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Fish tale

From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 19 May 2009

There is no shortage of grievances in the lab, and we’d still be hunting with copper if research stopped every time a couple of personalities clashed

Perched on my stool, legs tucked underneath, tugging at the fingertips of my latex-free purple gloves, my brain follows the cycles of my PCR.

Beep. First cycle on its way…

…there was this zoology student once, a second-year undergrad, and his Professor told him to take a pen and paper and write down his observations of this preserved fish in a glass jar…

Behind the culture lab windows, Pete brings his fist down on the bench, forcing Kate to readjust the microscope. His cells are contaminated again – bacteria. He swears and scoops up three T225 flasks out of the incubator. He doesn't see her, but Kate shakes her head: Any way you twist it, once you've had the Βad Τhing happen to a cell culture, the part of you that clings to laboratory prowess for self-esteem dies a little.

Meanwhile, my RT-PCR apparatus buzzes happily, letting me know that it's moving onto the next cycle. Colourful graphs appear on the computer screen, the first batch of data points coming through on the Bio-Rad software, clean, digitalised, virtual, ready for Excel. Can’t believe I’d originally planned to do all this on agarose gels – never underestimate a post-doc’s fervour to impress his boss…

…so the zoology student, he eagerly takes the jar with the preserved fish, and he sits at his desk. And right off the bat, he gets a list growing: Colour, width, length, weight estimate; six fins, tail, scales, eyes, gills; stuff anyone would be expected to observe on a fish. And he does this in maybe five minutes, writing down his bullet points in neat characters, pleased with his efficiency as he turns the jar around, abstractly examining the fish behind his own reflection on the thick glass…

Pete holds one of his flasks up to the fluorescent light, and emits something akin to a Neanderthal war cry. Inside the T225, the pink but murky DMEM sloshes around, and Kate's head finally comes up.

"Hey, watch it! Don't spread the joy."

Pete, still watching the flask, mutters something inaudible.


"Cap. Filter cap. It's safe."

"Yeah, well, don't test it. Some of us need our cells clean."

Uh-oh. Kate's got her back to me, but I can mentally see her bite her lip.

Pete's not looking at his flasks anymore. "Excuse me?"

"Nothing. Sorry." Diffuse it while you can.

Pete's ears now match his pink bacteria-ridden medium. "Well, thanks for that word of encouragement. You know, you shouldn’t be so quick to –"

…so the zoology student grabs his list and heads back to his supervisor. The professor doesn't even look up from his own work, but says, "You're not finished." The student stops dead in his tracks, underneath the stuffed marmoset hanging over the door. "But, I've got some twenty points here." Prof's head never moves. "You're not finished." The student knows better than to argue, and heads back to his desk…

“– to keep a professional demeanour. Okay?” Pete’s still ranting, but I know Kate’s attention waned long ago because the clicking sound from her right hand hasn’t stopped. There is no shortage of grievances in the lab, and we’d still be hunting with copper if research stopped every time a couple of personalities clashed. Kate’s got six beta-amyloid cytotoxicity assays to finish, a forlorn thesis missing that last chapter before the Discussion, and a Wellcome post-doc fellowship application to submit. And if I know anything, it’s that it’s hard to carry out a haemocytometer cell count and give a complaining colleague your full and undivided attention, even if that will just exacerbate their frustration…

…and as he flops back into his creaking chair, the zoology student glares at the fish, floating in the viscous yellow preservative behind his own distorted reflection. And he does this for maybe five minutes, before he gives up and looks out of the window. Beautiful day, and I’m stuck in there with a dead fish trying to impress Prof Easter Island. The student turns from the window and picks up the jar. It’s a fish! It’s got a head, a tail, scales, gills and, what’d you call the fish nose, nares. And hey! It’s shiny too! Look at the sunlight play off its scales – wait, what’d you call those? Placoid scales? No – that’s only sharks and rays…He holds the fish up to the light and his nose touches the glass. Well, those are either cycloid or ctenoid scales, but I can’t really tell…

“– if you’re listening to me or not!” Strange thing is, Pete’s still waving the T225 around.

