From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 19 July 2009

She was a scientist, could never be anything else. She would not just hand Randy the degree

Randy woke up with sweat pouring down his forehead, eyes burning, heart forcing itself through a coarse papery throat. A dream, a mother-fucking nightmare. He stumbled to the bathroom, sequentially blinded by darkness and the blinking fluorescent light the landlord wouldn’t bother changing until a new tenant could be welcomed. The mirror frightened him with his own fear. That wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all. He breathed in, splashed water around, smoothed his dirty blond hair, made his tanned pectorals do their little dance (it had required the equivalent of a Ph.D. at the gym, and a discreet minor in pharmacology, to achieve this minor miracle), felt himself returning. Unfortunately that also meant one important realization.

A nightmare it was, had been, but not a dream. It was real, the bad kind of real.

Out of the corner of his eye Randy could see the suitcases carefully packed by the door, brand new Benetton-green, waiting for a vacation where no one knew anything about gene silencing, but plenty about banana Daiquiris and shiatsu. The boxes piled high were for the movers, who would come the next day to ship all his stuff to the new apartment just found on the internet, away from the bevy of Research Institutes, right in front of the Law School.

Randy’s graduate studies had rendered him dismayed at the meager rewards provided by Science to its faithful. Lavish they could be, for a very select few, but never ever at the level of having your favorite Pad Thai noodles flown in from that unique dive in Seattle while you were vacationing in the Swiss Alps, and a sudden urge hit. Things available to minor rappers, B-list actors, bench players. After years of chitchat the path seemed clear to those who shared Randy’s malaise in the cafeteria. Biotech. Nobody said “Biotechnology” any more, too quaint. Biotech was the answer to all prayers. Start a company, market your science, find a niche, create a product, cure something, register a patent, go global. Pimpled kids all over were doing it, two trophy mistresses for each Bentley before they turned twenty-five. But, and this Randy had figured out, he was proud to say, on his very own, there were two serious flaws in this reasoning. First, if Biotech was the answer for “everyone”, competition was bound to be fierce. Second, it still meant being a scientist, at some level. Randy needed something different, that would guarantee billable hours even when the patents turned out to be worthless or the companies went under, and someone was required to sweep up the pieces, auction off the Bentleys, comfort the mistresses. So he’d become a Lawyer. A Lawyer who really knew his science. Couldn’t be that many of those.

There was, of course, a reason for this. Law School meant further studies on totally novel topics, as well as the proper investment. Randy had done everything he could. Took time off to study for entry exams. Begged, borrowed and saved. Wrote a killer essay, aced the interview. In fact, the committee seemed more enthusiastic about his new career path than he was, asking admiringly about his thesis as if he were some sort of esoteric oracle, as if having a science Ph.D. in the class would somehow elevate it to novel heights. The unknown, Randy knew, could evoke one of two reactions. He felt lucky he got the good one.

But he still needed Cheryl.

On the whole his Ph.D. supervisor had been supportive, once she had gotten round to understanding what it was that she was supposed to support. Except Cheryl was a Scientist, could never be anything else. She would not let Randy wander into the sunset without the proper attire, would not just hand him the degree. And without a Ph.D. the fawning Law Professors would see him as a failure looking for an exotic escape, no longer as a maverick carving a bold new niche.

So they sat down, went through Randy’s work. He shivered, noticing the latest entries in his lab book. The dates told him exactly how supportive his boss had been. It was obvious his project, once brimming with ambition, had dwindled to a trickle. But Cheryl was practical, no use in trying to raise the dying. In a pinch she mapped out an exit strategy, one that would get Randy a published manuscript to satisfy his thesis committee, send him into the eager arms of the other committee in time for opening day. Not a great manuscript, not on par to what else was going on in the lab, barely decent for her own lofty standards, but something Cheryl wouldn’t mind putting her name on, she said, sounding as if she did.

Randy ignored the tone, wrote the paper, sent it out. And started packing.

Of course, he had forgotten one detail, the kind where devils lurk. The paper came back, as if a wounded homing pigeon.

Revisions required.

