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Fiction

The Coomassie Blue Kid

Episode One of Blinded By Science

Harrison Bae Wein 9 April 2006

www.lablit.com/article/100

The author, who was once a True Scientist

Editor’s note: LabLit.com is dedicated in part to supporting and promoting the lab lit genre. As part of this goal, we are pleased to launch our publication of original fiction with the first of a series of tongue-in-cheek short stories by Harrison Bae Wein. The series, entitled Blinded By Science: The Amazing Adventures of the Coommassie Blue Kid, consists of nine stories, each written in a different style, that follow the career of a scientist called Fluke from graduate school to Nobel Prize. These stories should be largely understandable to a general audience, but if you are a non-scientist and are curious about what some of the technical words (including ‘Coomassie Blue’) mean, you can browse Harrison's glossary; it will accumulate terms as each story is published.

A long time ago in a lab far far away there arrived a young graduate student named Fluke. Fluke was an arrogant but talented young scientist determined to make his mark on the scientific world. He learned the techniques of the lab very quickly, but as hard as Fluke worked, he was frustrated at his lack of progress.

Now also in this lab was a weathered, wise technician named Adoy. Adoy was short with unkempt gray hair and thick leathery skin that took on a greenish tinge under the fluorescent lights of the lab. Young Fluke didn't respect Adoy at all. He saw the old man as little more than a dishwasher.

As the months passed, Fluke worked harder and harder. He arrived early in lab and often worked long past dinner time, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. Still, Fluke had no success. Night after night, he would walk quietly back to his small studio apartment, more and more dejected because of his failures.

One night, Fluke did a complicated experiment and found himself sitting at his lab bench staring at a blot he found impossible to interpret. He tried to think of every explanation he could for the results, but could come up with nothing. A rage of frustration built inside him. "Damn!" he shouted, hitting his lab bench. "Why don't my experiments ever work out?"

A gentle hand on his shoulder startled him – Fluke had thought he was alone in lab.

He turned slowly to see Adoy's wizened face and breathed a sigh of relief. But the relief was brief. He was angry that the old man had startled him, and his anger turned to fury when he noticed the look of pity on Adoy's face. Imagine – this lowly technician pitying him!

"You scared me!" Fluke shouted.

"Let me see the procedure," grumbled the old man.

"I don't need a procedure. I know what I'm doing."

Adoy shook his head sadly. "You must learn patience, my son. You must plan your experiments carefully. Only once you have planned everything and are sure of what you are doing – then and only then can you safely alter your procedure when an emergency arises."

Fluke was about to argue with him, but something in Adoy's expression made him stop. After all, the old man was only trying to help. Desperate and broken, Fluke found himself saying, "O.K. If that'll make you happy, I'll write out the procedure."

"Most acceptable," Adoy said, then turned around and left.

The next day, Fluke was indignant, but deep down a part of him had to admit that the experiment went smoother with Adoy helping him than it ever had before. That night, however, they got into a vicious argument over the Western blotting apparatus. "I have to use eighteen pieces of filter paper!" yelled Fluke.

Adoy simply shook his head no.

"Look, look! I'll get the manual and show you. See, it says to use three on either side of each gel-nitrocellulose sandwich, and six on the top and bottom no matter how many sandwiches you layer. That's a total of nine on each side since we have one sandwich. Eighteen pieces of paper!"

Adoy continued to shake his head as Fluke exploded in exasperation, "You're the one who told me just yesterday to plan carefully and follow your plan. It says in the manual to use eighteen pieces of filter paper!"

"No," was all Adoy said, and shook his head again. He picked up a couple of pieces of paper in his hand, seemingly measuring their weight. "Hmmm," he grumbled to himself, "maybe one more." He put one more piece of paper in his hand and then exclaimed, "Perfect! Here, feel," he ordered as he held out the stack in his shriveled hand.

Fluke refused. "You can't tell anything by feel, old man. Eighteen pieces. That's final."

"Very well," said Adoy. "Do it your way." Fluke also insisted on soaking each piece of paper individually rather than in a pile like Adoy suggested, so it took almost ten minutes just to set up the blotting apparatus.

One hour later, Fluke stained the nitrocellulose paper with Ponceau S to see how well the proteins had transferred from the gel. To his dismay, air bubbles had caused the proteins to transfer poorly, forming irregular bands and blank spots on the paper.

"Damn. I have to do it again," Fluke exclaimed.

"This time," Adoy advised gently, "use only five pieces of paper on each side and soak the papers in two piles of five. You will set up the apparatus more quickly this way and avoid air bubbles."

Dejected, Fluke conceded and did it Adoy's way. One hour later, the proteins had transferred perfectly from the gel.

"I can't believe it," Fluke exclaimed. "It worked beautifully."

"Yes, my son."

"But how . . ."

