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From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 15 March 2009

Lab work has a way of breaking a man like a force unbeknownst to nature

The smell of mercaptoethanol lingers in the air and mixes with the fish-gone-seriously-bad fragrance of the TEMED that went into the gels. I wonder if the fruit of that marriage is why I haven't been to any parties lately; meanwhile, blue nebulas dissolve in the buffer and I watch the samples settle at the bottom of the wells and then condense under the weight of glycerol and electrical current. Something resembling a horizontal line forms and off we go.

Another day, another blot. I yawn – this is the sixth attempt to get some data out of the mess that these experiments have become. Optimisation my supervisor calls it, and grins that disturbing grin of his, where his eyes squeeze together and his teeth are exposed. “Come on, it's part of the learning curve. Even a monkey can do this stuff. Seriously.”

My line of samples looks good so far, but that isn’t saying much. It hasn’t crossed the stacking gel/separating gel border yet, and most of my woes have come out of the separation phase. It’s either that or I get air bubbles trapped inside my blotting sandwich and the samples don’t transfer optimally. Well, they don’t transfer, period.

I rub my eyes and look across the bench, past the big 10-litre bottle of PBS that's been needing a refill for a week now. On the other side, Lily tilts her head as she examines her own gel tank. Sure, she gets new equipment, with precast gels and all, but considering her situation, she could use the head start. After all, it’s not like lab work comes easy to her.

Lily scratches her nose and her head bobs up and down approvingly. She’s been very excited ever since she started running gels, and I wonder if she’ll get sick of them as fast as I did. Well, if hers work better than mine, maybe not.

My line of samples seems to have stopped momentarily, and I think my heart does too. My entire world narrows down to the 10 cm across the gel cassette, and I hold my breath while my brain races to problem-solving scenarios: Time to make and set new gels, time to re-make the buffers, I need to get back to the prep area and find the agents, maybe it's a sample problem, I should really make a fresh batch of Laemmli's, or it could be that old glycerol –

– I breathe out. The line moves gracelessly, wonky, a bit head first, but it moves; and somewhere in my head I can actually hear it jittering like a train trying to leave the station.

I've been doing this way too long.

Separation now well underway, the list of emergency protocols in my mind gets shorter. I really should be thinking about getting my blotting apparatus ready, but I can't help myself and I steal another glance over at Lily. The bench is a lonely place.

Lily seems transfixed by her gel, eyes glued on the thin blue line. Her face shows no emotion, no reaction, no fear or hope. Of course. It's not like she has a thesis deadline breathing down her neck, or even a paper due. She's just doing this for the kicks.

Suddenly, as if lightning's struck her, Lily yelps, and throws her hands up in exultation. I have to lift my slouching shoulders to see why, and for a moment I actually feel envy. Just look at that: a perfect sample line, smooth, unbroken, horizontal, travelling nicely down the separation gel. And as if on cue, my line begins to look like an omega. Someone's mocking me – in Greek.

Evil thoughts bubble up in my mind. It's just me and Lily. No-one's watching. And to my shame, it's the same samples, the same conditions, the same experiments. Except I have deadlines to meet, and she's just fooling around. Any other time, my type A personality would kindle the flames of competition within me and I'd be halfway through making another gel by now. I'd be approaching this in untiring scientific terms. I'd be puzzling over the implications of her success over mine. But lab work - it has a way of breaking a man like a force unbeknownst to nature.

I could use her gel. Just wait until she's finished, and I'll just switch them around. I won't even wait for her to transblot – I'm sure I can do it properly. Sure, there's a small chance she'd notice and throw a fit, but it's not like anyone will know what she's on about. And technically speaking, there isn't anything even unethical about this. Meanwhile, I'm just a successful Western blot away from finishing my Results chapter.

The gels are almost done, Lily's a textbook-perfect line, mine a sorry, jagged affair weeping down the bottom of the gel. Any moment now, she'll hop off her stool to get her transblotting kit, and all I have to do is be quiet and quick with the gel tanks.

Lily catches me staring at her, stares back inquisitively, and then laughs, her eyes squeezing together, exposing her teeth and clapping her hands. Even though I know it probably is good-natured, her mirth doesn’t help my state of mind. Let’s see who laughs last – sometime in the future, I’ll regret the depths I’m about to plummet to.

Like clockwork, Lily gets off her stool and heads for the equipment cabinet. It’s time. I stand, unplug my tank and sneak past the PBS bottle towards Lily’s working area. She’s still shuffling about in the cupboard, and a plastic gel container clatters by her feet. She might be able to do a gel, but she’s as clumsy as –

“You can put Lily’s tank down now”.

I freeze in place, one hand on Lily’s gel tank, the other on mine. My face feels hot and red – it actually feels red. I turn around slowly, heart beating fast, brain alarms going off and absolutely no emergency protocols to fall onto for getting caught like this.

My supervisor stands glowering by the door and there’s a middle-age woman beside him. Of the two, I’m drawn to the woman – she has kind eyes and seems fiercely amused. But instead I look at my supervisor, because he’s my supervisor. Some natural laws defy all defiance.

Behind me, Lily makes some noise. Outrage? Joy? Who knows?

Finally my supervisor speaks, slowly, like a turning pipe wrench. “This is Professor Jarvis, from Behavioural Sciences. She’s responsible for training Lily.” Professor Jarvis cuts him off gently and in pointing to the ceiling. “We’ve been observing both of you from a concealed camera up there. Honestly, I thought that you’d realise that.” She grins. “But then again, I’ve seen a lot stranger things in behavioural experiments.”

There’s nothing much that I can say. I’m still standing there, feeling like an idiot, looking like an idiot, being an idiot, and I just put both tanks back down on the bench. Behind me, Lily has been quietly contemplating this human interaction, but when Professor Jarvis calls her with a peanut, she scampers up her arm and cheers like she’s climbed Mount Everest.

Lab work can break a man – but it sure can make a chimpanzee happy. I try not to think what that means.

Beside me, my supervisor looks down and examines the two gels and laughs, squeezing his eyes together, exposing his teeth, and claps his hands. “What did I tell you? Even a monkey could do this.”