Anonymous reviewers had many comments Randy would have to address, and, unfortunately, had also suggested more experiments before publication could be guaranteed, the ticket punched. Often second-tier journals are more demanding than top ones, Cheryl had said with a knowing smile, the very kind of knowledge Randy was anxious to do without. He dealt with the criticisms (at least they hadn’t pointed out all the weaknesses in the work, he thought), planned what new experiments were needed, re-wrote the paper. He had emailed it to Cheryl the previous afternoon, leaving all the data in her office, together with the final version of his thesis, hastily pasted together. Randy knew Cheryl loved papers as much as she loathed formal dissertations; in fact he was counting on it. She would brush the thesis aside while checking out all the details in the new version of the manuscript before submitting. Randy didn’t plan on being around to see it. Why bother? The weekend was upon them, his (well earned) vacation close at hand, a new life beckoned, maybe a few workout hours could still be squeezed in. Randy spent his final moments in the lab clearing out his desk. A sort of ritual purging. He was no longer of that world.

Until the nightmare brought him howling back.

He had forgotten about one experiment. So minor it wasn’t even intended to be a real part of the manuscript, but merely listed as “data not shown”. Randy had used a technique that prevented the synthesis of one particular protein. He had to show that that was what the technique did. Actually it was blatantly obvious, not only taking into account previous papers (from which Randy had copied the assay), but also considering the results of all the other experiments in the paper. So obvious he had penciled in the expected result in the revised manuscript. “Data not shown”. But he knew Cheryl would look for it. And not find it. And not submit the paper, nor call his thesis committee. Actually, she’d be pretty upset. Probably more than he was now, contemplating his non-refundable tickets, the possibility of having to go through the entry process again, this time facing a seasoned committee he had cheated on once.

He stared into the mirror, forcing fear out of his steely blue eyes.

One experiment. One simple experiment. It wasn’t that hard. He knew what to do. It was barely dawn. His flight was a late night red-eye. There was time. He could pull it off. He rode the adrenalin until he could get enough coffee, headed for the lab.

There was no one in. Absolutely no one. In utter disbelief Randy almost felt betrayed. For the first time in a long while he actually had to guess which key codes opened what. Each door fueling further disappointment, as it revealed rows of empty benches, silent equipment. What was this? The only simultaneous mandatory holiday in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan?

Right. Because that’s also what this was all about. Sort of.


At a Gordon Conference a few years before, just after Randy joined her lab, Cheryl had delivered a talk to mixed reviews. As Randy was quickly learning, science was not just about making a good point, proposing a specific mechanism, deciphering a certain process. It was also about convincing others that the explanation arrived at was the best amid multiple alternatives. Because there were always alternatives. A different signaling pathway could have a role, another protein could be involved, a compensatory gene activated; serendipity. No one was expected to have covered all the bases, but perceived immodesty from the presenter increased the likelihood that the perfect theory would be publicly challenged. Exactly what some snotty Brit in the back did in his nasal superiority. Cheryl didn’t blink. Of course his Lordship was correct. But only armed with a platoon of highly skilled and motivated researchers without personal lives, that would work long hours without questioning, worry about families, raises, vacations and careers later, could Cheryl simultaneously tackle the several critical mechanisms possibly involved in what the lab was studying, and not just the one she had just pimped in her talk.

In short, Cheryl quipped, she didn’t have “enough Chinese” in her group to be able to fully answer the question.

The Gordon was a small informal sort of summer meeting, where recent data was presented and discussed. Sandals and shorts and T-shirts and late-night-beer-on-site kind of informal. So Cheryl’s little tirade gathered chuckles from the audience, not the outrage it could have elsewhere. Perhaps there weren’t “enough Chinese” there – or they kept their peace. Perhaps Cheryl could get away with it because she was both Hardcore Science and a woman.

Perhaps most thought what she said was true.