"You must be patient, my son, and you will learn. The manual is a good guide and a fine way to start, but if you are to achieve the mastery of a true Scientist, you must let yourself go. You must trust your Senses."

"I . . . I don't understand."

"You will, my son," Adoy said. "You will."

That day, Fluke began to trust the old man, and Adoy took up the challenge of making a true Scientist out of the cocky youngster.

One morning not long after that, Fluke came in to find a set of 10 weigh papers spread across his lab bench. "What's up, old man?" he asked Adoy.

"Today, my son, we will practice your micropipetting technique. You must pipette twenty microliters onto each of these weigh papers. I will weigh them to make sure you have done it accurately." He handed a micropipettor to Fluke and stood back with a timer. "You have ten seconds."

Fluke raced as fast as he could. When he finished, Adoy hit the stop button on the timer and looked at it. "Seventeen seconds," he said. "Unacceptable. I won't even weigh them. You will practice all day." He started to walk back to his desk.

"But Adoy," Fluke called after him. "I can't waste my time practicing this stuff. I've got to do a cell extraction this afternoon."

"The cell extraction can wait," Adoy said, stopping to turn around. "Your training can't."

"I've been doing this for years and never had a problem."

Adoy walked back to the weigh papers and picked one up. "Sixteen micrograms," he pronounced after considering it for a few seconds. "A twenty percent error. Do you think that's an acceptable way of doing research?"

"Give me a break. You can't tell that just by picking it up."

Adoy grunted and hobbled away. When Fluke went to the balance to weigh the paper, he found that it weighed precisely sixteen micrograms.

Fluke practiced all that day and then for the next couple of weeks when he had the time between experiments. One afternoon after Fluke had finished practicing, Adoy patted him on the shoulder and said, "Soon you will be a real Scientist, my son."

"I am a real Scientist. I've already been second author on two papers. How can you say I'm not a real Scientist?"

"Come," Adoy said. He got the box of weigh paper and laid ten of them on Fluke's bench. "I want to see you accurately pipette twenty microliters onto each of these weigh papers in ten seconds." He gave Fluke the micropipettor, got the timer prepared, and told Fluke to begin.

Fluke flew faster than he ever had and pipetted drops of water from the beaker onto each piece of weigh paper. Adoy hit the timer when he had finished and announced, "Nine seconds."

Fluke smiled, satisfied with himself.

"Now let me see if you have done it accurately," Adoy said. He picked up the piece of paper nearest to him and frowned. "Sixteen micrograms. Twenty percent error. Would a true Scientist be so inaccurate?"

"Come on."

"Sixteen micrograms. It is true." His head lowered with disappointment in his student, Adoy hobbled from the room. Fluke went to the balance and weighed the piece of paper. Sixteen micrograms. He weighed the next piece of paper – sixteen micrograms. And the next and the next. All sixteen micrograms. He got his micropipettor and put varying amounts of water on different weigh papers. Each one was at least fifteen percent lower than it should have been.

Fluke finally understood the lesson. He had never sent his micropipettor in to be calibrated. Adoy knew it all along, and he also knew that a true Scientist would have had his micropipettor calibrated even before he had started work in the lab.

Fluke got his micropipettor calibrated and, within a couple of days, proved to Adoy that he could pipette twenty microliters accurately onto ten different pieces of weigh paper in under ten seconds.

"Good," Adoy said, and Fluke was glad for the praise. "Now do it blindfolded."

"What? I can't do it blindfolded. It's impossible."

"Nothing is impossible if you trust your Senses."

"Come on, Adoy. I can't do that. No one can."

"Very well," Adoy said, and pulled out a blindfold from his rear pocket. "Tie this around my head and set up ten pieces of weigh paper." Fluke did as he was told, and Adoy took a second to feel where all the individual pieces were. "Start the timer now."

Fluke pressed the start button and watched Adoy, expecting a pathetic, slow, and embarrassing display, but Fluke could hardly see the old man's hands go, they were moving so fast. Adoy finished the task in seven seconds.

After Fluke had pushed the stop button, Adoy pulled the blindfold off his head. "Nothing is impossible if you trust in your Senses," he declared. He shook his head and walked off.

Fluke practiced in all his spare time and made some embarrassing mistakes in his impatience, once even knocking over media plates and contaminating them in his haste to distribute the water in under ten seconds. A few months later, when he showed Adoy he could accomplish the task, he said, "I can do this now when once I thought it was impossible. I have learned to plan my experiments. I have learned to trust my Senses to make changes when they're needed or to rescue experiments when something has gone wrong. When will you consider me a true Scientist, Adoy?"

