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Fiction

Upon which it stands

From the LabLit short story series

Brendan Borrell 8 February 2009

www.lablit.com/article/468

I never intended to make a complete ass of myself in front of the entire faculty of the Eppley College Biology Department

As you can probably imagine I was rather disappointed to discover that my hiring was the result of an inadvertent mix-up on the part of the regents of Eppley College. These perverse instances of mistaken identity never seem to come to a pleasant resolution, and that would be the unfortunate case with my own. In any event, Roger Updike, the chair of the biology department, should be commended for the tremendous welcoming party he hosted upon my springtime arrival at the College. At the time, neither he nor I nor any of the faculty guests convening at his delightful cottage atop Whitmore Canyon Drive realized that I was not quite the man they had intended to hire. Thus, I was caught in bit of a quagmire after motoring up that windy drive in the late afternoon, observing of the cherry blossoms in all their glory, even pulling off for a moment to take note of a remarkable birdsong emanating from the vegetation, only to arrive and find myself introduced not as Dr. Lipstein Gephardt but as Dr. Gipstein Lephardt.

Before I recount this near-debacle, I should mention that I had most recently encountered the real Dr. Lephardt three years prior at the XXVII Congress of the International Academy of Ornithology in Brussels where we had discussed the eerie similarity of both our names and our respective specializations in the fields of ecological physiology and physiological ecology. Gipstein had studied circadian rhythms in the fulvous-headed brush finch for his doctoral dissertation, whereas I, Lipstein, had studied rhythmic saccades in red-backed shrikes. “Dr. Lipstein,” he said, gripping my hand like some serpent wrested from the underbrush at his field site high in the Bolivian Andes, “what a pleasure to finally meet you.” Evidently, the night we drank mango martinis and toasted to “the gods of tenure and peer-review” at this same conference in Panama two years earlier had slipped his mind.

I fumbled with my conference materials and transferred a few sheets of crumpled loose leaf to my armpit. “I...uh...have been following your latest work – nocturnal foraging during incubation. Unbelievable, Gipstein. Simply unbelievable.”

“Yes, I know, thank you. I have reprints with me, actually,” he said. Gipstein casually slipped a stack of freshly minted reports from his leather portfolio, the ivory pages glimmering under the fluorescent lights of the banquet hall. This was his third article in Nature, that pinnacle of scientific journals – publication within its bindings being perhaps the most coveted rite of passage for upwardly-inclined academics. Although it is rather unfashionable – some may say heretical – to express these views publicly, it is still my opinion that these journals do not play so fundamental a role as some may have you believe. Many in our field offer undue reverence to these publications as if they were some form of religious text: the word of God transcribed by the high priests of Academia. And while the editors of these publications may hold authors to the highest standards, we must remember that it is ultimately the duty of the investigator to ensure that the data they submit for publication have been collected and analyzed with the rigor that our science demands.

Returning now to my unlikely dopplegänger, Gipstein Lephardt, with his black leather jacket, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and meticulously trimmed goatee. This man was not your run-of-the-mill postdoctoral researcher, exhibiting closer resemblance to a pop star than an ornithologist. I am not suggesting that Gipstein lacked talent: he was clearly a man with considerable talents, but he was also the type of man whose interpersonal skills dwarfed his professional ones. “Would you care to join me for – oh, Professor Hemlock – pardon me, Dipstein. I nearly forgot, but I’ve another commitment this evening. We should definitely talk. I’d really love to hear more about your own…studies.” So, he strode away with his ashen-haired comrade, Dr. Hemlock, current Secretary and former President of the Ornithologist’s Union. I was left lingering around the vacant gallery with my conference schedule and the wine glass Gipstein had absent-mindedly foisted on me as he departed.

Although my own burgeoning professional career had yet to garner the sort of acclaim that Gipstein had managed to achieve with his own, I can say that I am proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far. I’ve stayed true to my purpose throughout, and I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made one bit during the seven years I've matured as a postdoctoral researcher. The fact is I’ve been, if not a primary innovator in the field, then a secondary or tertiary innovator, a catalyst, so to speak, to the primary innovators. In other words, without my contributions to the field then perhaps the achievements of some of the bigger names, the Gipsteins and the Kensingtons, for instance, may have never been realized. And even though a number of my articles have yet to be referenced in other reports, I feel that these articles have still had a greater influence than, say, some of these citations you see appearing time and time again for no other reason than the fact that they had been cited previously. In fact, now that we’re on the subject, this dreadful practice – this recycling of citations – is actually a matter of great concern to me, a pestilence I feel we would do well to rid ourselves of. I know numerous cases where a report has been mistakenly cited by one author and then recycled by another author who has failed to actually trace back the original article. I’m even aware of several articles that have been formally retracted due to faulty methods or, in some dismaying instances, data falsification, but their conclusions have been referenced some fifteen years hence like the tingling of some phantom limb. It is these types of oversights, whose consequences become magnified over time, that I’ve struggled to eliminate from my own work. It is a formidable challenge, I admit, but I suppose it is in this particular respect, in the thoroughness with which I have conducted not only my scientific experimentation but also my bibliographic research that I feel is my strong suit and while my articles may not have offered me the fleeting rewards of fame, they will remain chiseled in the scientific consciousness for quite some time. I do not mean to boast, but it is through this type of dedication that I feel confident I have had a significant, albeit indirect, influence on the quality of science produced by my peers.

