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From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 10 June 2007

Perhaps grabbing at my pants after that particular seminar and yelling 'I’ll show you how impressive my CV really is' had not been a very judicious move

It really is the story of my life. Nothing happens. Too much happens. Then back to nothing. Repeat. No, I never did try to figure out how to average, always sucked at statistics. I just drank the depressing hell out of the nothing, and rode the caffeine high of the too much as far as it would take me.

Poor centering, lack of balance. My sisters tell me that’s why I got stuck here, sidestepping unidentified shit on my way to the office. I can go on about the magnitude of the operation, all the funding and research that goes into breed improvement at the Institute, the fact that a hip University town beckons beyond yonder pastures and corrals until I’m blue in the face. All they see is the smells, the shit, the geographical middle of nowhere. If they can even see anything at all, one hand covering their nose and another fanning away ghost odors and mosquitoes, while running from car to office and back, eyes firmly on the ground in anticipation of wayward sheep and droppings. At least I survived the worst of their vegan phase.

Lack of balance. Sure, why not? Of course, that was also what was supposed to justify everything else that went wrong in my life, from the cat dying to the Achilles tendon rupturing at the rugby match I was stupid enough to attend. Old Country, Irishness, all that. You can bring the second generation boy to his ethnic roots, but you can’t make him stand up for them. Injured while watching a sports event, reaching out for beer, a personal low. At least, my sisters would say, as long as women (“relationships”, would be the word) weren’t brought into the equation. In that case the lows would be followed by the very lows, through a long list of co-workers, acquaintances and merciless blind dates. Which my sisters took turns setting up, despite an appalling track record.

Ironic, really, given all the sisterly love they had offered Clare; would have run her straight out of town on a rail if we hadn’t left first. Just acting the parents will, they’d say, I was too good for her and all that. Then, when Clare did us all a favor, they wouldn’t talk to me for months. A barren divorce seemed to banish me even more than an unwanted marriage, or my odd career choices. Except that was when their designer jewelry featuring unicorns was only sold at Tupperware parties, instead of nationwide cable or over the net, and, most of all, before Jonathan decided he was going to Rome to join the church. I still think Jon’s choice was less about faith, and more about leaving and being left alone. But on our monthly transatlantic confessions he also often nudges my thoughts on the possibility of another, “better”, Clare. Three siblings in fancy dresses preoccupied with my loins. However, all this has almost nothing to do with me, and almost everything to do with “the Name”. The Sign of the Father now only I could pass on. And that was, together with a nose for good “scotch”, one of the few things the both of us had ever had in common. It's amazing which things survive, are passed down flawlessly through generations and changing accents. Lack of balance? Sure.

Back in graduate school Gunther threw me a different expression, as a sort of parting gift. Bad networking skills. He meant, of course, that I pissed people off. One of those reputations one earns easily, but never really loses. And that tend to follow, from job interview to job interview, hidden in the nooks and crannies of recommendation letters that sound glowing except for that one awkward phrase. Until all that’s left are Animal Science Departments on the edge of the known universe. High-tech farms for the urban boy. And you try half-heartily to convince yourself that at least it's better than Dad’s Belfast, back in the day, that it was exactly where you’d wanted to be. On worse days you even seem to remember all the Sunday guilt, and almost believe it. Atonement. Retribution. Roots. Irishness. Father O, going on endlessly about whatever hardships we had to bear testimony to, and carry on to legions of progeny begat from unprotected sex, at least when not at the mall, the arcade. I just never bought it (and Clare never went off the pill). Atonement? All the others were wherever they were, I was stuck in manure. If that was my catholic karma, so be it. It sounds as if I hate it, as if I’m a middle aged balding bitter researcher. I don’t, I’m not. At least, most days I don’t think so, and the Rogaine seems to be working some. You are human, you adapt. You are a scientist, you find interesting problems to solve, with whatever you have adapted yourself to. Manure makes plants grow, and I knew exactly what my path to that particular pile had been. Since a path is made by walking, I can’t say I could have done much to change any particular step along the way.