The immensely talented young man was now more humble than when he had first begun to work with the old man, and was also a much better scientist. Still, Adoy would not yet concede that he was a true Scientist. "Patience, my son," he consoled Fluke. "You young people are so impatient. Soon, I think, you will prove yourself, but until then you must concentrate and trust that your Senses will lead you on the proper path to becoming a true Scientist." Little did Fluke know that something would occur later that very same week that would help him to prove his worth.

Late one night, Fluke was working at his desk planning the next day's experiment when the lights suddenly went out. "Darn!" he heard someone yell in the darkness from the biochemistry room.

"What's wrong?" Fluke called.

"I was about to load my gel when the lights went off. My whole experiment is going to be ruined."

Fluke got up and walked into the biochemistry room without even having to feel his way, he knew the lab's layout so well. "Why don't you just wait until the lights come on?" he asked.

"I can't," came the voice in the darkness. "These protein samples have a lot of contaminating lipid. I just took them out of the water bath in the other room and dumped the water out. I can't keep them warm, and if they cool down, the lipids will cause everything to precipitate. It'll all be ruined."

"All right," Fluke said, taking charge. "Is everything here?"

"Yes."

"Well, just stand back and I'll take care of it." Fluke felt around on the counter for the micropipettor and the tip box, then found the rack of microfuge tubes containing the samples. "Are these in the order you want them loaded?"

"Yeah – left to right."

"What kind of gel?"

"Acrylamide minigel."

"How many lanes?"

"Hey – you're not going to load that in the dark, are you?"

"How many lanes?" Fluke persisted.

"Fifteen. There are seven samples, two lanes each, plus the molecular weight markers in the far left lane – that's the tube on the far left."

"O.K. I've got it. Just stand back."

"You can't accurately load those in the dark, Fluke. That's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible when you trust your Senses," Fluke declared.

Fluke picked up the micropipettor and, as he worked, knew he was loading each lane perfectly. The lights came on just as he finished. They connected the gel to the power supply and ran it immediately. None of the samples had precipitated, thanks to Fluke's spectacular skills. His lab mate was immensely grateful.

The next day, everyone in lab had heard about Fluke's miraculous performance in the trying, crucial situation. Adoy called the young graduate student to his desk and pulled something out of the bottom drawer. It was something white wrapped in plastic. "Fluke, you are now a true Scientist," he said, and handed Fluke a spunbounded olefin Tyvek® lab coat with double seam reinforced construction and plastic snap closure. Fluke cried with joy and thanked his wise mentor. "Oh, thank you, Adoy. Thank you, thank you."

Later that afternoon, Fluke sat at his desk wearing his new lab coat with pride. Suddenly, he looked up from the flow sheet he was planning for the next day's experiment and proclaimed, "My blot should be done."

A new graduate student was working in the office with him at the time and asked, "Oh, how long has it been on for?"

"Long enough," said Fluke with a confident smile.

"But how do you know it's done if you haven't timed it precisely?" she asked.

"You've just got to trust your Senses," Fluke said, and got up to tend to his experiment as the new graduate student's jaw dropped in awe.

Teasers for subsequent episodes in Blinded by Science:

The Coomassie Blue Kid and The Plasmid of Doom. Adoy mails Fluke, who is now a postdoc, a plasmid which he is to guard at all costs. When Adoy disappears, Fluke sets out to rescue him and uncovers a plot involving a famous research center, mutant plants and extraterrestrials.

Needful Stains. A mysterious antibody arrives in the Kruger lab one day and gives everyone precisely the staining they most want to see. But the celebrations soon give way to deadly violence.

Beauty and The Yeast. Murder, love and intrigue during a yeast biology meeting at an idyllic Northern California conference center. Fluke meets the love of his life, Monique, and they dream of setting up a lab together, but there are one or two things getting in the way of their happiness.

Apoptosis Now. Fluke is applying for a faculty position at Braggadocio University, but they have a small job for him before he can get the position. Fluke must travel to the heart of Darness, an old biology building on campus, where the enigmatic Professor Hurtz has surrounded himself with a gang of fiercely loyal students who continue to carry out his experiments despite the department's scorn.

Selected Excerpts From The Notebook of Jane Baxman. Jane is a meticulous new technician in Fluke's lab who has a slightly distorted view of her own worth.

The A-Maize-ing Maize Man: A Tale From The Corny Side. Jack, a sloppy postdoc in Fluke's lab, spills some chemicals on himself that cause corn kernels to sprout all over his body. A nasty human tomato is willing to go to any lengths to discover the secret to Jack's transformation. It's a good thing that two FBI agents specializing in the paranormal are on the scene.

The Coli. A magazine reporter finds the story of a lifetime when he learns that a postdoc in Fluke's lab has invented a prototype teleportation device. But a horrible accident ensues when the postdoc forgets to sterilize the chamber.

Back to the Past. What's Fluke doing drunk and passed out in the back room of a pub? Finally, learn the real secret to Fluke's success.