Lab Rats: Scene III

A six-part play from the LabLit fiction series

Robin Plevin 10 February 2008

Don’t tell me: you thought you were going to clone Dolly the sheep by Christmas. Yes, we all did when we started

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the third episode of a six-part lab play by Professor Robin Plevin about the sins and secrets of a group of university researchers in Scotland.

Scene III – Results

(Another 3 months later in the laboratory, early evening)

Del: Ye know…Science is bollocks!

Ian: Oh dear, another experiment that hasn’t worked?

Del Boy: It’s worked all right…but just not in the way it should. I’ve been doing the same experiment for six months and I can’t get it to work the same way Simon did. Mike will be really pissed off when I show him my results.

(Simon comes in carrying an ice tray)

Simon: Is that me hearing that your experiment went tits up again? Dearie me, Del Boy, you haven’t got very green fingers, have you?

Ian: Don’t worry, Derek, you’ll get it right soon. And then you’ll get lots of results. (Simon walks out of the lab with things in a tray; there is pause) Otherwise, Mike will change your project.

Derek: Eh? What do you mean?

Ian: What do you think I mean? He’ll put you onto another project. You haven’t cottoned on yet, have you? The only thing he’s interested in is results, so he can write more papers and grants. It doesn’t matter if the project’s difficult or going slowly or a waste of time; he doesn’t care, he just wants results. Even crap ones will do, it doesn’t matter. And if you do get something decent you’ll be flavour of the month. Have you not noticed, it’s Cathy’s turn just now because her project’s going really well. He’ll be all over you like a rash, he’ll speak to you the most, hang on every word, even ask about what you did at the weekend apart from being in here. As if he gives a toss. He does it because he thinks he’s getting something out of you. Then at some point he’ll take your lab book off your bench, without telling you, and return it a week later with the first draft of a paper. Then it’ll be someone else’s turn. So my boy, if you want to get a PhD you’d better start working harder.

James: (dispensing liquid into tubes) Ian, your project’s going really badly but I don’t see you killing yourself. Why should Del Boy?

Ian: Because I’m a postdoc now: I don’t have to work my arse off. I’ve got a PhD. All Mike can do to me is not renew my contract, but he can let Derek fail. He’s done it before.

James: When?

Ian: A few years ago. A girl called Fiona Wilson. She was on a crap project, badly designed and going nowhere. No decent results after two years, so he pulls the plug.

Noreen: I don’t think Mike was to blame, she was a problem student, everyone knew that.

Ian: Yes, she was bit of a psycho.

James: Isn’t it funny how the student is always the problem and never the supervisor?

Noreen: There’s nothing wrong with Michael’s supervision. Derek, if you’re intelligent and do clever experiments, you’ll get your PhD easily. And you shouldn’t have to work seven days a week, I didn’t. I don’t work evenings and weekends because I’ve got a life. I got a paper in Nature by working –

James: (Interrupting) No, No, wait. Let’s get this straight once and for all. You’ve got your name on a Nature paper. It’s not the same thing. That work was done mostly in another laboratory – you only got to do some extra experiments for the paper because Mike arranged it.

Noreen: Is that a little professional jealousy I’m hearing? A second-rate scientist like yourself has no right to criticise, which is what you’ve done ever since you came here.

James: Is that a little professional paranoia I’m hearing? Can’t a scientist with a Nature paper stand a little criticism from a second-rater like me? What have you got to hide – you’re so much better than the rest of us.

(Mike Comes in from the office)

Mike: Night, everyone.

Noreen: Good night, Michael.

Mike: Actually, I’ve got some great news, everyone. After six months of negotiations, the Nips are finally going to go ahead with the contract. (looks guiltily at James, turns to Derek) Derek, has that experiment work?

Del: No Mike, it was the same result again.

Mike: Right, I think it’s time your project was changed. Possibly to something a little less challenging? You’re on borrowed time here. I’ll see you in my office tomorrow at nine. Well, goodnight everyone.

(Exit Mike; pause as Ian looks on at a downcast Derek)

Derek: Thanks, Mike.

(silent, uneasy pause as everyone looks at everyone else)

Ian: Don’t worry Del, it’ll work out eventually. Right, lets get the radio on, might get the football preview. Christ, how did he get that contract with the Japanese? Six months ago he was trying to sell them the same old crap and they were having none of it. Now it’s work they can’t wait to fund. Where did he get all these new ideas from? Must have shagged last year’s Nobel prize winner. That’ll ease the financial difficulties for the lab, Mike may even extend my contract…

Sandra (running in) It worked! My experiment worked. Look, look at the results (she hands James the read-out) Yes, that’ll get the boss of my back!