Perhaps grabbing at my pants after that particular seminar and yelling “I’ll show you how impressive my CV really is”, if an appropriate retort to a sarcastic Chairperson, had not been a very judicious move. A smart attorney could argue, for other people’s sake, that I was merely brushing crumbs from the crispy pastries served after the talk, or, for my sake, that the question itself, better, its tone, meant I probably had no shot at that particular job to begin with. However, if you have to conjure up attorneys in your mind something is probably very wrong.

Truth be told, the incident was only engraved in my mind after I heard it repeated by pimpled graduate students, already exaggerated and embellished as the stuff of legend, on the three next consecutive interviews. During which the search committees strained to even address my eyes, except to let their non-stares hint that they wouldn’t hire me to organize their stationary supplies, let alone run a research program. So, I stopped trying.

Best thing I ever did. Graduate school and a couple of good postdocs had branded into my neurons that the only way forward was to secure my own independent position, where I could think up ideas, have graduate students and postdocs work on them for me, be part of the process. That was what everyone I knew was after, comparing landing places as they settled in. Who had the best startup package, the best office view. Geography was the last thing that mattered. It could be Europe, Asia, America, Oceania. Parts of them, at least. Everywhere, it seemed, but Africa. All continents by now had famed institutes one could be labeled as a success for joining. But it had to be one of those. Anything else? Abject failure. Even if you managed to stay close to home, and had no interest in going global. That was just a bad excuse, dished out by cowards and those who wanted to have families. In science you can’t be a hermit, a homebody, a soccer parent. Well, you can, you could, perhaps a few centuries ago. Now you still can, but no one will care. That focus, that edge, gone. At least, that’s what I hear.

However, it truly is amazing how many options open up once you realize your career path was just some generic mold, followed for little more than peer pressure. That you could also go to some very reasonable run-of-the-mill place. Either run you own (run-of-the-mill) ideas, or be a very well paid member of someone else’s project, in some place that maybe makes up for comfort what it lacks in pizzazz. No office view, but a schedule that gets you home by five, no ulcers asked. Sounds almost great.

But I wouldn’t know. I missed out on those as well.

You see, there is also a perceived career path for that kind of job, as least for the best ones. Search Committees made that crystal clear. If I was interviewing at their place, they reasoned, it was because I must have failed miserably at all those good slots that should have been mine for the taking; and why hire someone else’s failure when they could hire a success of their own? Smart people.

If all this sounds hopeless, that’s not a bad description. Especially if you add that more people come out of graduate school in this global mess than can possibly be assimilated, at least not according to their own expectations. That had been my first, make that fourth, mistake. I wasn’t counting on following Gunther’s immaculate footsteps, Gunther was Gunther, a legend before his own time, too rich to really serve as an inspiration for us newcomers. But some of his colleagues were merely human, and they had landed softly, maybe by the third try. What I didn’t realize then was that only success, or stupendous and fraudulent failure, ever make the news. Three of my graduate school colleagues are now doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, I forget exactly what. See, that’s how bad it is. As far as Gunther is concerned it's as if they went off some very deep end. Myself he managed to save, somewhat. By pointing out that a good place of employment might be starting up something new, where people had never heard of career pathways and expectations. By the time I visited the corrals and offices with pastoral views I was a hardened professional candidate. Some enthusiasm (but not too much), no hints of smothered desperation, no cynical half-baked comments that herds and animal waste inevitably wriggle out of the more stoic of us, enough research into what the Institute was about so as to not make a complete fool of myself. I aced the interview, took the bus back, cleared out the room I had inherited from Gunther, and drove less than an hour west.

If you climb one of the tallest trees in the southeast orchard my old campus is clearly visible, nested against the city. Far away, so bloody close. Actually, you don’t even need to climb a tree, it just sounds better that way.