Kate finally gives up. “You know what your problem is? Everything’s a Big Issue with you. So your cells got contaminated. It’s an immortalised line! They grow fast. You can have another flask up and running over the weekend. All this time you’ve been whinging you could have thawed another vial from nitrogen. Why are we still having this conversation?”

Beep. New cycle on my PCR and my graphs extend some colourful millimetres. In the lab, time drives stick…

…and half an hour goes by. The zoology student, his face buried in Harder’s Anatomy of Fishes, is comparing diagrams of scale types with the ones on his specimen. Ctenoid! They’ve got to be ctenoid, with those little spikes on the edge. So he writes his new finding down on his list, stands up triumphantly, stretches and heads back to the Professor’s office. Thirty seconds later he’s back out, his face red…

Pete’s got his back to me, and I can’t see his face. His ears though, are still pink and as he turns to the sink he hisses something that I don’t quite catch from behind the windows…

…and in the jar, behind the thick glass, the ctenoid-scaled fish looks as if it’s mocking him. The student – this humble second-year undergrad – goes over to his desk, grabs the jar, and for a second entertains the thought of flinging it out the window, when suddenly, as the afternoon sun glistens off it, he notices that the colour on the top of the fish is darker than at the lower part. Well, of course. All fish are like that. There’s an actual borderline between the two areas, what’s it called, the lateral line. He turns to his desk; I’m sure I just saw something about lateral lines in Harder

“– so no need to make things harder than they are.” Pete’s winding down as he pours Virkon into his flasks and a cheerful beep! emits from my left. The colourful graphs don’t change this time because this is simply a change in temperature. From the cell culture sink, Pete catches my eye, shakes his head, and lifts one of his flasks up for me to see while he mouths “bacteria”. Being the most recent addition to our lab, he’s still unaware that sound travels quite well…

…and around five, buried in four textbooks and a cup of stale coffee, a voice comes from Prof’s office: “Are you still out there?” The zoology student looks up, bleary-eyed and it takes him a second to decipher the immaterial communiqué. “Um, yes, Professor.” And then quickly: “I’m looking at the coloration above and below the lateral line and comparing it to the family of –“

“Yes, well, I’m heading home. Make sure you lock up when you leave.”

“Yes, sir. Goodnight.”

Alone now, a small light in the darkening office, the only sign of life the rustling of pages and the occasional tap-tap of the glass jar as the student strives to catch a better view of yet another detail, the fish floating around obediently, excitedly even, swooning in that age-old mystical tempo of –


“– discovering something that’ll change the world.” Pete and my PCR are addressing me and Pete’s not going into my JBC paper.


He pulls off his gloves and puts on new ones. “I mean, sometimes I just feel like giving up, you know?”

I hit buttons on the keyboard and the graphs take off again. “Why? Because you got contamination?”

Pete puts on the bomb gear – the face shield for the liquid nitrogen – and then fishes for the oven mittens. “No…it’s just that, well – research’s hard.”

I’m looking at my graphs. “No kidding. You just figured that out?”

He turns to me, and the fluorescent reflection hides his face. “We spend hours in labs, weekends, holidays. We do long, tedious experiments that most times don’t work. And in the end, what’s the payoff? Another paper, another brownie point in the CV, another step closer to maybe getting a grant…it just doesn’t seem all that satisfying, you know?”

