Paradigm shift

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 17

Alison Christy 15 February 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 17

The Role of Chaperone Proteins in Post-Translational Modifications

An older man takes up the fourth bunk after the soldier leaves: the fifth person in the compartment if you count Tanya’s swollen belly. Anna watches that belly and imagines the fetus developing, growing larger by the day, neurons migrating, cells dividing and dividing again. A combination of Tanya’s and her husband’s DNA, producing RNA and proteins, producing a brand new person: it is incredible, when you think about it, that life begets life.

The delicate process of protein origami takes place inside the cell, a wildly busy place where everything is moving and crashing into everything else; simple strings of amino acids maneuvering into the crucial forms that allow them to bind to the correct receptor or attract a migrating immune cell or grasp a molecule of iron to bind oxygen in the bloodstream. Mistakes are made, but somehow most proteins manage to take on the right shape – some requiring the guidance of other proteins along the way.

This was how John first made his name in science: working with the chaperone proteins that gently guide protein folding in yeast cells. Anna read his papers in her undergraduate classes (“seminal papers in the field,” her biochemistry professor said) and when he came to speak at her university it was like going to see a celebrity. The famous John McLoughlin. The brilliant John McLoughlin. She sat up straight during his talk and took notes with lots of exclamation points.

“Science doesn’t advance by little building blocks of knowledge,” he had said, clicking through his slides. “Science advances in great leaps, in huge paradigm shifts, in single crucial experiments that prove that one thing is right and other things are wrong. Buchner, Watson and Crick, Einstein. This is how we should be training our scientists today.”

“He’s not particularly attractive,” Anna’s biochemistry lab partner said, as they filed out of the room after the talk. “He seems like kind of a jerk. But, you know, I’d do him. In a second.” Anna laughed explosively, her hand over her mouth.

“I’m going to put you on a new, cutting-edge project,” John said to her a few years later, when she sat across from him in his office and told him she thought she might like to join his lab. “If this works, it could change the way we think about genetics.” And then he explained again how he thought about science: great leaps, paradigm shifts, Watson and Crick and Einstein.

Maybe he would have given the project to anyone new, but still, it was wonderful to be chosen. Flustered, she stood up too quickly when she was leaving his office, knocking a huge stack of articles from his desk onto the floor and slicing her fingers on the paper in her hurry to restack them.

Early on, when they were spending almost every evening in the lab together trying to work out the protocols for their yeast studies, they joked that he was her chaperone protein, guiding her development into a full-fledged scientist protein. Once they were together it was awkward to say things like that. They tried not to emphasize, then, how much younger she was, or how they were conducting a relationship that had been expressly forbidden by the university. They focused more on their equalities.


There was that moment, when she was on top of the Ferris wheel with Sasha, when he looked at her from under his dark brows and touched her hand. Anything could have happened, right then. And instead Anna sang an old song, to defuse the tension, to force the moment to pass. But now she wonders what might have happened if she had let things happen. Would they would have gone to his place then, or to her hotel for a few hours? But then, after that, they would have gone to Pushkin Square to meet Frank, and knowing that she had been irresponsibly having sex with a married man while the bombs went off – she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself.

But what does that mean, anyway: she wouldn’t be able to live with herself? In the end she would have had to, wouldn’t she? – because there was no alternative.

And anyway, Sasha isn’t the one she wants right now. And John isn’t either. The one she really wants is wise, a beautiful soul, a guide to Russia – and probably at the bottom of the Don River.

There may be some kind of wiring readjusting itself in her brain, that’s all; that’s why she keeps thinking she is in love with Michael Perch, a man she’s never met, and that’s why she can’t stop thinking of him, and why she keeps imagining that she’ll meet him, maybe out in Tomsk, in Krolosk, at the Gulag Museum in Perm: she’ll recognize him from his photos and he will immediately fall for her. She fantasizes about a lively, sparring relationship, with adventurous travels and clever conversations, and a sweet, affectionate commitment to each other despite his generally wry, ironic attitude.

She imagines riding this very train with him, cuddled against him while he scribbles on a legal pad and records the world around them. Her body would be round like Tanya’s; he would be solicitous and devoted.

She once thought Milda was so bourgeois, to want just a husband, kids and a career that paid the bills. Anna has none of these things. What she has is two suitcases and a bag of groceries, and a train ticket to the middle of Siberia.

She sighs and turns her book over to the author photo.


According to Michael Perch, the inhabitants of the Siberian city of Tomsk initially rejected the Trans-Siberian Railroad, insisting that it would bring noise and pollution and the wrong sorts of people into their city. This doomed the city to obscurity, away from the traffic of goods and tourists.

So Anna disembarks, finally, after three and a half days, in Taiga. She considers hugging Tanya goodbye, but instead she just waves, and smiles awkwardly.

Taiga appears to be nothing but a huge, pale green building flanked by darker buildings in the middle of nowhere. This is not surprising: according to Michael Perch, Taiga is not really the name of a town, but the name of a biome with a harsh climate and coniferous trees. It is like calling a train station in Kansas ‘Plains’ or a stop in the Sahara ‘Desert’.

But this desolation she finds comforting. In fact, since she’s moved away from the city of Moscow and the young soldier in her compartment shouldered his bag and got off the train, she’s felt more and more normal. Calmer. She even snaps photos of the Taiga station with its high ceilings and bright lights. Why should she care if these people think she is a tourist? They are clearly tourists too, of one kind or another. They fill the waiting area: people in the seats and spilling over onto the floor, huge families with babies and small children and monstrous bags and packages, couples sleeping on each other’s shoulders, young men sitting in groups drinking beer and playing cards, lone men drinking out of bottles that they rest on square suitcases made of thin, plaid plastic cloth.

Each person in this room, she thinks, was gestated, was born, and will someday die – but she remembers Pushkin Square and superstitiously pushes the thought out of her mind, as though she could bring destruction upon them by her brain waves.

Instead she goes to a counter and asks the middle-aged, bird-faced woman waiting there if she speaks English. The woman shakes her head. Anna, prepared, pulls out her Russian phrase book and, pointing to the phrase that says ‘round-trip ticket’, says ‘Tomsk’. Tomsk.

The woman seems to understand, and says something that must be the price of the ticket, and Anna feels clever and resourceful as she reaches into an inner compartment in her duffel bag and retrieves her wallet, which she opens and finds to be empty.

Empty, as in all of the rubles she had with her, the equivalent of almost one hundred dollars, are gone. Gone. She looks again and again at the thin lining of the wallet, as if she might be mistaken, as if the money might be hiding somewhere there in the shiny fabric. Her credit cards are still there, and her old student ID, but the money is not.

She hands the ticket-counter woman a credit card, but of course the woman can’t use it, and holds her hands up defensively as though even to touch it would be wrong.

“I have no money,” she says to the woman. “Someone took it.”

The woman shakes her head.

Anna looks in her wallet one more time. Nothing. Still nothing. She flips through her phrase book again. Automated teller machine. She points at the Russian phrase, and at her wallet.

Uzel svyazi,” the woman says. Anna looks at her blankly.

Uzel svyazi,” she says again, but loudly and slowly. Anna shakes her head.

The woman shakes her own head, bird-like and angry, and looks beyond Anna, motioning to the old man standing behind her. The old man comes up and begins to discuss his own train ticket with the woman, leaving Anna standing off to the side, alone.

{Continued next week}