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All in a day's work

From the LabLit short story series

Kerri Smith 18 January 2009

www.lablit.com/article/461

I wonder what proportion of her hippocampal neurons I’d find dedicated to memories of our brief conversations so far?

I counted eleven G reg cars on the cycle into work that Thursday morning, but apart from that it was a pretty normal ride. A few rust-coloured leaves got caught in the equally rusty spokes of my Brompton. Locked bike, swiped card, proceeded up stairs past colleagues’ offices.

At this point I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like if Emily had walked past me on her way in. Our routes to work overlapped, although if I didn’t leave seven minutes earlier than my usual time, on average that is, I’d miss her. I’d have to seize my chance even if she just said “Morning, Gerry” in that Radio 4 voice of hers.

We’ve only met once, and I panic sometimes that she doesn’t remember. It was at a house party Russ had. We were all standing in the kitchen, as you do at parties, practically cemented together, chatting away like a bunch of hyperpolarised cortical neurons with the booze as our neurotransmitters. I’d spotted her earlier in the evening and was half listening in as she described her Saturday to someone. It sounded like they studied the same subject, and she went on to tell the guy about a talk she was giving about her research the Monday after. So I went to her presentation the other day, and I’m sure my oxytocin levels must have clocked up outside three standard deviations of the mean. Today though, there’s no sign of her. I try instead to avoid the overinterested Parswood, who I’m certain is trying to steal either my ideas or my assistants.

I’d left everything out from the previous day; it had been a late night, and today was more of the same. It seemed earlier in the morning than it was, and the strip lights bounced their photons off the gloss-white surfaces. I approached the cage. Pulled out the mouse, stroked it until it stopped squirming, and with it face down, used a pencil to trap its neck. Then I pulled it sharply by its tail and dislocated its spine. Something about the surety with which I could perform the movement was comforting.

I put the dead mouse to one side of the counter as I reached over to mark details in a notebook: M, 30days. Mem-E #499. I put the pencil down, noticing that the next subject would be my 500th. I plucked it from its cage and held it up. Quite a milestone, I thought to myself. But there were other thoughts sliding in behind this one. Are you still not finished? Why not publish yet? That’s what Parswood would say. I can see his mousy little nose now, the individual hairs stubby and dark enough to really make you fixate on them if you’re standing within conversational range. They work in concert with his wrinkles to keep his stupid circular glasses on. I stare at them every time he stops to talk to me in the corridor.

But I can’t publish yet – there’s more to be done before my project is ready. The Alzheimer’s research field isn’t exactly a walk in the park these days, and I’m not the only one working on hippocampal pyramidal cells, of course. Which is why, before we publish a word, we need to make sure we’ve got the confidence intervals nice and tight. I’ll need larger numbers in the control group before I can do that, maybe try and replicate some of our earlier results. Which reminds me, I must order another consignment of subjects this week.

I start the first dissection. Remove the head, rinse the incision. I might see Emily at the bar tonight – Russ said she’d be coming. Just our habitual Thursday night drinks in the college bar, but he said she wanted to come and see what Balliol was like. Cut the scalp and then the skull. I wonder what proportion of her hippocampal neurons I’d find dedicated to memories of our brief conversations so far? Seemed promising last time I saw her until the end of the evening when I fumbled my words and asked stupid questions about her PhD, and sweated and feverishly hoped she didn’t notice. My basal ganglia were taking over a bit from the nice, rational cortex, which would have said more sensible things. Into the saline solution it goes. She might be remembering me for the wrong reasons entirely. What do I know about mind symbolism in medieval philosophy anyway? Seal the container. Next! I could do this in my sleep.

Most of the afternoon I half-concentrated on a paper about the effect of glutaminyl cyclase on Alzheimer’s brains. This team from Columbia University had practically cured their genetically engineered mice, but some of their methods were a bit unfamiliar to me. I took notes. Filed them. Checked I’d left everything in order from the morning and left the lined notebook on the counter, open, with the pencil and a red pen sitting on a line each, their ends aligned with the ruled margin, like a letter ‘F’.

Emily Emily Emily. She’d be at the bar tonight. I hurried home to eat and change. I found myself hoping, on the way into town, that a few, just a few, of her synapses would adapt in my favour, reconnect themselves in an arrangement that spelled out, in neuronal terms, G-E-R-R-Y. There were certainly enough Emily connections in my hippocampus, that’s for sure.

Russ was there already, and so was she. The adrenalin that I felt like I was mass-producing at this point kicked in, spurred on by my sympathetic nervous system, which on this occasion wasn’t being very sympathetic.