James (reading the results): Yes, this looks pretty good to me.

Sandra: It’s taken me three months to get this to work. Thanks. How did you know what was going wrong?

James: The lab I was in at Boston did similar types of experiment except that they never told anyone exactly how they did them.

Sandra: Why?

James: So no one could copy them, of course. When they wrote up their papers they never included how they did them, at least, not exactly. I phoned one of them and got the correct method. He owed me a favour.

Sandra: But that’s really unfair.

Ian: Who said science was fair?

Noreen: Sandra, if you have any results I should be shown them first. When Mike is not here or is too busy to see you, I am the senior scientist in this laboratory.

Sandra: But it was James who told me what to do. And it worked. It was his idea.

Noreen: That doesn’t matter, he shouldn’t be telling you what to do, Sandra. I am the senior scientist here and you are the technical support. And in Mike’s absence I tell you what to do. He said so.

James: Go on then, Noreen, you haven’t been doing too well so far.

(Noreen puts down her stuff, takes off her lab coat and walks to the door)

Noreen: Mike will hear about this tomorrow.

(exit Noreen)

Ian: Going up against Noreen, brave man.

James: Why?

Ian: Because she’s in charge of the lab. She’s got Mike in her back pocket.

James: Ian, you’re not intimidated by Noreen. Arrogant, conceited, middle-class Noreen. She’s far less talented than you.

Ian: Well, that’s not what Mike thinks.

James: What does he know?

Ian: Well, he knows how to get research grants. And if there was a choice between giving me or her a new contract, I know who he’d choose.

James: You’re much better than this.

Ian: Than what?

James: Than the standards you set yourself. You’re sharp and clever, you could easily be a really good scientist with a bit more effort.

Ian: I haven’t got the time for more effort, I’ve got better things to do with my life. Working all these late nights and at weekends is not for me, I’d crack up in a month. No, I’m just not cut out to be a scientist, well at least not the way you are. I haven’t got what it takes, I know that.

James: Ian, why do you always shroud your lack of confidence in a lack of commitment?

Ian: Please, save me the psychobabble. That’s for my psychiatrist.

James: You go to a psychiatrist?

Ian: Aye, well, a therapist actually. For my depression.

James: (realisation) Oh.

Ian: Its okay, I’m not mental. Well, at least not officially. I just went a wee bit AWOL about a year ago and had a short holiday up at the psycho ward in Stobhill. That’s an experience I can tell you. Really helps you when you’re depressed, all these nutters around you. I really thought I was going to go daft.

James: Does it help?

Ian: The therapy? I don’t know. I’m still on Prozac so it’s hard to tell. What do you think?

James: How should I know, I only spout psychobabble. But what I can say is that you’re far better than you give yourself credit for.

Ian: Thanks, but the sooner I get out of science the better. I’m sorry, but I want a job with security, prospects and a decent wage.

James: That’s all it is to you then, a job?

Ian: What else should it be?

James: (thinks about engaging in argument but declines) You’ve got me there. Night Ian, see you tomorrow.

Ian: Night, James, night Del.

(Simon pops his head back in)

Simon: Night lads. Don’t work too hard on that assay, Del Boy.

(There is silence. Derek continues to look at his data and James returns to the bench)

Derek: You don’t like Noreen, do you?

James: Mmm…the unacceptable face of academia. Arrogant, selfish and with a distinct lack of talent. Just the credentials needed for running a research group.

Del: Do you want to run your own research group?

James: I suppose I do.

Derek: But you have to get a lectureship first?

James: That’s right

Derek: What do you have to do to get a lectureship?

James: Work as hard as you can. Wait as long as you can, and…pray

Derek: They say you couldn’t make it in the States, the competition was too tough.

James: Who said that?

Derek: Noreen…and Simon.

James: Well, they can say what they like.

Derek: Is it true?

James: What do you think?

Derek: You work harder than anyone I’ve ever met.

James: There you go then.

Del: And those ideas for the Japanese contract. They’re all yours, aren’t they?

James: How did you know?

Del: I could tell by the look on his face. It’s the sort of thing he would do, steal someone else’s ideas.

James: I see not much gets past you.

Del: But why did you give him your ideas?

James: To test him out. To see what way he’d go. Don’t worry, I’ll get my own back.

Del: There’s an old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold.