She certainly did. The following year Cheryl overlooked all of Randy’s recommended acquaintances from graduate school to hire the first of many from an exchange program the University had just set up, and that she had barely interviewed on Skype (if you could call the exchange “interviewing”, Randy thought). The year after that three new post-docs and two technicians came aboard with the new grants, and those were even harder to understand. And the next Lenny graduated, Sophie went back to France and Patti was replaced. That was the killer, the departure of the only true staple in Cheryl’s group. Not that Randy was getting too much from Patti in the end. The weary lab manager had just gotten a dog, a sickly and difficult Dalmatian who inherited the motherly instincts formerly bequeathed upon Randy’s toothy smile. Now he was the lone non-Asian in the lab. And he wasn’t smiling all that much.

At first Randy had grudgingly roamed the benches as if in Babel’s airport, attempting to negotiate information, quickly giving up. Group meetings became insufferable ordeals of miscommunication, where meaning was slowly ground out, never totally ascertained. And not just between Cheryl, Randy and the “rest”. Although she would never admit as much, in her haste Cheryl had apparently neglected that the Far East can come in many flavors. And that those might not get along, perhaps due to some delicate political and cultural tensions she had no clue about. Randy hadn’t known either until a Political Science girlfriend explained it to him: even China wasn’t all “Chinese”, it turned out. Little groups formed, made impermeable by languages, blank faces, cool distrust.

He complained to Cheryl, and she stated the obvious, staring accusingly through him. It was working. The lab was producing, more than ever, better than ever. No excuses came into her office, just results, even on the more convoluted projects she had never dreamt of starting before. The next Gordon would be a triumph. She was no longer the first in, last out; it was almost impossible to come into the lab without finding at least two or three people working, whatever the day, whatever the hour. Did Randy have anything against merit, the rewards of hard work, healthy competition, everything that made us great?

And she was merely following a trend, she went on: the author of a major textbook had just visited, asking for some images and critical reading for the new edition. Most of the recent papers to be cited in it, he said, had Asian-sounding first authors. Perhaps, Cheryl mused, she now had more trouble re-writing papers, preparing presentations. Perhaps it was harder to really keep track of every single experiment, understand how closely some were sticking to her instructions, how much of their blankness was true non-understanding, if any hidden agendas lurked in the silences. She was counting on the old habit of critically going through every piece of data the lab published to act as a failsafe. Randy understood she was no longer talking to him, if she had ever been.

He also now realized one other important thing about Cheryl. She had always made it clear to her crew that they were data-producing assets. Drones that would take her where she longed, deserved, to be. If they wanted the chance to do likewise to others like them, her lab would have to tough it up. Except Randy and the others knew rules, rights. Now Cheryl was finally (in her mind) free of people. During their conversation she had never mentioned any of her recent lab members by name. Randy imagined his family back home, standing in front of the closed factories he had gone to great lengths to distance himself from, smirking at him. Maybe now he would join them in spitting out “globalization” as a curse? Had he thought the college scholarship, remaking his image and history, first in the East Coast, now in the West, would render him immune?

He had. But that only meant he needed another marketable skill. Randy had always counted on drive to back up smarts, or vice-versa, knowing he didn’t have enough of either. He’d never have a shot at this life, not with those guys manning the benches. The pre-application to Law School was mailed less than a month afterwards.

Truth can be very convenient, personal: this Randy had also learned from Cheryl. The changes in the lab might have sped him along, but did not really change his course. The crucial thing was that he hated experiments. Really hated them. Not the idea of them. That he had always found intriguing, even alluring. The actual doing. It wasn’t something of a sudden epiphany. It had come slowly, as one idea from the project led to another assay, a new technique he had to pick up, one that never worked right the first time. Or the second. After a while it seemed easier to just have Lenny crank out a few assays in his automatic hands, especially during the long months he lingered in the lab, bored and useless until he could take up his new position. Or ask Sophie to add a few extra tubes to her reactions. Or, finally, charm Patti into whatever she could be charmed into (plenty, in her pre-dog days). It was just another skill, Randy believed.

