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Experiment, Part I

From the LabLit fiction series

João Ramalho-Santos 13 April 2008

He deserved it: one last hurrah as a bench scientist, getting his hands dirty in a faraway place before he turned forty

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a two-part story about one scientist's significant sabbatical.

You could hear the creaking of the baggage carrousel slowly parading identical bags for the anxious eyes of the few late summer travelers. No screeching children, no sloppy reunions. Must be a fun city, he mused, foot firmly placed on the railing, striking a pose of serious alertness, as if his was the most import suitcase in the history of air travel. Until he remembered he only had a small carry-on, patiently parked by his side.

It was only at that exact moment that he realized, no, that he was forced to realize, what being there meant. Not just another scientific meeting, not just a small solo detour at the end of a family vacation. He was here to assure himself of something he didn’t even care to think of as important. That had been the mantra for the past year: It didn’t really matter, it didn’t really matter. Right.

Following its glorious industrial years the town had apparently refurbished itself as a busy convention hub, and dozens of small booths lined the baggage claim area, their colorful signs happily welcoming someone. He made his way to the one which beckoned Bi-ologists, wondering, at the last second, if there actually was such a thing as an organization for bisexual ologists. The overweight pimpled teen, hanging on to summer before school resumed traumatizing her, wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him. She actually looked on in disbelief while repeating his question , with just a slight change in emphasis. “You want to go to town?” The attendant couldn’t get over the fact that, for the past two days, she had only been dealing with people coming emphatically out. His request did not seem to compute, there were no inbound drivers available. And where, he asked, did the outbound drivers go after out-bounding? Back to get more passengers, she said, as if this was an obvious reality, with no bearing on the situation whatsoever. Well, couldn’t she pretend that they were, at that moment, inbound drivers? He had to explain this twice more, once to the poor girl, once to her supervisor. Not exactly a testament to another depth of human stupidity, which is bad enough, but to the infinite power of rigidity, which is far worse.

At the Convention Center the registration room was deserted, except for the idle elderly ladies, sipping watered-down coffee through gigantic commemorative cups, all of which thanked God for something. As was quickly becoming a habit, they too did not seem at all pleased when he walked in. He couldn’t be sure whether these were bored retirees or angry senior citizens whose pension plans had been suddenly wiped out by a failed investment. And, today, he didn’t care. He needed a badge, a program, some directions; was prepared for anything to get those very few precious items. So irony remained bottled when the Lead Elderly Lady (were odd hair colors an absolute requirement for older generations?) used some of her own to let him know that this was the last day of the Meeting. He was aware of this, could he please get his badge? I mean, she said, it’s nearly over. The banquet, the Awards Ceremony? Done. What possible interest did those last moribund sessions hold? He knew, could he please have his badge, please? I mean, she continued, most of the attendants have already left! Yes, could he please have his badge, pretty please? I mean, he would be required to pay the full registration fee, no discounts for the late bird that gets few worms. He said he understood; she was being mean. Now could he please have his badge, full registration was OK, the sign said visa accepted, there was his card, where was the Hall of Mirrors, home to Symposium number twenty-two? And a badge. Please?

Following orders from her leader, Elderly Lady Number Two methodically started printing his name on one of the few remaining virgin badges, her tongue sticking out. While Elderly Lady Number Three retrieved a program and a complementary bag, in wonderful slow motion, Lead Elderly Lady charged his card and highlighted a complicated route that led to a giant X, marking the Hall of Mirrors on a very faded photocopied map. Again, he didn’t care; time was not an issue at this point. As the quickly consulted program clearly indicated, the only lecture he was interested in was almost at the end of Symposium twenty-two, an hour away. And his badge took a mere ten minutes to produce, complete with the usual typos, on both his names. No matter, those he collected.

It had all started at another airport. With an emotional family farewell. A year is a long time, especially since he really hadn’t been away much after fatherhood had pinned him down. He had soldiered on, with, he thought, a modicum of success. Classes reasonably taught, research projects that had resulted in a competent and solid, if un-sexy, career. But now it was time for a sabbatical. He deserved it, one last hurrah as a bench scientist, getting his hands dirty before he turned forty. In a faraway place where he wouldn’t have to worry about funding, equipment and space, employee demands, grading mountains of identical essays. And he was not going to take the easy way out; he wanted to be challenged, do new things, work hard in a new, fresh environment. Evolve, as a scientist and a person, all the grandiose stuff. Prove he belonged. He was, of course, all too aware that you had better be careful what you wish for.

One of his colleagues had duly warned him: “They treat us like dogs! They make us work like slaves! Back here I’m called Doctor and Professor; there even the technician and the cleaning lady called me “Dan”. They just wouldn’t stop! What the hell is that?”

Needless to say, said colleague had lasted all of two months of his original sabbatical, before making it back to where he was comfortably called “Professor Daniel”. Still, prominent on his CV was his visiting scholarship at the Famous University of So and So (conspicuously absent the length of the stay), which was, of course, the main goal. To be recognized as having been “there”. But that was for other people, not him. He thought a change at that level might even be refreshing. Science is a place where a keen undergraduate can knock down a professor, provided she did the right experiment and had enough gall. It is also where surprises happen, good and bad. Would he have gone anyway? Of course, you can’t care too much about the future, lest the present become irrelevant. So he said his tearful goodbyes, waved at the security checkpoint, and almost ran to the gate, a smile climbing across his face probably an instant sooner than he would have liked. Two days later he was officially named Visiting Scientist to the man he would forthwith think of, for one year, as Boss.

