three to six per cent. Today, there are 34 clinics in the country and the best can boast about a success rate north of 70 per cent, he said "but as scientists, we teach the people who do direct patient care so it's their success, not yours."

Still, Pierson is quite circumspect about sharing what he does for a living. "When you're in my position, you don't tell people on the street. When people ask, I say I'm a professor and usually that's all you need to do. If they say ‘Oh, what do you teach?', I say gynecology, and that usually shuts them up. If they persist, I tell them I'm a reproductive endocrinologist—I work to help women control their own fertility."

And if a reporter calls? "I use much more neutral language and I don't make judgements. In the past, I would have told people what I think; now I realize it's not important what I think, and I always try to move the discussion back to the science."

As for the correspondence he receives about follicular waves or other areas of his research, Pierson said he always responds, no matter how hate-filled or hurtful the message. "I try to  make people understand that they've been heard—I tell them they're not going to change my mind, but they've been heard.

"There are segments of the population that think everyone should make the same choice they did. People often allow their emotions to overrule their thought processes and deep thought about an emotionally, socially charged issue is not something that happens often."

But it should, said Pierson, particularly among those doing the science. "We've lost sight as an academy that fundamentally our degrees are in philosophy. Philosophy, ethics—these are courses that are vitally important. I would make them mandatory; a part of being a scientist is being a philosopher and an ethicist. We need to be able to separate the science that can be done from the science that should be done. Otherwise, you're just a

Speaking to young scientists considering a career in reproductive science, embryonic stem cell research or the myriad other disciplines that potentially raise strong emotions, Pierson has some advice: "Full speed ahead but beware—the response can be quite exciting. You may experience some very personal attacks, but you can't take it personally. And buy those Kevlar
long johns."
Share this story