From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 12 April 2009

If you don’t think it’s the hottest thing since the double helix, how can you possibly convince anyone else, let alone Science or Nature editors?

Every writer is a traitor, sings Momus.

Fine. I’ll take the hemlock later.

Right now, here I am.

With the first order of business in betraying, establishing your basic questions. Where, when.

Cap’n Kidd. A bar in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA. A starry night. Hearing the Atlantic splash on the pier. Sometime in June. Around 11 PM. Nineteen ninety-eight. At least that’s how I remember it. The night I caught pneumonia. Well, pneumonia actually came nineteen months later, a continent away. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Actually, perhaps in more ways than one. So let’s do this methodically, for once. Think. Fiction is about knowledge, truth. That’s the first counter-intuitive rule in creative writing classes, isn’t it?

Write what you know.

Great advice, huh? What if you don’t know jack-shit? What if you know plenty, but all of it is unbearably self-centered, autistic, masturbatory or, the worse possible sin, boring? Regardless, all this tethers on what “what you know” means. It can mean places and times you have never been to or lived in or existed, provided enough study is put into the enterprise. As long as, and here we go again, a lot is known about characters and their worlds, enough to make them anything but boring.

While you’re at it, try not to make any characters too recognizable. Or risk friends and neighbors thinking you are basing some foul personalities on them, and them refusing to speak to you ever again. Yes, I am aware that all strong characters are, in one way or another, an extension of their author. But your friends may not have taken creative writing classes, and will thus be blissfully unaware of that maxim. Try this: when basing someone on a real someone, don’t change important identifiable details in nationalities, professions and life histories – see what happens. Publish somewhere, say, on a site, easier to google. Hey, it’s an Experiment! But don’t go the other way either, and change details to the “opposite” of what they should be; that may be even worse (think of changes in gender, and how they may be construed as “commentary” on the “real” people).

Above all don’t ask for it, and do not, under any circumstances, dedicate your stuff to friends who may risk recognizing themselves in the story. If they haven’t misinterpreted stuff by then, they’ll certainly try harder. Yes, even if the characters are portrayed in a positive light. Because they never are. What sounds positive to you, the author, will probably not be for a reader looking in a perceived mirror. Otherwise the character would likely be boring. Of course, forget about the “real” truth, for the two usual reasons. You don’t have it; and, even if you did, as a good fictional character once said, no one could handle it. Much less you yourself.

So why Woods Hole? Why one of the advanced science summer courses run by the Marine Biology Laboratory down there? Why not Cold Spring Harbor, New York; or the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg, Germany? Because I don’t know those places really well. I know the MBL, I know the Kidd. So why not one of the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology advanced courses, back in Portugal? I know those really well, everyone that comes is amazed at the student level, and wacky stuff tends to happen. It could work. Except I never really took one of those, I organized them. Not the same.

I guess I could make it all up.

OK, so let’s try. Create composite fake characters, make them take the fall. So, where? Better near the sea; a lot is lost without the sound, smells and metaphors large bodies of water bring to a narrative. Perhaps the Mediterranean? Say, a small oceanographic station in Corsica (I know one), anywhere where a summer course attractive for scientists from around the world could be run. Maybe not even name the place, even better. Has to have a bar, though. Nothing fancy. A nice bar, a talking bar. In that case the safe choice is probably an Irish pub. Let’s call it “Fadó” as one in Washington DC (the odd Portuguese reader will find the name mildly amusing, though our “Fado” means something else entirely). These days Irish pubs are everywhere and can, at the very least, pretend to capture some essence of something, while being totally generic.

Believe me, I tried to write it like that. I really tried. Roger Margolis, my screenwriting teacher at the Northwest Film Center, would have been proud of the effort I put into about twelve or so pages of sheer fantasy. Except he won’t read them, and neither will you. I deleted the whole lot. I just couldn’t believe any of it. The voices, the events; everything. And if I couldn’t, why should you bother? Why should I try to make you bother? Better let the data speak for itself. Better to be a traitor, I guess.

So, rewind.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Marine Biology Laboratory, MBL, for short. A wonderful place for science: check out the pictures on the walls, the names on buildings and rooms, even the local cemetery. Loeb, Lillie, Just, Conklin. Reading about them alone is great fun, for example how around 1900 Jacques Loeb was lauded on front pages for discovering the Immaculate Conception (actually, he discovered Parthenogenesis). Although great research goes on there, the MBL is perhaps best known for its advanced Summer Courses, on a variety of topics.