So, in short, Gunther works on basic biology, molecular evolution, master genes intertwined with environmental cues, how we came to be, the Meaning of It All. I follow genetic traits in populations of useful creatures. Making the matchmaking decisions of which bulls and rams breed with which cows and sheep so we get better wool or milk, more of both, whatever. Gunther has graduate students to rival what he once was, I reign over a couple of technicians who run the same types of PCR reactions and gels every day, are totally uninterested in doing much of anything else (“not in the contract, professor”), and could be replaced by a trained orangutan in a pinch, except those are endangered. Gunther deals with Deans and Nobel Prize winning Sirs, my acquaintances include cowboys from all over the world, with or without college degrees, who pay handsomely for my services, but think I know very little about animal science, and nothing at all about life as they see it. “Real Life” is the expression, from the corner of their unlit cigars. The same type of guys that, about three years ago, asked if I would get them a gene that could make a skim two shot cappuccino come “straight from the cow”. That’ll show those Starbucks freaks. Sure, I answered as I always ended up answering once I had a modicum of job security, give me a big enough grant and I’ll do the impossible. The unthinkable may take a bit longer. The unfathomable a few months. That usually shuts them up. And gets my memo-writing director all worked up. Never mind networking. Just plain bad people skills.

It’s not as if I didn’t get their point. There are always problems, better ways of doing things, new hypothesis to test. Breeding takes so freaking long. And cowboys with unlit cigars can be as motivating as a whiff of the Nobel. Maybe a walking cappuccino machine is more than I can personally bear in a Brave New World, but a cow that makes something useful in the milk (besides the milk itself, that is) isn’t such an odd idea. It’s been around for years. Insulin, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals. You pick a gene and try to get in the right place. Then you milk the cow, goat, sheep, whatever. People with a knack for names call it Pharming. Except, if those same people had an honest bone in their bodies, and weren’t mostly snake oil sellers looking for easy venture capitalist marks, they’d also tell you those were simple paradigms with little bearing on reality. That it rarely worked as it was supposed to, the biotech landscape littered with startups that had never started.

I had played with genes in my time. Took them out, modified them, put them back in. Tried to find out how they did what they did. The catch? I had done it all in bacteria, yeast, a few worms. Stuff you could grow cheaply, quickly, easily. Not some big, ruminating, expensive brutes, that looked at you with pleading eyes, and had all those contorted reproductive systems to get around. There were issues to deal with, literature to read, stuff to learn. But, after doing some heavy time at the library, and sieving through all the online resources I could muster, I thought I had a better, simpler, way of doing the cowboys will. Wrote a few things down (not everything, you don’t want to be stupid), made lists of all chemicals and equipment needed, planned months worth of tests to the last detail, performed countless thought experiments in my mind. And they all turned out perfectly. I was just missing one last, small, thing.


So some choices were in order. I chose cows. Nothing to do with size, any specific bovine lust. There were just a lot more of them at the institute. The local slaughterhouse could supply an almost endless flow of oocytes, as the person in change of breeding I had access to frozen sperm. That was the first step. Making test tube cows, embryos I could slip new genes into.

It wasn’t easy. I could breeze through the regular work with the two orangutans, get it out of the way by noon so we could all go back to picking up soul mates off the internet, or play a few hands of online poker, before we “officially” signed off. But embryos were not in the contract. Which not only meant I shouldn’t be doing it, not even on my spare time, but that there were no funds for things I had no reason to budget. And Science is an expensive hobby to have.

So, now that I had mastered interviews, that was the first naïve mistake of my new career as a mammalian embryologist. Graduate school had spoiled me, working at a top-notch facility, with access to all sorts of prototypes and new chemicals no one else could dream of, meant prices and availability of supplies are rarely on your radar. I had conjured up a very reasonable plan, I thought. But was missing crucial details. For example in the second page of the protocol I had written “culture the embryos for a day”. Tall order for six measly words. It meant I had to find an incubator to culture the embryos. As well as the ten thousand chemicals that seemed to be a part of all good culture media that embryos really liked to be cultured in. Some were mundane enough that I could sneak them into my own expenses, others I scrounged around the institute for, begging, borrowing and stealing, trying not to get too many things at any one given place. You never know. The incubator I found, empty and inviting, across the hall, in the next lab over. Apparently it had been bought and installed for some odd purpose that no one seemed to remember, and maintenance had kept it running because that is what maintenance does. And, just like that, I was in the embryo business.

