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From the LabLit short story series

Jeremy Garwood 28 January 2007

There seemed to be such a big difference between the description of the perfect experiment and the reality...

On their first day in the laboratory together, Dr MacDude showed Matthew how to dissect a chicken embryo. They both looked very smart in their crisp clean lab coats.

“There’s really nothing to it,” his supervisor said. “It’s a little like cracking an egg for an omelette at the beginning, and carving up a roast at the end. Are you any good at cooking?” he asked jovially. MacDude seemed to be in surprisingly high spirits for a scientist about to perform a dissection, but perhaps the killing became routine and just part of the daily experiments.

“How much experimental work have you done before?” he asked his student.

“Oh, not much,” Matthew admitted. “That’s to say, not as much as I’d have liked to have done. But, well, the undergraduate Biology course only really gave us a chance to do experiments in the practical classes where we were all grouped together to do one experiment over the course of one or two afternoons a week. And then we had our own research project in the last year. That meant spending half the week in the lab, but we still had our lectures and, I don’t know, there never seemed to be enough time to get things really finished and at the end, it never really got that far.”

MacDude frowned and bit his lip. “So, you don’t really know much about lab work?”

Matthew shook his head.

“Hmm. Everything to learn. Well, we’d better get off to a good start, but you’ll have to concentrate hard and to practice. It’s important to avoid mistakes due to sloppiness.”

Matthew nodded. He was keen to learn what his life was going to consist of for the next few years. He wanted to know what he had to do in order to become a researcher. He was impatient to get his own hands on the chickens, to feel that he had more control over his experiments and his lab life.

MacDude had arranged a series of glass dishes on the bench. He removed chilled bottles of dissection buffer from the fridge, set out his dissection instruments and turned on the light for the dissecting microscope.

“Okay, so everything’s ready.” He went to the incubator and removed a tray covered with eggs sitting in cardboard supports.

“You see. The eggs are arranged according to their age. The control eggs are on the left, the treated eggs are on the right.” He took a couple of control eggs and put the tray back, shutting the incubator door with a quiet thud.

“You can practice on these. I’ll dissect one and then you do the other one.”


Matthew sat on the lab stool, his lab notebook before him, his pen raised. He paused. What should he be writing in his lab book anyway? The details of what he did? The experimental protocol? And yet there seemed to be such a big difference between the description of the perfect experiment and the reality of the hands-on treatment as he was performing it. He was still learning the techniques. Even now, the brief description of a typed-up protocol that MacDude had given him only conveyed so much information. For example, MacDude wrote: ‘Remove and decapitate the chicken and dissect away the hind legs in physiological buffer’. But from this description, how was someone who hadn’t done the experiment several times before to know what equipment he needed, or how it should be arranged on the lab bench, or in what order the instruments should be used?

Luckily, MacDude had shown him but, although he had planned to take notes, he had been so absorbed by the cool efficiency of MacDude’s movements that he had failed to note anything much beyond a handful of points that were already in the typed protocol.

He held the pen. Well, at least he could write today’s date and the title of the experiment. And then? How many chickens from their eggs was he going to dissect today? He went and opened the warm air incubator and counted how many eggs he had, when they had been lain and how old the chick embryos inside were going to be. He also had some aspirin-treated eggs to deal with. As MacDude had said, it was best that he got the feel for the drug-affected muscles from the start.

“Maybe you’ll notice something unusual about them that I missed,” he purred.


Matthew set up the dissecting lamp and the glass dish as he remembered it from MacDude’s demonstration. He hunted in the drawers for the dissecting instruments and found a collection of stainless steel scissors, scalpels, tweezers and prodders. He looked at the scissors – there were the bone-crunchers and the finer flesh-cutters. He took one of each. He looked around the laboratory. He couldn’t pull the egg apart on the open bench. MacDude had used some kind of tray like a baking dish. He looked in the cupboards by the sink and found a collection of glassware and dishes.

Once he’d assembled the glassware and the dissecting instruments and fiddled with the probe lights of the dissection and microscope lamps, he felt he was at last ready to have a go at cracking an egg.

Matthew looked at the tray of eggs before him. So this was it, the source material. The beginning of everything. From the egg…to the grave. He picked up one of the eggs and felt its form and texture. Of course, he knew what an egg looked like. He’d held them before, albeit in the short time it took to crack them open and empty out the contents. Yet everything looked different in the light of the laboratory.

He studied the curvature, the unusual geometry. In a world of regular shapes, an egg was unusual. It didn’t have any clean angles like a diamond or a cube. It wasn’t a perfect sphere or a cylinder. How had it come to have such a form?

Perhaps it was an elongated sphere. He held it up against the intense light of the dissecting lamp. The eggshell wasn’t so opaque after all. He could see a dark blob inside. He thought he could detect movement. The little pulse-pulse-pulse of the developing heart, pumping. Was it possible to have a spherical egg? Maybe they were spherical inside the hen and became distorted as they were squeezed out. What if he dissected the hen before she laid the egg, he mused.

Come to think of it, weren’t eggs in other animals mostly spherical to start with? He thought of fish eggs and frogs and pictures of human reproduction. Eggs always appeared to be spheres. Except for the one egg that he was the most familiar with. He began rolling the egg gently on the bench top, curious to see how it turned. It seemed destined to lie on its side making large uneven circles.

MacDude passed through the lab at that moment and Matthew deftly grasped the egg back into the cup of his hand.


So which came first – the chicken or the egg? He doodled in his lab book, drawing an electrified chicken emerging from an exploded egg.

Which came first? Did it seem logical to inject eggs before he dissected chickens or vice versa?

He continued with his planned dissections.


MacDude scrutinised his progress.

“How’s it going, Matthew?”

“Oh, fine. I think. I’m just dissecting the muscle away from the leg.”

His supervisor nodded.

“Is your buffer chilled?”

The student paused.

“Er, no, sorry, should it be?”

“Yes, you should take it from the fridge. Like that you chill and preserve the tissue better while you’re dissecting it. And you’re putting the muscles in the formaldehyde straight away?” he said, indicating the plastic capped sample bottles containing muscles that the student had filled with buffer.

“Oh, formaldehyde? Yes, of course...That is, sorry, there’s buffer in the bottles. I forgot the formaldehyde. Where’s it kept?”

MacDude raised his eyebrows, breathed in significantly and showed Matthew where the bottle of preservative solution was stored.

“How long have the muscles been in buffer like that?” He pointed at the sample bottles.

“Oh, I started about an hour ago.”

“Well, they’ll be degraded by now. Put them in the fixative anyway. You can practice on them if you like, but you won’t be able to make measurements from them. They’re probably swollen by now.” He paused. “I thought you were taking notes when I showed you the dissection on Friday. You know, you’ll have to concentrate more if you’re not going to make mistakes. I can’t stand behind you each time you do an experiment.” Matthew nodded. He wasn’t sure he appreciated Andrew’s reproachful tone. “And be more rigorous,” continued MacDude.

Matthew straightened himself.

“Yes, okay, I’m sorry. I’ll try and get it right next time.”

“Yes, well, you haven’t got as much time ahead of you as you think. And you need results. You’ll be surprised how quickly your first months are going to pass. Before you know it, you’ll have to write your first year report and present the Department seminars and you’ll certainly need to have some good results to show to your committee at your Mid-term review," said MacDude ominously.

The student felt rather deflated once his supervisor had left the lab. It seemed his efforts so far hadn’t been of any value whatsoever.

That evening, he made a point of buying eggs for dinner. With exquisite care and attention, he scrambled them.

© 2007 Jeremy Garwood

Related information

'Ovogenesis' is an extract from the author's novel abcPhD.