The first edition of the Frontiers in Reproduction (FIR) course was in 1998. We were there. A dozen-odd post-docs and MDs; Europe, US, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Some with established careers, some moving on definite paths, some wondering what paths to take. Academia, industry, private practice, government agencies. For six long weeks, late May to early July. Every day a morning Seminar/Lecture; then a lab introduction, followed by an afternoon of hands-on demonstrations and experiments, some carrying over through several days; to cap it off a nightly Seminar. Then off to Capt’n Kidd. Then repeat, with a different team of lecturers and lab assistants. Every day, six weeks. I think we had maybe a couple of afternoons and the odd Sunday off. Going through all sorts of different topics and perspectives, meeting names recognized from papers up close and personal, an ideal ground for future collaborations and job interviews. Exciting? Oh, yes. Ecstatic, even. Exhausting? Better believe it.

A weeklong course is a tame beast. Much like a conference, you probably can zero in on a few things, ignore all others, make a few friends, come away unscathed. Turn it into a six-week festival and it becomes a different kind of animal. A sort of intense summer camp for the soon-to-be-middle-aged. There is no one you can avoid; no one you can’t find common ground with; no one you can’t get upset at; no one you can’t make peace with after being upset; no unpleasant family secret or personality quirk that can’t be revealed; no one you can’t love or hate, sequentially. Lifetimes happen in between Massachusetts summer thunderstorms, about as loud, about as fleeting.

Even a less interesting crowd would create sparks and make no mistake, these are some intense dudes. Mary Jo is a firecracker, who wonders if this grant-paper-stress-moving around life is something she wants to raise her kids on. Anna already knows that this is the life for her, already has an independent position, grants, a lab. Sipping orange juice Mohamed shows paper money from India, printed with a multitude of languages, so we can visualize how different this is from even our more convoluted European countries. Sometimes, in the middle of an East-West debate, he tries for validation from Sampath, but not only is Sampath from a different India, he’s also been in the US for a long while, and brings the perspective of industry to our basic research naiveté. Todd is an MD from New York, hovering between clinical research and a private practice anyone can tell is going to be successful. But he’ll go down in a blaze, the course showing just how great research can be, especially, from Todd’s perspective, when attractive scientists he never knew existed are a part of it. Such is the quiet strength of Débora, hoping the course will help her back in Argentina. As Ricardo does for his return to Chile, where working on reproduction at the Pontifical Catholic University can be tricky. Yukihiro hopes to be able to balance medicine and research back in Japan, and stays in the lab late. Fabian dreams of manning his clinical research through the moving waters of hospitals in Mexico. Where Gabriel is also from, but he’s in Australia and, much like Mohamed, wants to try the US. Lisa is slowly (OK, maybe not that slowly) shedding her rebel self, moving on and up with her career; she’s Old New England, she’ll be fine. Sue also, just as soon as she decides what she wants to be fine at, Academia or the Environmental Protection Agency, “real” science or “political” science, ivory castles of truth, or the messiness of reality.

Me? I’m just there, soaking it all in, making obnoxious remarks about everything, trying to look smart.

Right, truth. Sorry.

I’m there because completely switching fields after a Ph.D. can be complicated. On the very first day of my virgin post-doc, the researcher in charge of showing me around handed over a mouse. “Here”, he said, matter-of-factly, “get sperm out of this thing.”

Now, up to this point I’m strictly a cell culture and artificial membrane biochemistry person. I know what the experiment is, but how do I start it? Panic and dejection seep through even before the mouse finally bites. That very same day I start looking for advanced (read “crash”) courses. Hopefully I’ll learn enough to be OK, move on, move back to Portugal, decide if I want to do this stuff for the next however-many years.

But in order to move to wherever you need tools. Knowledge, skills. Grant money.


Preferably not just any publications, but really good ones. Not many of those lie around, and this is something we gingerly discuss at coffee breaks, and, worse, during the Kidd nights, in constant competition. It sucks but we wouldn’t be here otherwise, right? Some are a bit nonchalant about the whole issue, and that is usually for one of three reasons. One: they have resigned themselves that their career path will not point in that direction, and therefore tout other goals as more worthwhile. Two: they truly believe their work to be stellar regardless of where it’s published, and so not publishing it will be Nature and Cell’s loss, not the other way around. Three: they already have at least one such paper. That’s why we respect Sue. She is in the last category, and when she says publishing in the Big Journals is a great feeling but ultimately not an earth-shattering deal, we believe her. Except.