James: Is that Sartre?

Del: No, Klingon.

James: You read a lot of Klingon, then?

Del: Aye, and I speak it as well. I use it when I go to Star Trek conventions, so you can speak to other people in Klingon even if they’re foreign. It’s really cool.

James: I’m sure it is.


Derek: So why did you leave? (James looks at him) America, to come here?

James: That’s my business, okay?

Del: Why don’t you tell Noreen you’ve got better papers than her? That would shut her up. You’re on lots of really good papers, I looked up your name on the Web. Why don’t you say?

James: I don’t need to. I know what work I’ve done and how good it is. I don’t need to spend my time trying to convince people. Changing the subject, how are these experiments going? Where do you think they are going wrong?

Del: You know…it’s not like what I thought it would be.

James: What?

Del: A PhD. I thought things would be more…exciting.

James: Don’t tell me: you thought you were going to clone Dolly the sheep by Christmas. Yes, we all did when we started. I was like you once, thought I was going to do my bit to save the world…at least that what my PhD supervisor told me. Wanker. Fuck, I was so naïve. Oh, I knew it wasn’t going to be like what you read in the papers or see on the television. Finding cures for cancer and heart disease so we can all live forever. I knew that was all bullshit. But still, deep down, I really thought I was going to make that crucial discovery. Then eventually you wise up to the fact that if you’ve had a good idea someone else, somewhere, in the thousands of laboratories across the world, will have had the same idea. Probably before you. And as for publishing the discovery first, you have to be in the right place at the right time and have huge numbers of people and resources at your disposal, or you don’t have a chance. Because the big groups will mow you down. If they get a whiff of any idea that’s big, they’ll have the paper submitted to Nature in weeks and you’ll end up getting shafted

Del: It almost sounds like you don’t like science.

James: It’s worse than that.

Del: What do mean?

James: What sort of scientist are you, Derek? Are you the sort that puts the samples on the counter and just goes home? Or are you sort that stands there by the counter excited, waiting for each result to come up on the screen, hoping you’ve discovered something?

Del: I don’t know what you mean.

James: Well, you will one day.

Del: I know what sort of scientist I am. One without any friggin’ results.

James: Well, let’s see if we can’t remedy that. Why don’t I watch over you and see were you are going wrong…if you are going wrong.

Derek: But Mike said you weren’t to help me.

James: He’ll never know if you don’t tell him.

Derek: Okay, but I’ve got to go the centrifuge room to take my samples off first.

(Derek exits; James returns to his seat and looks at Derek’s results and is puzzled. He then wanders over to Simon and looks at his results book. He looks in front and sees a scintillation vial with a radioactive sticker on it. He looks at it and reflects. He looks again. He shakes it.)

(Cathy enters)

Cathy: I thought I’d find you here.

James: Well, the pigeon always returns home to the stinking coop.

Cathy: Well it doesn’t stink enough for my liking.

James: Meaning?

Cathy: You know exactly what I mean, clever boy.

James: How did you get in? You don’t have a pass for working late.

Cathy: Eddie didn’t mind.

James: Probably in shock, you coming into the department after 6 o’clock.

Cathy: Ha, Ha, very funny. More likely he was too busy letching at me to care. He’s so creepy.

James: Eddie’s all right. So what if he looked at your bum on the way past. A heinous crime if ever there was one. Right up there with the holocaust and Stalin’s purges.

Cathy: (irritated) Don’t over-dramatise it.

James: (more serious ) No, no – you don’t over-dramatise it. What the fuck do you expect? He’s a 60-year old bloke from Govan. He doesn’t read Cosmopolitan, does he? Or Marie Clare or whatever you think’s appropriate. He’s just a punter.

Cathy: That still doesn’t give him the right to letch at me.

James: That’s true – but you’ve deliberately made yourself attractive to the opposite sex. You’ve got a see-through top on, unbuttoned to the waist and the obligatory Wonderbra to generate a bit of cleavage. And you wonder why he looks at you and gets just a little bit hot under the collar.

Cathy: Well, I wasn’t trying to make myself attractive to all of the opposite sex…just one of them. Not that he would look at me, if it meant turning away from his beloved test tubes. (Pause) Anyway, I came to say a couple of things. The first of which is thanks for standing me up. James: I didn’t stand you up. I said I might be finished too late to go out, that was all. And something has come up.

Cathy: Like what, for instance?

James: I’m helping Derek with his experiment.

Cathy: I’ve been stood up for Del Boy! Well thanks very much. Mr Sociopath needs help so I get dumped for the evening.

