Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Margie Page 1

A Promising Scientist Vanishes Without a Trace
A Weekly Scientist Exclusive Report
By Mike Martin

The most striking thing about biologist Margie Profet (right) used to be her unconventional theories about evolution and pregnancy, conceived as she surfed the perilous waters of academe with neither tenure track nor Ph.D.

Now, more than 15 years after she made headlines as a young scientific “It Girl,” the most striking things about Profet are how her life suddenly stopped and how the establishment she purportedly shunned has come forth, with praise, bewilderment, and sorrow.

Google Profet's name and you'll see thousands of entries, debates, conversations, and news, all but ending a few years ago. Unmarried, fit and healthy, no reports of ill health or death have ever surfaced. No out-of-sorts boyfriends or obsessive stalkers. No dangerous pursuits, at least not involving life and limb.

So what happened to this anti-establishment thinker whose Sheryl Crow looks and beautiful mind made her a media darling?

No one seems to know—not her family, not her friends, not her former colleagues. All they know is that one day Margie Profet was at Harvard University and the next day she wasn't. The prodigal prodigy vanished into thin air, disappeared without a trace.

“Very sad," says U.C. Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames, who worked closely with Profet on some of her groundbreaking research. “We tried desperately to find Margie a few years ago, but came up empty handed,” Ames’ executive assistant Teresa Klask told me from the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, where Ames maintains a lab. “As far as we know, she personally decided not to be found and we unfortunately do not have any further information on her whereabouts.”

Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett planned to meet Profet in Cambridge, Mass. for an interview about her work. Though they spoke by phone several times, the meeting never happened. “I later realized that Margie had become quite isolated, almost reclusive,” Barrett told me. “She was battling some real psychological issues, and I sensed there were shadows at her back.”

Almost single-handedly recasting a trio of everyday curses into a trinity of evolutionary blessings, Margie Profet argued that menstruation, morning sickness, and allergies are highly-adaptive protection mechanisms.

In a series of notable papers, she did what the best scientists do—overturn the conventional wisdom with insightful thinking and rigorous defense. (Click the paper GIF images to enlarge).

After Profet won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1993, Scientific American, The New York Times, and even Time Magazine swooned.

People Magazine featured her in the Shannen Doherty “secret wedding” issue. Elle covered her in a “Good Hair Day” edition. Harper’s Bazaar asked if she needed the magazine's hair and make-up artists for a photo shoot.

Profet’s back story was irresistible—a small, soft-spoken, wisp of a woman born of the southern California sun who wandered—almost dreamily, it seemed—between physics and philosophy, mastering each like a post-modern Renaissance woman at places like Harvard and Berkeley, then publishing brilliant biology papers with neither biology nor graduate degrees.

Her free spirit enchanted leading journalists and her ideas intrigued the best theoreticians, who found elegance in their sentence-long simplicity and intuitive sensibilities.

Sperm, reproductive soldiers though they are, also carry hitchhiking germs. Menstruation costs so much life-giving blood for a protective and life-saving reason. Thanks to evolution, sneezing, menstrual bleeding, and pregnancy-related nausea ward off toxins and disease. With these “radical new views,” Profet had given ordinary annoyances, the New York Times said, “an active and salutary spin.”

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