The first time I went to our local slaughterhouse and picked up an ovary I couldn’t get any oocytes from it, even though the beautiful color printouts I had downloaded kept repeating how easy it should be. When I finally managed to find a few, they promptly exploded in the culture medium, which I had so proudly made myself. Quality control seemed to be in order, gone were the days when technicians made and tested all the media for us high-flying graduate students. I had to find a pH meter, an osmometer; both of whom told me my skills at both properly calculating amounts and weighing them out to make media from scratch were off. No wonder the oocytes hadn’t liked it. Of course, once one gamete was figured out, the other refused to just step in and cooperate. The day I had managed two hundred perfect oocytes was the day I thawed out a premium sperm sample, just to watch the little tadpoles refuse to swim and take an interest in my eggs. Apparently sperm have their own favorite media, totally different from the oocyte media, and need to be incubated in it before they find oocytes interesting. After that, on the first day fertilization finally happened, the embryos made it until they were four cells, and then stubbornly stopped growing. Of course embryos have their own favorite medium as well, different from the favorites of both sperm and oocyte.

The truth is embryology isn’t easy, and fertilization sucks. There are so many things that can go wrong, it’s a wonder anything gets born at all. But, although I seemed overly optimistic about predicting failures, I was getting reasonably good at dealing with them. In less than six months I had my embryos growing at good rates, felt ready to take a shot at using my dreamt up methods to put new genes in them. Except something Father O would have cherished occurred. A bona fide miracle. For the first time in recorded history an orangutan simultaneously gained the power of rational thought and speech, while turning itself into a rat. Embryology is a funny discipline, especially in mammals. The embryos just take so damned long to develop, and don’t care much if it's night or day, the weekend or any sort of holiday, religious or otherwise. Keeping them going meant too many odd hours, was taking a visible toll on both myself and the regular work I was supposedly being paid to do. One of the technicians saw fit to let the director know. I never expected he had it in him, apparently he thought my bleary eyes must have meant drugs, while the changes in budgeting probably represented some sort of elaborated embezzlement scheme to buy them. It didn’t matter, we were shut down. I mean, I was shut down, the orangutans carried on, a new crisp sense of purpose on their furry brows.

The suspension lasted two weeks. Two weeks to find nothing, but a pint of scotch I hid in the desk for medical emergencies, a few bucks worth of chemicals the lab didn’t really need, and two mistakes in the regular work that, interesting enough, could actually be traced back to the rat-ape. Minor stuff. What we had here was a bored geneticist who had dabbled in embryology in his spare time. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, as we say in experimental animal science, the devil is in the IRBs. Internal Review Board. The committee born to certify everything, and make sure all experiments are fully authorized. The approval of which, needless to say, I had never thought of asking. What for? To give away the damn experiment? Feed famished morons with my ideas? Well, actually I couldn’t ask because of a much more mundane reason. One tends to forget a committee is made out of people. And, in my ten years on the job, I had had encounters with each and every one of them. It’s safe to say the chance of getting a new project approved by them was not good. Bad people skills, worse networking, the lot.

When the director called me in I was expecting anything. A reprimand back to business as usual, a nice “you’re fired” talk. Directors are weird with their rules. What I wasn’t expecting was the obvious question: what the hell was I doing down there? Trying to get a gene into a bovine embryo that that could make a skim two shot cappuccino come straight from the cow. Couldn’t have said it any better. And, when the director repeated it back to me it almost made sense. I guess we are all on the lookout for validation, always.

