Spotlight: Randi Epstein

In our latest author spotlight, Elena Bowes caught up with Randi Epstein MD to discuss her recent book release, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything.

Hormones are confusing. They are so much more than sex and boobs, mood swings and menopause.  Can you describe what hormones are in 26 words?

Hormones are potent chemicals secreted from one gland in the body and reaching faraway targets, like our internal Wi-Fi. (Far away as in brain to ovaries.)

What inspired you to write this book? Did your grandmother Martha’s Addison’s Disease, a disease caused when the body isn’t making enough of the hormone cortisol, play a role?

My inspiration had nothing to do with my family history but all to do with the last century, which was one filled with huge advances in hormone research but also one with outrageous claims. I hope that readers will come away with a more nuanced understanding of what is real and what is hype.

I normally read fiction, sometimes nonfiction, rarely science-y books. Yet I loved your book because of your curiosity to uncover not just the fascinating discoveries, but the human stories of the people behind them, both men and women, especially women. How easy was it to pick and choose your cast of brilliant characters?

I was really fortunate to connect with patients, scientists and doctors willing to open up and share their experiences with me—some personal, some tragic, some offering hope. And yes, not everyone made it into the final cut. As you know, we writers sometimes have to “kill our babies” (what an awful journalistic adage) in order to save our narrative.

Your book contains lots of funny stories about the charlatans of the times, like the ones who peddled ape and goat testicles to boost men’s virility. How easy was it to select the best, or shall we say the worst, charlatans? 

I always had an eye to what anecdote most represents the culture of the time, whether that was in the 1920s or the 2018s.

How large a role did cultural influences at the time play into the various discoveries and false remedies? What would you say are the cultural influences affecting science now? What role has the internet played? What advice would you give the general public into not falling for these false remedies?

It’s all culture that influences consumers as well as scientists. Researchers do not work in a vacuum, they are swayed by politics and society, too. I think we really have to teach science literacy and ensure that people understand the importance of evidence rather than testimony when they are making decisions about their own health and wellbeing.

One of the things that I love about your book is how you demystify the science of endocrinology by distilling complex scientific ideas into easy to understand metaphors. In your introduction you describe estrogen and testosterone as “fraternal twins”. Later, you compare the process of growing “to baking a cake”. Do you think in metaphors? What advice would you give would-be science writers in making a subject matter as readable as possible?

My goals is to make science easy to understand and a pleasure to read for those who think they have no interest at all. And yes, I do think in metaphors. When I picture these chemicals or the way our bodies works, it helps me to grasp information when I have an image in my head—and then I try to describe that visual to readers.

Describe your perfect reader.

Well, I love when people say they enjoyed the stories—and they learned a  lot. I love when non-medical people say they now ‘get it’ when it comes to hormones. I love when medical folk tell me that I taught them something about the history of their profession. But what I really love is when people say I made them laugh—or that I’m witty. My kids insist I’m not funny at all!

What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?  

I love researching medicine, science and medical history. I tend to go way way off on tangents that are interesting but must quadruple the time it takes me to get anything done. So for me the challenge is staying focused. And—writing. A blank pages frightens me. I’m slow. I rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite.

In your acknowledgements, you say that the process of writing a book is similar to how hormones work, in that hormones rarely act alone and you relied on several people from experts to your students to your agent to your mother. How would you describe your writing process? 

I start off alone—mulling over information, then reread all of my notes. I research and write one chapter before going to the next. Once I have an ‘okay’ draft, I share it with writer friends who provide honest feedback. Then I rewrite according to their comments. Then I’ll usually put it aside and reread again. I also like to talk about my research to students and friends and other writers because their insights allow me to understand what intrigues or shocks readers. That helps me organize each chapter. So yes—a lot of alone time (which I enjoy) but also a lot of reliance on feedback.

What’s next?

Oh, I’m mulling over some ideas—with the general idea of science and society. I love choosing topics that not only tell a story of medicine but also about ourselves and society.

What do you do for fun?

I love spending time with my four children and my husband; love film (on the big screen) and theatre (I’m more a drama/comedy person than a musical person); love going to central park for walks with my dog or slow, meditative runs (my ageing knees don’t do fast runs anymore). And I love reading—fiction and non-fiction.

 

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