James: He’s not Mr Sociopath, he just thinks he’s Darth Vader. But so what? He’s no better or worse than your beloved Simon or Noreen. Cathy, he needs help, can we go to the pictures another night?

Cathy: Another night! The call-offs are so common I’m hardly likely to put another date in my diary with much hope, am I? At least Del Boy makes a different excuse this time. You spend every waking hour in this lab. Why don’t you…get a life?

James: Christ, not you as well. Look, we’ve been through this before: if I’m going to make it in this profession I have got to graft. I’m not going to brown-nose up to Waterman and all the others just to get it. And you of all people should know and understand that.

Cathy: Yes, I know because you’ve told me often enough. But I don’t understand. What’s wrong with keeping in with Mike and licking up to the head of department now and again? God, you’re so stupid. All your intelligence and you can’t see that working hard isn’t going to be enough. Look at Noreen and Simon, they’re miles above you in the pecking order because they keep in with Waterman.

James: Look, there is no way I’m going to…

Cathy: Yes, don’t tell me, I know. No grovelling to get to the top. Got to do it your way. And meanwhile, everything else gets cast aside. Friends, family, girlfriend – sorry, no time, got to show them that I’m different. No compromises, no sell-out. I’m sure you’ll understand. Well, I’m tired of having to understand. (starts to cry) What about me, how about showing me a little understanding now and again? I don’t ask for much…just a boyfriend who puts me before his work now and again.

(James comes to give her a cuddle. He holds her but looks slightly uncomfortable and looks straight ahead)

James: I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll make it up to you. I’ll cut back. I’m just trying to establish myself…

Cathy: (sniffing) And my periods late. My fucking period’s late!

James: Well it would be, wouldn’t it. The morning-after pill works like that. (worried) How many days late are you?

Cathy: Three. What happens if it hasn’t worked, I was really sick. Maybe it didn’t absorb into my system. God, I can’t be pregnant, I can’t be.

James: Hey, you’ll be okay, it just to be safe anyway. It was hardly in the middle of your cycle. And what did you say? You’re regular as clockwork.

Cathy: I usually am.(starting to dry her tears)

James: Well, don’t worry (half convincing), you’ll be fine.

Cathy: I know, I know, don’t tell me – I’m just a neurotic female.

James: I’ve never said that, because it isn’t true. But you could try not to get snot all over me.

Cathy: Well, you know how classy I am. (pause) Will you come round later?

James: What for?

Cathy: Do you really need to ask? How about some gratuitous sex? Or maybe just a cuddle and a bit of company. I can get a DVD…

James: You’ve been watching too many movies.

Cathy: You haven’t been watching enough. James: Not with you anyway. Okay, but it’ll be a couple of hours, at least. I’ve promised Del…

Cathy: I’ll wait up.

James: I know you. You’ll be asleep on the couch.

Cathy: Just saving my strength.

James: You’ll need it.

Cathy: Good. (They kiss deeply. He reaches down and squeezes her buttocks lightly) Hey, I’ll call security

James: Does he want a squeeze as well?

(She laughs. They kiss passionately, Del Boy comes in and coughs)

Cathy: Oh, hi Del Boy. Sorry, I’ve just got a hold of your man, so to speak. Its okay, I’m going, I don’t want to break up your little party.

Del Boy: He’s giving me some help with my experiments

Cathy: So I’ve heard. (turns to James) A man in demand. See you in a while, don’t work too hard.

(Cathy turns to leave)

James: Hey, what was the second thing?

Cathy: It doesn’t matter.(Cathy exits. James returns to the seat and looks at the vial on Simons bench.)

James: (quietly): Please god...don’t let me be a father.

Del: Where you praying? I didnae think you were religious.

James: Only times of crisis. Del Boy, I’ve just had an epiphany.

Del: Well, you better get some cream for it then.

James: (Looks at Del Boy who looks back knowingly and starts to laugh) Okay, before we start, can you answer me one simple question. Why does Simon have a vial of radioactivity on his bench when all the radioactive work is done down the corridor in the radioactive lab?

Del: I dinnae ken.

James: Do you know what scientific fraud is?

Del: Aye, people making up results that are no right. What are you getting at?

James: Nothing. Take this sample from it and put it in the radioactive counter just to make sure. Del: Sure of what?

James: Trust me – I’m a doctor.

Del: Okay (takes the vial and walks out)

James: I’ve got you now!


[Continued next week]