There is a reason people get to be directors, of anything. Mine cancelled his afternoon golf session, bothered his assistant for coffee, put his feet up, and let loose a trademark deep grandfatherly bassoon that almost made me forget he probably was my age. He knew how hot this topic was, the papers and patents that could come out of any successful project. The institute was the perfect spot to try this sort of research, my background in genetics and molecular biology was obvious, and my little after-hours activity meant I had the drive. Except, and he paused for effect, I had neither experience in large farm animals, nor the proper training and legal approval to work with them. Making embryos with modified genes in a Petri dish is a feat indeed, but to make a full blown cow you tend to need another cow. And, short of trying to find a new job in a hurry, I seemed doomed to sit around until someone else had the same idea, and made better use of it. That’s the thing about research, good ideas rarely wait. So, the director said in his director voice, I needed to do the sensible thing.

So, for once in my life, I did.

I struck up a collaboration.

Collaborations are weird. In science, or wherever. You want to find people that do things, have reagents or own equipment that you, for whatever reason, can’t have or buy. On the other hand, you have to reciprocate with techniques, equipments, chemicals or ideas of your own. If the stars align it is a most efficient device, and the resulting whole more than the sum of parts, that being the point. But the thing is, borders are not always crystal clear, and tend to shift. At some point one of the collaborators might feel he is pulling most of the weight. Or try to take more credit than she is probably due. Bad people skills usually come to play up right around this point. I could list about a dozen aborted projects, and I’m still amazed that I actually embarked on another one. But that was the thing, I knew how they didn’t work. I knew that very well. All that needed to be done was reverse the lines of thought and action that had previously led to unmitigated disaster. Plus I had a really strong idea I believed in. A director patting me on the back. All in all, it sounded doable.

Ellen came into the picture quite easily. By default, really. The director had wanted someone else, probably a golf buddy he owed a favor to; or some orangutan of his own to keep tabs. But Ellen’s was the only large group with experience in transferring animal embryos, and direct access to the cow herd. She was buddies with the IRB committee, had all the required approvals. Sneaking in an extra experiment would require virtually no paperwork. And she was sufficiently new to the Institute that I hadn’t found a way to piss her off. Plus, and here comes the really mean part, I had seen a few of her talks, had done some research on her latest papers. I had her down as a very competent, high throughput, technician. Someone who could take any idea and make it work. Make it work really well. But who couldn’t be bothered to come up with the idea in the first place. Any idea, for that matter. Now, me, I had an idea.


So the director worked up some social chit chat, we went up to her office, and I told her almost everything there was to tell. She was psyched, a good tech can always recognize a great idea when she sees it. Out came paper and pencil, steps were planned, a timeframe agreed upon, the director patted us both on the back and left, his job done. Ellen called in just a few of her people, to make sure things would go smoothly, and as quietly as possible. No need to get the committee all worked up, even though they had signed on. Committees are notorious for being fickle and conservative, and really like experiments that go well, even if they only knew the whole truth about them after the fact. Success is good. And this time it was going to be perfect.

Except I sensed trouble almost straight away, I’m born with that sort of instinct. It turned out the plan was I’d give my modified gene all wrapped up in its pretty construct to someone in Ellen’s group and that would be the last I’d see of it. They were better at making embryos, inserting the gene into them, putting them back in foster mothers, monitoring pregnancies, testing to see if the calves that were born really carried the modified gene in the proper place, made milk with something new in it. Despite my recent experience, all this was probably true.

OK, so it was true.

One hour in Ellen’s lab and I could see what professional embryologists looked like. But, besides making a mockery of all the trouble I had gone through, it reminded me of why collaborations tended to suck. Cutting me out of everything but the very first step, making me lose control. Worse, made Ellen and her people think they were doing most of the work. They probably were. The heavy work, the classical stuff they did anyway. But the real novelty of the thing was what I was bringing to the table. After a few weeks of preliminary groundwork it seemed to me that they were forgetting this very small, crucial, detail. That Ellen was forgetting. And cows take quite a long while to get born. A very long while to forget very little. And the director, all patting motion and bassoon voice of him, was spending an inordinate amount of time in Ellen’s lab, leaving me to the same old orangutans. Don’t ask how I know, I just do. I couldn’t really fault him for it, performance reviews were due soon, the Institute’s funding and productivity would come out, this could be a big coup. And he knew it was in Ellen’s hands, wanted to be there, press conference in hand, as soon as those calves stepped out of their foster moms. Things were getting so out of hand the pint of scotch had to be replaced twice in a month; too many medical emergencies.