Earth-shattering deal it may not be, but it can get you a better job. That everyone agrees on. So where will ours come from?

As fate has it, my supervisor gave that evening’s talk, mentioning two projects our lab is working on that might make it. And, Todd says, didn’t he mention you are involved in both?

This is true. Sort of. It’s true that, although still struggling through the basics, just before coming here I became involved in both projects, and they are being talked about. One involves a new animal model to properly study a human assisted reproduction technique. Of late these procedures are usually kick-started in patients before someone thinks it might be appropriate to test them. That’s the scientific method for you, empirical clinical version. See if it works, then try to figure out how and why. The second project? Nah. It only is worthy of such lofty heights in the minds of a few deluded individuals.

See, Ricardo says, that’s what’s wrong with you. Too cynical, no focus, no faith. If you don’t think it’s the hottest thing since the double helix, how can you possibly convince anyone else, let alone Science or Nature editors?

The data should speak for itself, I mumble.

Sue’s look tells me how idiotic she thinks my fake innocence sounds. You have to help your data along if you ever want it to do anything, she says, softly. It’s just a child, a puppet, yours to raise, to bring to life.

Parent and puppeteer, my new job descriptions. But this has nothing to do with faith. We just don’t have the data to tell the story that needs to be told if we want that paper to be published in, say, Nature. And the experiments needed to really prove the theory are basically impossible with the tools we have right now.

If the story is compelling, Fabian gravely intones (and he knows nothing about the project, mind you), the data will look better than you ever thought it could. Gabriel nods, Jeez mate, haven’t you been paying attention to all the lectures we’ve been hearing these past weeks? Did you think some of the really cool stuff was that loaded with direct experimental evidence? Maybe not, but the ideas were awesome, mate, that’s got to count for something. And new tools come up every day, quips Débora.

Boy, am I getting upset. Of the people at this table, I’m sure I know best about this project. If that ever happens, I think out loud, if that project ever gets published in Nature in any form, I’d agree to do something really, really crazy.

So, someone asks, What would you do?

For a minute nothing came to mind: bars tend to breed ideas that are either too outrageous, or not outrageous enough. But with the World Cup in full bloom, stupid bets seem appropriate. The funny thing? I’m told I made it, slamming my hand on the table. But I don’t remember; I remember sort of dreaming of making it. My true recollections are of a final visit to the bathroom before leaving, then making a zig instead of a zag by the main entrance, and almost walking straight off the pier. Gabriel grabs me at the last second and, as Débora and Sue return to their quarters, some of us guys perform our usual serenade ritual outside Yukihiro’s window, vehemently chastising him for always sneaking out after five minutes and one pint. Finally Yukihiro shows himself, complaining that the Crazy Latinos are very very loud, that it is very very late, and that he needs his sleep to get through lectures. But, he promises, one of these nights he will come out, and stay out. Behave like a Japanese Latino, a “Japino”. And indeed he will. But that, as they say, is another story.

More things happened in Woods Hole. Some interesting, most not. Many things happened after Woods Hole. Débora went back to Argentina, Fabian to Mexico. Ricardo got a new position in Chile, Yukihiro in Japan. Gabriel came to the US, then back to Australia. Sue joined the US Environmental Protection Agency. Mary Jo went into high school teaching. Mohamed finally came to the US, weathering the cold of Wisconsin. Todd chose private practice, Lisa launched a successful career, Anna developed hers. I completed my post-doc and went back to Portugal, something I had always said I’d do, and almost no one had believed (one of those decisions that haunt you, either way).

But, just before that, there was something I needed to do.

So, many months after the Kidd I borrow a camera and tripod from the image lab. And I work into the night. Hey, I’m a post-doc – even in my dying contract moments that’s what you’re supposed to do. I work until everyone is gone, the motion-sensor lights activated in the hallways, the heat turned down. Then I sneak out, into the woods.