Some other people I knew less well were tessellated with Russ and Emily into the small alcove they occupied in the bar. The way they all nodded at the same thing gave me the impression of a group of cilia conducting sound around in the ear. Really clever, they are, cilia. Just little hairs, but entirely responsible for our hearing. Russ was flirting with Emily, presumably because he thought being a social scientist gave him some kind of automatic girl-impressing device. That annoyed me, because it was so unnecessary. It wasn’t like I was any kind of worthy competition – he was much better-looking after all. The fact that I won college scholarships was of precious little use to me in this kind of situation. You’d go for him if you were a girl.

To my surprise, Emily rose as I approached the table and smiled towards me. My words failed me. Luckily, hers didn’t.

“It’s Gerry, isn’t it?” she Radio 4-ed.

The hairs on my arms stood on end, not unlike the movements of the cilia round the table. “Yes,“ I said, probably smiling like some kind of simpleton. “Emily.”

Her next sentence was already half out of her mouth. “Russ was telling me about you – I knew we’d met before but I’m terrible with names. Hit lucky this time though, eh. What are you drinking?”

As I swayed to the bar behind her, she told me again about her philosophy PhD. I caught snatches of it because she was having to turn round to talk to me as we pushed through the bar crowd (cheap drinks on Balliol College Crazy Thursdays brings them in). This was the soft side of science that I’d once or twice been forced to sit through lectures on. Why not just do the experiments? No use sitting around all day just thinking about things. She was pretty convincing though, I have to admit. Her dark eyes glinted as she told me that she’d dabbled in studying ethics before switching focus, and was particularly impressed with the ideas of some of the philosophers she’d come across on equality between species.

She listened intently as I filled her in on the basic theory behind what I was studying. I kept it short, for fear of boring her, and because I couldn’t concentrate at once on both talking coherently and maintaining my focus on the piece of her chocolate-coloured fringe that was caught in her long, mascara’d eyelashes. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to get so many words out in a row.

We stayed at the bar for our drinks; it was pretty tricky navigating around the hordes of people. She told me she was a vegetarian, and that she had recently got into knitting her own clothes. This gave me a brilliant excuse to feign an interest in her scarf while actually giving myself a micro-break from eye contact, which was intense, and also meant I could take in the rest of her without it looking completely obvious. Eventually I briefly excused myself to find the toilets, because I really needed to breathe deeply and regroup.

I came back to find an empty space at the bar. Lifted my glass to finish the last of my pint. A slip of paper came unstuck from the beer-sticky base and fluttered back to the bar top. I retrieved it.

Have to go. Friend’s boyfriend emergency. Would be great to see you again. 07856 438667. Emily

Was it the sense of loss, an event without its climax, or the sense of excitement that she’d so much as looked at me that upregulated my heartbeat at that moment? I waved to the cilia, made my excuses to Russ, who was on pint number four and studying the juke box intently, and shuffled gleefully home, endorphins all the way.

I had more of the same to do the next day in the lab. The brains from yesterday were safely preserved in saline, but I needed more samples to regulate the numbers in my control group. I’d given one group of mice a drug that made them act as if they had Alzheimer’s. It formed amyloid plaques in their cortex, clogging the communication channels and starving the neurons. The other group were normal mice. Each group had learnt to navigate round a maze, as per a billion other experiments in neurobiology. Then we stain different types of compound in the brain slices of the mice and it’s like spot the difference.

I stared at the mice in the cages. Something Emily had said in the bar kept ringing in my ears. That philosopher she mentioned, equality amongst different species. Animal Farm philosophy, I thought – some animals are more equal than others.

The mice’s delicate albino faces were expressionless and twitchy, full of motion and unsuspecting as they rummaged through the sawdust. Maybe they felt a peculiar mouse-pride as they found their way through the maze to the juice reward at the end. I suddenly recalled a sweaty summer day competing against my younger brother in a maze made of hedges, the panic that gripped me as I listened to his running footsteps behind me. I ended up careering headlong into a dead end. The hedge was so thick I couldn’t push through. Could this same dread grip the subjects of my experiments?

I took up the pencil and opened the door of the first cage. My hands were shaking as I took out the mouse. I tried to avoid looking it in the eye. Just then, the door of the lab clicked open.

I turned as I heard the sound. The mouse squirmed in my left hand, the pencil still poised in my right. Parswood’s nose preceded his blobby, lab-coated body into the room.

“This young lady was looking for you, Gerry. You’ve agreed to show her your work? Anyhow, here she is.”

Emily had burst in behind him with a smile crinkling up her face, a too-large lab coat draped carelessly around her. I switched my confused gaze from Parswood’s molehill-like features to the object of his stares. I barely had time to note that the regulation animal-lab white coat had fallen rather breathtakingly from one of her shoulders, revealing the thin, cherry-red strap of her dress.

I still grasped the pencil and the chosen creature. Only the expression of Emily’s eyes changed as she first registered my weapon, and then my victim. Expectation drooped to bafflement, and then to outright hurt. I was unable to move, to speak, as she turned and ran.