Honestly, it quickly took its toll on all of us. I was worried about not getting my fair share of credit, Ellen was leaning hard on her staff to make sure some credit, any credit, would be there for the sharing. The director was starting to think that maybe there was a reason Ellen and I were marooned on his institute. Not the best possible people to carry out a project that he himself had made a priority. In short, it was becoming everyone’s idea, that everyone else was holding back. On our second weekly meeting the director mentioned that, if things didn’t improve, perhaps we could contact that famous researcher who was moving back to that famous University over in the city. I knew who he was talking about, we had reminisced over beers the night before, me careful not to mention anything but my moronic work with the apes. Gunther. Great. Just when I thought I didn’t need a savior for once in my life, the director seemed willing to trot him in anyhow. So again I followed his best advice, and did the sensible thing.

I cheated.

Not that I had discussed this with anyone, but the point is that there are several ways you can construct a gene to be inserted in an embryo. Some versions just insert into the embryo better. The catch, however, is that those more efficient modified genes had a nasty tendency to kill most embryos. That was the point of my original idea, toning down those constructs so they wouldn’t be as aggressive. I was hoping to balance out efficiency with embryo survival through trial and error. But there was no time for this approach. I might as well give Ellen the best gene construct I had, and just hope that it didn’t destroy all the embryos she inserted it in. A shotgun experiment. And no, that wasn’t the cheating part.

The thing about modified genes is that you can’t really see them in a test tube. There might be some stuff floating around but you can’t really tell what it is. If you are in a collaboration you don’t bother testing the stuff, that’s the whole point of having someone else do part of the work. You just have to believe they are there, ready to go, forget the ingrained paranoia. So, on occasion, I gave Ellen’s team placebos. Just stuff in a tube, random DNA, not the real thing. They were technicians, right? They took what I gave them and used it, no questions asked. Again, they were never going to test it, probably wouldn’t know what to test for. All they could do was wait until the calves were born. And be very disappointed when they found out they were as normal as calves can be. Then again, the way it was normally done didn’t work most of the time either, normal calves could hardly have been a surprise.

So what was the point of this futile exercise? Merely that, among all the phony stuff I gave them was the real thing. Except only I knew when, only I could tell which calves yet to be born could bear the new gene. Control was back in the right hands. I actually had added another gimmick, another gene, without telling anybody. Specifically what in our lingo is called a reporter gene that could be activated by adding a drug to the drinking water. If the calves had been modified, if the gene had been correctly inserted, if my idea had worked, the skin of the calves should turn fluorescent, glow in the dark. A snitch gene. Neat touch, if I could say so myself.

Now all I needed to do was wait until the right calves were born. The ones that would look exactly the same as all the others. Except, of course, they weren’t. If the real experiments were are good as the ones I had dreamt up in my mind, the embryos that hadn’t died off should all result in calves with the modified gene, bear the glow-in-the-dark reporter, bear witness to my glory. I just needed to get to them before Ellen’s team could perform the test, prove the whole thing had been my idea all along. Call Ellen and the director in for my press conference.

In hindsight this would have been the perfect plan, the only concern trying to disguise an enthusiastic interest in some particular experiments, while not caring in the slightest about others. Treating experiments as equivalent children, when I knew they really weren’t. Yes, it would have been perfect, and a mere matter of time before success made a house call. If it weren’t for mammalian embryology. No, not the slow part, or even the fact that most embryos died. The problem was what the director had mentioned, and I barely acknowledged. You need a cow to make another. A foster mother to carry the modified embryo. And even a very large herd isn’t exactly infinite.

The director had made the project a priority, but that didn’t mean we could freely use any cow in sight. Other researchers had their own things going, and Ellen was starting to show the stress of trying to appease them, while finding enough foster mothers for all our precious embryos. But even so there were days where we had to let some embryos die out, for lack of welcoming uteri. I can’t even begin to explain what tricks that kind of thing can play with a hopeful mind. Murphy’s Law keeps nagging in the back of any thought, suggesting that the embryo that had to be discarded for lack of available womb would have been the one to produce that perfect miracle calf.