Something forces me to disengage from the screen and look at him, standing there in the bomb gear and the thick gloves, looking like nothing a human being should look like. And in that split second, I have the equivalent of an out-of-body experience, or, better, something from my life flashes before my eyes and I see it all, but from someone else’s angle: The labs, the long and lonely bench hours, the cell cultures, the western blots, the PCRs, the gels, the sequences, the transfections, the trace experiments, the immunos, the single/double/triple fluorescence, the protein isolations, the RNA/DNA extractions, the protocols, the lab equipment, the consumables orders, the t-tests, the P values, the papers, the posters, the seminars, the conferences, the half-eaten sandwiches, the sun shining outside, the hand sweat under the non-latex, the ancient radios stuck on one frequency, the mixed tape played over and over and over again, the five o’clock coffee, the seven o’clock coffee, the rinsed-out mugs, the early-morning meeting, the late-night meeting, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, the PDFs, the ambitious Gant charts, the last-minute data, the submission deadlines, the teaching vs research, the ignored fire alarms, the neglected exercise, the in vivo, in vitro, in silico, the multitasking, the “these data strongly suggest that”, the “however”, the “furthermore”, the “in addition”, the hypothesis, the theory, the debate, the networking, the collaborations, the grant applications, the bickering, the politics, the impact factor, the research. And as I mentally return to my body, it’s been only half a second and I still have to answer Pete, to encourage him, to offer some advice, elder to younger, veteran to rookie, post-doc to pre-doc. And all I can think about is –

– the fish in the jar, swimming before his eyes as he lays on his bed in the dark, and the zoology student, this converted undergrad, is still clutching his list, over five pages now, drifting in and out of sleep, but the fish just floats there, those details flashing before his eyes, this dead member of the Chordata bestowed with a strange significance, foreign to everyone but him, and he knows that when the sun comes up tomorrow he will never be the same again – not because of the fish, but because of something –

"– something that thrills you. Otherwise, you’ll just burn –"

– out of the office, scrambling for the keys, the student walks in, still clutching the list, and knows that this time, he’s got to get the jar –

"– open to the possibility that lab work might not be the best way for you as a scientist. But that doesn’t mean that –"

– the description has to be restricted to external features of the animal, but it has to move inside. Perched on a stool, legs tucked underneath, the zoology student begins the dissection, laying the organs in clear solution and drawing sketches on sheets of paper lying next to his list, which now includes details of the shape and size of the operculum and drawings of the spiny dorsal fin, the soft dorsal fin, the caudal fin, the pectoral fin, the pelvic fin and the anal fin, all essential pointers to identifying a –

“– new kind of scientist. That’s the way that research has always been.”

Pete hasn’t moved during my little spiel and his face is still hidden behind the white reflection. “Pete?”

“Yeah. Yeah, OK.” And then: “I need to get some cells thawed.” He heads toward the nitrogen dewars, stops and turns. “Hey, I gotta spin the cells down before I put them in flasks, right?”

“Yep. DMSO’ll kill them otherwise.”


I watch him as he opens the container and soon he’s half-buried in misty steam.


I’m almost done here. As I sort out my spreadsheets, a part of my brain, the conditioned part, prepares to cook up some guilt for not doing something else while waiting on my PCR. After all, that JBC draft isn’t going to write itself; neither is my presentation for next week’s conference. But as I look at my PCR graphs, I can’t help but feel –

– excited, nervous, almost giddy, but with an offsetting dose of self-doubt and incredulity, the student finally hands the Prof no less than thirty pages of information, with a ten-page appendix of sketches and comparative notes. And the Prof, this time he takes a long look, rolling his tongue inside his mouth and shuffling pages back and forth, and finally he looks up. “Well, well. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I’m not complaining.”

The student can hardly contain himself. “Sir, the conclusion? The comparatives?”

And then, brighter than the sun shining outside, the Prof smiles through his beard. “Congratulations. You’ve just discovered a new species.”

My data are saved in Excel, and in the background Pete closes the dewar and rushes back into the culture lab with two vials in his hands.

It’s been a long time since the fish, and I switched from zoology to biomedical science years ago. But I think I learned my most valuable lesson in those two days.

I learned what the payoff is.

I learned why we do what we do.

I look at my colourful graphs, bestowed now with a strange significance, foreign to everyone but me, a value that can’t be measured in stipends, grants, or impact factors.

There’s nothing like it.