BERKELEY — Her father, a well-known entomologist, dearly wanted her to follow in his scientific footsteps, but Deborah Blum realized early on that she wasn't cut out for bug-hunting or, for that matter, any other sort of research career.
While trying to cope with freshman chemistry, she nearly set the lab on fire when she knocked over a Bunsen burner. "Klutzes don't make very good scientists," Blum says with a chuckle as she deftly scoops up a bit of polenta during the prerequisite author's lunch at Chez Panisse, Berkeley's temple of California cuisine. "Much to my father's regret, I decided then and there I'd be much happier as a reporter."
Nowadays Blum has plenty to be happy about. Not only has the jittery, young would-be chemist become a highly accomplished science reporter, but she's just capped her career with a provocative new book--her first--that brilliantly tackles one of the thorniest issues of contemporary science.
Even the formerly skeptical Prof. Murray Blum is impressed. "He's of the old school," says his first-born (of four daughters). "He believed scientists should talk only to other scientists, not to reporters, though I think I've finally won him over."
Titled "The Monkey Wars" (Oxford University Press), Blum's tale is a riveting, fast-paced study of the raging public controversy over the use of primates in biomedical research--experiments that, in spite of the best intentions, often leave them maimed, mutilated or dead.
In a highly laudatory review, John Carey, biomedical correspondent for Business Week, wrote: "I guarantee that whatever your current beliefs may be, 'The Monkey Wars' will make you see the whole question of animal research--and much that has been done in the name of science--quite differently."
In less gifted hands, the subject might easily have lapsed into polemics; indeed, the shelves are already filled with such tracts. But Blum is nothing if not scrupulously fair-minded, giving both sides--animal rights activists and the experimenters--their due.
"The challenge is not to be emotional--not to write at the gut level," she explains.
But that wasn't always easy. Like her father, she initially had a vague feeling that "all animal rights activists were nuts." After all, they were engaged in all sorts of nasty behavior--infiltrating labs, disrupting experiments, threatening scientists. But as she delved deeper, she realized that there was plenty to criticize all around. The experience was also emotionally wrenching.
A self-described animal lover who as a 6-year-old growing up in Louisiana wanted to trade her saved pennies for a horse and now owns two tabbies--Mozart and Minerva--Blum was appalled by what she learned while doing her research.
She found scientists slicing into the brains of their doped subjects, severing their nerves, subjecting them to impacts and stress. "It's hard to justify experiments on creatures that are so smart and so much like us," she admits. Ultimately, though, she accepts the sacrifice for the greater good it may bring to human health.
At 40, Blum is irrepressibly bubbly, with short, dark hair, deep brown eyes and a large, impish smile. But once the conversation turns from mutual pleasantries about journalism to her book, the playfulness vanishes. Reporting is deadly serious for her, and it's clear she's a bulldog at it, as one scientist learned to his chagrin. Enchanted by the charming reporter who kept asking about his work, he invited her to dine with his family, only to get a stern warning from Blum when he gave her a friendly goodby hug.
"I told him that even though I was his friend, I would tell his story exactly as I see it," Blum recalls. "His jaw almost dropped to the ground."
If there's a no-nonsense, old-style-gumshoe quality about Blum, it's because, she says, "that's where I'm at."
After receiving her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, where she edited her school paper, she took a reporting job with the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, covering everything from town politics to raids on moonshiners in the hills.
"I had no qualms about using feminine wiles on the cops to get a story," she says, without a twinge of feminist self-consciousness. Moving on to the St. Petersburg Times, she quickly had her fill of cops, City Hall and school boards. "Journalism can get very repetitive if you stick with general assignment too long," she says.
So she decided to specialize. Politics was out; she had experienced enough of political cynicism while serving as a college intern in the Washington office of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Much to her father's surprise, she decided to give science another crack--as a professional observer.
Enrolling in the University of Wisconsin's journalism program, she earned a master's in science writing, submitting a thesis on Charles Darwin. Upon graduation in 1982, she married Peter Haugen, her former editor in St. Petersburg, then signed on as the Fresno Bee's first environment reporter.