However, if all us had to live with this particular anguish, I was the only one aware that, thanks to a brilliant plan not quite thought through, half the herd was well on its way to becoming pregnant with useless, perfectly normal, embryos. I was clogging the system to retain control, but, thanks to me, Ellen already had enough batches of both false and real samples to occupy two herds. I just had to hope that some of the modified embryos both survived, and found their way into a caring uterus. Before all of those were taken.

In the end I got lucky. I guess I was due.

A few days ago, to the surprise of the animal care people, I pulled a weekend extra-hour shift, offered to go on feed and water detail. Saturday morning I climbed into corral number seven and gave the right calves the switch drug in their water. Just to be on the safe side, I gave the drug to all the calves, it’s always good to have negative controls. Around eleven I thought I saw a faint glow, but by mid afternoon, after hours of intent cow-gazing and hide poking that would have made a lesser man uncomfortable about his life priorities, I convinced myself I was just having a good old daft attack. The calves were as white and dull as they could be. So, as was becoming a habit, I once again did the sensible thing. And pulled out the scotch.

At three AM I remembered to stumble back to the corrals to turn the lights off. But when I did it remained light as day in there. The neon sun replaced by the walking beams of seven bemused calves.

It was a triumph. Drunk among glowing calves my first rational thought vaguely had something to do with trying to milk them. Forgetting both that they were calves, and that we had made another blunder by not sexing the embryos prior to implantation. Can’t get too much milk from bulls. But those minor issues could dealt with after the press conference. Too bad Christmas was so far off, if the same thing could be done with a donkey the mere thought of Nativity scene possibilities was breathtaking.

And, right on cue, my breath was gone. The last thing I remember was some sort of pain. Not really sharp, not really menacing. Just enough to make me welcome the fall, cherish the smell of stale hay. Lack of balance? Sure.

The dawn shift found me unconscious among the calves, now duller in the morning light. I don’t think the staff even noticed. Or the paramedics. Or everyone else that came in looking for their voyeur kicks. But I know Ellen did, how could she not? The lab notes on the desk, the computer I had left on, the calves. She must have figured it all out before the ambulance even cleared the main gate.

She was here a couple of weeks ago. Rubbed my shoulders, held my hand.

Held it so I could sign all the release forms, the authorship agreements. We need to get the patent out, she said. Submit to Nature Biotechnology, Science. I can’t help but agree. You just don’t wait on a story like this, not for some guy who can hardly move. Or talk. Or take credit. Oh, my name is down as an author, they wouldn’t dare not to. In the middle somewhere, buried among technicians, close to the director, whose sole contribution was to pat backs. It’s a fate worse than death, as if you were there, but not really there. A lucky bugger just passing by while this great experiment was being done. If you’re quiet, for whatever reason, you risk being forgotten. Ellen and the director might never have had an idea, but I know they can use it. Next stop CNN and the BBC.

And that’s exactly where I find them today, as I try out some newly rediscovered essential movements, flipping through channels looking for a decent match. Pushing each other, fighting for camera time, hacking away at how this new finding is no big deal, with that smug tone that screams that it really is a big deal. Glowing calves in the background, for emphasis; nothing like a fluorescent baby animal to convince people of whatever you want to convince them of. The news crew interviews people around campus; even grinning orangutans can be glimpsed. Then Gunther steps in, to stress how wonderful it all is, adding his gravitas to the mix, making it truly mainstream. To top it off, all of them are replaced on screen by cigar-holding cowboys, commenting on how private enterprise was the true motor for this great new development. The idea, the vision that started it all.

And, soon, we’ll get cappuccinos straight from cows.

As I return to the neverland between channels I think I now know what this collaboration business is really all about. Maybe I’ll do it again.

Just as soon as I can get this tube out of my nose.

Related infomation

© 2007 João Ramalho-Santos

The author has dedicated this story to Jus St. John

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