It is also for these reasons that I feel that I was justified in accepting Dr. Roger White’s kind invitation at face value. In fact, recalling our conversation now, I feel he may have actually mentioned the “persnickety” nature of my work as the chief reason for the present offer. “A glaring oversight in the faculty plan at our university,” he had said, “has been our systematic failure to recruit a single distinguished zoologist in the eight and a half years I have been chair. It seems to me that the persnicketiness with which you have conducted your ornithological research makes you an ideal candidate for this position.” Roger proceeded to offer a generous description of campus down to the grain size in its concrete walkways and assured me that Eppley was “nothing like the rest of Pennsylvania.” Although I tried to explain to him that I had no preconceived notions regarding the state of Pennsylvania as a whole, he rather forcefully insisted on this matter until I agreed that I would keep an “open mind” during my visit.

It was at this point, I admit, I might have had a slight inkling regarding the muddled circumstances that would lead to my hiring. This is not to say that I purposely misled Roger White and the regents at Eppley College, but a small part of me suspected even very early on in the recruitment process the possibility of a minor flub. As I commenced preparations for my first visit to Eppley to give a seminar titled, “Attention Deficit Disorder in hatchling stone shrikes: an evolutionary approach,” I anticipated the possibility that certain members on the search committee may have unconsciously attributed a number of Gipstein’s more prominent publications to my own brief publication record. If I were to encounter such a misconception during the interview process, I decided, I would kindly correct my interlocutor and gauge by the degree of surprise upon his (or her) face just how widespread such false perceptions may have been. In any event, it seemed that even if the search committee had fully intended to recruit me from the beginning, then it was still quite likely that one or several members of the department might imagine me to be a different species of scientist, and I figured it was best to take these situations on a case-by-case basis.

I still feel that the facts speak for themselves, and I challenge anyone to consider their own actions had they been in my own shoes. Consider, for instance, the contract that I had signed months prior indicating my legal residence on Temple Crest Road in Chapel Hill and a name, which at first glance could rather easily be confused with my own. Such details hardly warranted a second glance on my part, after all, I had become a rather busy man with moving preparations well underway, and there was also the problem of finding someone to care for mother now that I was moving out again. It seemed to me that the root of my dilemmas, the very core, was rather mundane: the first letter of my first name had been replaced by the first letter of my last name and the first letter of my last name had been replaced by the first letter of my first name. What it really came down to was a rather inconsequential lexigraphical transposition.

Indeed, as I was climbing the hill to Roger White’s home in my newly leased hybrid Honda Civic, it seemed that it was nearly time to put an end to these considerations. After all, these proceedings had been going on for quite some time now, nearly six months already, and it was rather difficult to imagine that a blunder of this magnitude had not been recognized by the various parties scrutinizing my academic credentials and the legal paperwork governing my hiring. Meanwhile, I was busy trying to take in my new environs: this quiet corner of Pennsylvania in which I would be ostensibly situated for the rest of my tenured life.

“I would like to propose a toast to our newest and perhaps our youngest professor,” Roger began, raising his champagne glass in the air, an enormous smile spreading across his face. At his side, was his engaging wife, Emily, who had only moments earlier traipsed through the hall with an array of grilled invertebrate creatures, which I had to politely decline due to my shellfish allergy. “Gipstein Lephardt may also be our most distinguished new faculty member, and we are all proud to have you here.” I was soon thrust to the front of the crowd and found myself adjacent to a blood red punch bowl, which inspired an acute discomfort in my bowels.

I never intended to make a complete ass of myself in front of the entire faculty of the Eppley College Biology Department. I suppose I could have asserted myself earlier on, but by that point – by the time I found myself atop Whitmore Canyon Drive it was far too late to go back on any of this. Although I assure you it had been unintentional all along, almost as though I had lost footing on uneven terrain, I realize that I had been playing the part of my transposed self for quite some time already. And, I suppose that although I am rather loathe to admit it, something about my borrowed identity provided me with a certain vigor that had been absent from my life for many years. I knew that the pleasure was artificial and certain to be short-lived, but, at the time, I can only describe it as thrilling. As I stood there with my hands in my pockets in the middle of Roger White’s living room on Whitmore Canyon Drive I thought to myself what harm was there in being Gipstein Lephardt for just one more night?

“Thank you, Roger, and thank you, friends, for inviting me here this evening. Now that I finally have you all in one room, I have a bit of a confession to make. In fact, it would not be too much to say that I have a rather large confession to make.” As I said these words, I began to look around at the crowd and all the cryptic stares being returned through spectacled eyes. I noticed Dr. Mark Summers, professor of pharmacology, who had helped demonstrate the crucial role of nitrous oxide in signaling the initiation of a human erection. I noticed Dr. Sharon McNamera, professor of systematic botany, who was the first to demonstrate that bryophytes were not a monophyletic group only to be refuted ten years later and then gratified with a refutation of the refutation after another five. I saw in the back of the crowd Dr. Abel Armstrong, who had once studied nucleotide synthesis with Dr. Francis Crick at Cold Springs Laboratory. I continued, “Ahem, my confession is that this is the happiest day of my life.” This admission was followed by a burst of applause, during which I could feel the contents of my stomach circulating with greater and greater velocity.