Boss was as bubbly in person as he had been by email. A charming, overcharged spark-plug who sprinted though the lab on his breaks from travel and paperwork to pump up the crew or frustrate them, depending on the mood of the day. But his enthusiasm was always genuine, his comments and suggestions on target more often than not. And it was nice to again have someone he could go to with his doubts, instead of being the final rung on the ladder. There was only one minor thing he needed to overcome: the fact that Boss was actually younger than himself, and not above pointing it out. Suddenly his career didn’t look too good. Then again, wasn’t that why he had left it behind for a year? Also, as a bonus point, everyone in the lab agreed that he had aged better. With that in mind, he went to work.

At the very beginning there had been problems with the lab. Flowing with money, it was, nevertheless, woefully ill-equipped for the novel work he wanted to do. A lot of equipment rested patiently in boxes, had been there since the lab had moved from the west coast, almost six months earlier. But problems existed to be solved, he told himself. Such is Science. So he dusted off all the available equipment, set it up. He then proceeded to order brand new supplies. He ordered and ordered, drunkenly amazed by the joint power of a mouse click and a lab credit card, until he could order no more. Then he looked at his little bench, and thought it was good.

This empowerment came with a heavy price. He actually had run out of excuses to not concentrate on work. The town explored, homesickness dealt with. It was time to stop staring at his beautifully equipped bench, and have it tell him some fun scientific tales. His first experiment resulted in severe damage to most of the equipment, the second ruined a brand new designer outfit bought at a Marshall’s discount store (and a lab coat). All he had left was some self-respect, and that was pretty much gone halfway through experiment number three, which ended in a call to the biohazard officer. And this while trying simple things, a mere testing of waters. Obviously, he’d been away from the bench too long. And here he had no student underlings to conveniently prepare experiments, or clean up messes. Quite the contrary. His new lab mates kept their distance and shielded their precious stuff, you never could tell when Professor Disaster would strike again. At least, he emailed his colleague, he was being called professor.

Not that being a bumbling idiot caused any major dents in his social life. He didn’t have any. No roots in an uninteresting foreign town, no time for hobbies, and no real will to join his colleagues after hours. Those his age rushed out of the lab to be with their own families, chastising him for “abandoning” his. The younger ones were either dangerously attractive, or into things he did not understand, or made him feel really old, or all of the above. So he stayed in the lab and persisted until the same simple experiments always yielded the same predictable results. Science needs to be reproducible; one must always be able and willing to repeat. The next few steps involved increased levels of complication and, strangely enough, they mostly worked.

Of course, that was only the beginning of a new set of problems. You need more than a functional bench stockpiled with equipment that can give answers. Mostly, you need to have questions, and the quality of the answer always depends on that of the question. On his initial research plan there were boatloads of ambitious questions, too ambitious for one year. He had to find some sort of balance between the glory and the doable. In the end, balance found him.

Work-in-progress seminars are great. You stand up and present your latest endeavors, what you have done, and where you think it might lead. Then you have every single colleague who is awake comment, praise and present suggestions. Or, in other words, politely shred your precious data for all its glaring inadequacies. He was almost sleeping through someone else’s talk until the picture related to one particular experiment caught his attention. It was his technique, the procedure he had agonized over for months now. Except the picture was horrible, you could barely see the result. It was obvious the colleague hadn’t treated the experiment with care, bothered with the repeating grind of it. His versions were clear, crisp, clean, unambiguous, unchallengeable, final. Better.

Unfortunately he thought all this out loud, and, having recently regained an old comfort level, thought it in English. Which prompted an immediate raise from the colleague, calling what he thought was Professor Disaster’s bluff. Think you can do better? Four days later he had the pleasure of watching him gasp. He had repeated his experiment using his variations on the technique, and the new pictures, although technically identical, made the colleague’s look like they had been stepped on and viewed through fog. They were, in a word, better.

Having a new technical procedure working very well means you quickly make news friends in the laboratory. First it was the Slovak postdoc, then one of the graduate students, then two more postdocs. All had projects that could use this newfound lab resource, had one experiment among many that could use the technique. And it was much easier to have Visiting Guy do it, than learn to do it as well as he did. As a convenient reward he would find himself as an author on their papers. Not in a very prominent position, of course. His were, after all, only small pieces of bigger puzzles, some of which he didn’t even fully understand. But all these papers would boost his curriculum, keep him busy.

Actually, that was an understatement. A few months later his own projects, the ones he still hadn’t figured out how to tackle, were being relegated to the innermost recesses of his exhausted brain. He had trouble keeping stories straight: which was this experiment, and who had asked him to do it? Then, if all this hadn’t been enough, he got hit with the Golden Boy.

[to conclude next week]

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© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Ricardo D. Moreno.

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