For the last 25 years, Dr. Gerald Callahan has woven together words and science to bring the more esoteric heights of scientific discovery to the straightforward plane of the printed page. While his books serve as a vehicle for his own creative release, they serve even more importantly the greater public good by taking complex scientific concepts and putting them into a language and context accessible to a nonscientific audience.
His latest work tackles not only science, but also the court of public opinion and societal debates couched in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, and choice versus biologic destiny. Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes explores the biology of sexual determination and examines the lives of the 65,000 individuals born worldwide each year who are of indeterminate sex. The book was a finalist for a Colorado Book of the Year Award in 2010.
Dr. Callahan, who has a joint appointment in the Department of English and the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, began to discover science early in life, but his love of words didn’t develop until later.
“My father was a petroleum engineer so I was exposed to science at a very early age,” said Dr. Callahan, who grew up in Utah. “I got started with chemistry – I think it was a Gilbert Chemistry Set – and one of my favorite pastimes was mixing together different chemicals to see what would happen. It was a little different in those days. “My best experience, though, was in biology. I had a great teacher who set me on that path. My biology teacher was a nun who was very creative on a low budget and pushed us to be creative too. She used to pull part of her habit over her head to show what an amoeba looked like. We explored the world of box elder bugs, puddles of water, microscopic life – she just really made science come alive.”
Dr. Callahan attended the University of Utah where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, then entered graduate school to study biology as a master’s student before transferring to a doctoral program in experimental pathology. After graduating in 1974, he moved to La Jolla, Calif., where he was in a postdoctoral program at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. He conducted research and advanced his knowledge and skill set there for 10 years before joining the faculty at Colorado State University.
His research at CSU initially focused on trying to manipulate the immune system to treat cancer, looking at a particular group of molecules on the cell surface. But, as federal funding priorities changed, research dollars began to dry up and he began to write. His wife signed him up for a poetry course, and the ink began to flow.
“I had been messing around with poetry for years, and was always telling my wife I wanted to learn more, and to do more,” said Dr. Callahan. “I think she just got tired of my one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it delaying tactic and just called my bluff.”
Dr. Callahan began to write and was published in smaller milieus, first poetry and then essays. He began to write in earnest, learning firsthand the cruelties of editors and publishers offhandedly rejecting the blood, sweat, and tears of new writers. (Most memorable was a rejection note from the Denver Quarterly that consisted of a corner ripped off of a steno pad with just one word printed on it – “Sorry.”) His first collection of essays, River Odyssey: A Story of the Colorado Plateau, was published in 1998, followed in 2002 by his first venture into creative nonfiction science writing, Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception.
“I felt that in my writing I had more freedom and more creativity, but I felt a little guilty so I limited myself to writing in my spare time,” Dr. Callahan said. “Eventually, I came to focus on a scientific style that allowed me to bring creative expression to science, leading to a joint appointment in the Department of English. “It’s a natural pairing. Poets and scientists do basically the same thing – we try to uncover answers to things we are struggling to understand, and then strive to share that knowledge.”
Dr. Callahan’s work has been featured on National Geographic Television, the ABC Evening News, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, and Salon.com, as well as many international news outlets. In addition to English, his books have been published in Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Today, Dr. Callahan continues to teach in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts. He is a faculty affiliate with the graduate program in creative nonfiction writing, and still finds great fulfillment in exploring the world of science under the laboratory microscope as well as through the written word.