I think it was as I was passing through the kitchen that I felt the first inkling that Roger was pursuing me. On that surreal evening, it seemed as likely to be imagined as anything else, but I distinctly recall looking back and making eye contact with him, and he seemed struggling to search for the right words, the right way to put whatever it was he was planning on say. Then, suddenly, it was as though the wind had been sucked from his very lips and a wall of interlocked hands had blocked his progress. Faced as he was by this obstacle, I was able to make for the back door unaccompanied.

Unfortunately the sanctuary I had been seeking would not be found via the rear exit. It turned out that this door led to a small porch overlooking a rugged hillside, and it would have been near impossible for me to scale down the side of the porch and return through the brush to my Civic in the front. I also noticed that I was not alone out here on the porch. There were two men standing rather menacingly in the shadows. As I made to turn back I felt that I heard my name, or a name at least, whether it was Gipstein or Lipstein I could not tell for sure, but, in any event, I offered my apologies as I returned from this dead end back to the kitchen, where the overhead lights would only magnify my nausea.

It seemed that the crowd had grown in the seconds I had been absent. At the very least the room had become more densely packed. Progressing through the crowd required politely tapping shoulders and easing one’s way between anonymous body parts and plastic cups filled to the brim with cheap Cabernet. I was vaguely aware of the smiles and nods I was receiving from each passing guest, but was rather intent on finding my way back to the front door or at least restroom with a working lock. As I struggled to make my way to the entry hall, I heard a toilet flush from somewhere behind me. I had nearly departed when a door swung open on my right, and Roger emerged, red-nosed, and drying his hands off on his polyester slacks.

“Professor, I was just looking for you. You’re not taking leave of us at such an early hour?” Roger said in a rather jolly way, making it clear that he was severely intoxicated.

“Oh no, I was just going to get a breath of fresh air,” I said.

Roger said, “It’s no matter, but I think I may owe you apology – or maybe I don’t. I’m not really sure. You see, I realize I introduced you as Gipstein, but now Caddy tells me your name is Lipstein with an ‘L.’ I, however, distinctly recall there being a ‘G.’“

“Yes, that’s right,” I said.

“That’s right? But, which is it? Is it Lipstein or Gipstein?” Roger asked.

“Hmmm…"

“It seems like a rather a simple matter,” Roger said.

“Indeed, it is quite simple,” I confirmed.

“Well, which is it, then?” Roger asked

“There is definitely a ‘G’ in my name,” I said.

“Then, it must be Gipstein!” Roger shouted. “Then, I was right all right. Damn Caddy!”

“I really ought to be going.” I said.

“But, you’ll be back, of course. We really must chat – on your future – on your glorious future here at Eppley!”

“Absolutely,” I said, bitter bile stinging the back of my throat, vomit crawling up like some hot worm. This was a lie, of course. An outright lie. But when it comes down to it, what is this thing we call the truth anyway? It’s a question that is so clearly at the heart of our scientific mission, but it seems to me that so many of my colleagues possess vague notions of what it is we have been seeking all along. One can only conclude that this is part of the reason why there is so much sloppy science out there. If someone were to ask me what the greatest danger our scientific endeavor faces today, I would have to say that it is that we are now overwhelmed with sloppy science. In libraries all over the world, prestigious journals are filled with pages and pages detailing the results of scientific investigations that were not conducted in a rigorous manner. The results of these sloppy investigations are cited by other authors and those authors are cited by other authors until at some stage the paper trail is to great for any mortal to follow – least not to comprehend – and it is at this stage, when our way of knowing has been so obscured, when the details of the path to discovery have been all but lost, when the personalities responsible for these discoveries have passed on and their names long forgotten, it is then that we finally arrive at this thing called scientific truth. It is then that we look back on the history of our field, pat ourselves on our backs, and claim that our endeavor has been a successful one.

If it was a lie, then it was of the least offensive variety. It was the sort of white lie that I will soon forget, a lie of utter insignificance in the grander scheme of things. In fact, it may truly have been my intent to return. I really would have liked to have been able to go back in there. Roger White was a pleasant enough fellow, and I hated to disappoint him like this. Now that I think about it the whole department was remarkably welcoming, and I cannot help but feel I have somehow let all of them down.

The moon is no more than a sliver in the sky, but I can still make out the contour of my car from some diffuse light breaking up the shadows. I’ve hardly made it three steps in that direction when I am overcome by my own demonic heaving. A sour taste fills my mouth. My chest burns, and I finally begin to cough. I grab hold of the back of my car and look up again at the moon when I hear the soft whinny of the northern nightjar, a bird, whose peculiar habits had so far eluded generations of ornithologists. The few observations I recall from the literature were all deeply flawed in some way, and greatly in need of clarification. I reach into my back pocket to retrieve my spiral notebook, I roll up my trousers, and I make for the bush.