There is only one real obstacle, and yes, I did prepare. That obstacle is Jim, the night watchman with weird (and, one hoped, fake) Vietnam war stories. Jim is still a remnant from the old days, when the Center was far away from Portland, Oregon, before suburbia grew up and surrounded it. He is the only security guard for the place during the night, the whole mess of science buildings, monkey corrals, storage facilities, and remnants of a dense forest in between. This means that, in essence, Jim only comes by our building once every evening. To see him once is to not see him again. And there he just went.

The wooded area outside has one functioning lamp. It will have to do. Boy, it’s cold. I breathe in. And just do it.

Going by old swimming traumas I decide to take off all my clothes as quickly as possible, force the body to adapt in one go. Of course that does not go well, and shivers shoot everywhere as I try to steady the copy of the magazine in the proper position, covering my shriveling maleness. Couldn’t find the right issue, but it will have to do. I prop up the camera, set the timer, hope for the best.

And there I am. Me in Nature. Me with Nature. What a magnificent sight for deer and passing UFOs to behold.

Leaving the Center it gets colder and a light rain starts to fall, a droning drizzle, a Portland trademark. Only tourists grab umbrellas for this, and I walk my wetness proudly in the middle of the road, the odd light glistening cinematographically in puddles of concrete. A rustling sound breaks the silent laughter I’ve worn for a while, makes me turn.

Under the dim glare a few light posts from where I just came from a silhouette politely holds forth, a shadow growing in the wet asphalt. A deer from the family that usually cavorts about? No, too small. A raccoon? No. More dog-like. Suddenly the laugher is sublimated into nothing, a thin cold sweat mixing in with the rain. Someone mentioned a coyote sighting a few weeks ago. I’m either having a Native American-style cold-induced vision, a run-of-the-mill hallucination, or a close encounter with a wild canine. As a scientist, even a bad one, I can guess which is more likely. But nothing at all about coyotes comes out of undergraduate Biology memoirs, except the rule that wild things tend to avoid humans, unless startled. Do I really trust this rule? And does it mean I should freeze until the shadow decides to move away, or obey the instinct to run for the, now impossibly far away, gate? And, even if I make it, won’t it follow me outside? The traffic on 185th Avenue is farther away than the damned gate. I stand my ground because I really can’t think of what else to do.

Whatever it was the approaching headlights of an outgoing truck chase it away, forever tainting the chance for a life-changing animalistic vision on the one weird night I probably would have welcomed it.

Mike is going home after a brief visit to check the animals, giving Jim the watchman a ride to the main gate in his gigantic old truck. The first time I saw Mike his gruff bear-like persona scared the living daylights out of me; he seemed like a sort of survivalist who lived deep in the woods and owned far too many guns. But Mike (god bless his kind soul) was anything but. Well, he did live in the woods, the real ones, not like the tame thing we’re in. Actually, to be honest, on this particular evening he has just arrived from the Portland Gun Show, and (although I am unaware of this tonight) the tarpaulin on the back of his truck is covering an assortment of random weaponry, the more cinematic of which I will recognize peeking from underneath the very same tarpaulin when he gives me a ride to the airport during the day, three weeks from now. The look on my face then will probably resemble the way Jim and Mike stare out from the truck, asking what the hell I’m doing walking alone in the dark at this hour without even a flashlight. Have I not heard of coyotes?

For a minute I read too much into their gaze, start to wonder that maybe I haven’t put my clothes back on after all, or that a video surveillance system has been installed, my every Nature move now on a tape for Jim to share with the world (the system will be set up, but only a few years later). No. They are just concerned, Jim professionally (no one should get eaten by a coyote on his watch), Mike genuinely. He insists on driving me home, I could catch pneumonia. Nice gesture, but too late; the damned paper had to be published in December. As I collapse in bed all that’s left of the Nature adrenalin seeps into the sheets. And I cough, and I run a fever, and I feel miserable, and suddenly this stunt, the Kidd, my whole career, seem riddled with stupidity.

That’s what you get for honoring a drunken promise made in a bar, for finally getting a job-enhancing publication, for being saved from coyotes by a truck full of guns.

It really happened, you know. Just like I said. You cannot make this stuff up.

But next time I will. Mostly.

That’s a promise.

Related information

© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author would like to dedicate this story to the 1998 FIRbees, especially Yukihiro “Japino” Terada. It is also written with deep thanks to Mike McClure and Dori Mebane, and in memory of Mike Cook.

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