One he found out would not work on the unwilling, unless Cheryl gave the order (obviously out of the question). To his credit, he tried (another skill). Two months of blank stares taught him that he might borrow a reagent here and there, squeeze in perhaps one sample once in a while, if someone was doing exactly the same thing, no more. His only escape, thankfully, was Marion, the new lab manager, who had done every single experiment for the new version of the paper. Marion needed him desperately, to translate most of the dealings with vendors and repairmen, and cover for her in general. Cheryl had conducted another hasty interview, unaware that Marion had endlessly rehearsed the few key sentences. Of course her real name wasn’t “Marion”. Just as Yao had one day morphed into Humphrey, or Soon-yi slid into Stephanie. Had Cheryl even noticed this? You don’t take up a new name just to make things easier on co-workers. You do it to fit in, to stay, just as Randy’s grandparents had done (Andrew, not Andrzej, Margaret, not Malgorzata). Stay, buy houses, plan vacations, have kids and offer them more than a tense escape from poverty, tyranny, both. Even if you choose names you can’t actually pronounce, because the easier ones were all taken. Maybe Cheryl would soon have people in her lab again. No matter, she probably would just replace them, go back to the always overflowing “source” for new assets, Randy thought, chillingly feeling this to be true.

Another chill rose as he checked the time. For two hours he’d been twirling on a lab stool, reminiscing; hoping morning would bring someone in. Either Marion to do anything, or one of the others, provided they were running the exact experiment he needed.

This was pathetic, even for his standards.

He located his samples in the deep-freezer (luckily Cheryl had a rule of never throwing anything out until no one in the lab remembered what it was), printed out the protocol from the group’s server. It had been written by Patti, which was great, no detail ever too small. Randy held the checklist as if it were gospel, hurried through the lab gathering things, not bothering to note from where he had taken them. He was in good shape; all he needed now were a couple of critical reagents. They weren’t on the stock shelves, but that was to be expected. Once they came in they would be divided into little tubes and frozen until needed. One tube per experiment. Randy should have had his own personal stash, but of course didn’t.

No biggie. He opened the stock freezer, looked for the drawer marked with the technique he wanted, contemplated a multitude of pristine boxes filled with tubes. Mother lode. He took one out. Which of the four he needed was this? It didn’t say. Randy tried another one. Nothing. No name, no initials, no way of identifying the content.


Moving one tube closer to the light Randy could make out some scrawling. Squiggly lines running amok. A code? No, he realized in panic. It was Chinese. Mandarin. Korean. Japanese. Whatever. He took out the box. The same squiggles, more of them, bigger. Another box, same thing, this time more shapes, less squiggles. Randy spooned out all boxes sending a few loose tubes flying. There were at least three types of symbols, but none he could understand. The original vials or labels the reagents had come with were nowhere to be found. Clearly different subgroups were marking their turf on the common freezer shelves, keeping rivals at arms length, confusing. A secret war waged. Or maybe they hadn’t even thought of it, merely ordered what they needed and kept it, this labeling as natural to them as any. Marion was not good at catching duplicated orders or saying no, and the lab had too much money for Cheryl to bother. Either way, Randy was screwed, suddenly stuck in a world that had proven, yet again, just how much more alien it could become. He felt like screaming, and did.

It helped. Doing a few pushups wasn’t bad either. Tiredness made him alert, like a wounded beast. There were four tubes he required. He sorted out the boxes. Sure enough, each type of writing was found on exactly four boxes. He chose the symbols he liked best, picked a tube from each box. Different quantities were needed, which was which? They all looked transparent, no help there. But Patti had noted on the protocol that two were smelly (using cute little nose icons). It didn’t say what they smelled of (nothing good, usually), but it was a start. Randy thawed all the tubes out, clipped them open, took a knowing sniff as if an expert perfume maker. Sure enough, he could divide the four into two “smelly” and two “non-smelly”. Was there any other usable criterion? No matter, he would go from there.

Either smelly number 1 was one thing, or another. The same for the rest, two options apiece. There were different possible combinations, but not infinite ones. Four, Randy thought, is that right? So instead of one experiment he’d simultaneously perform however many were needed. If all else failed, he’d learn Korean.

Crouching on the bench, breathing heavily through his nose, Randy was adamant about one thing, and one thing only.

Labels would never again pin him down.

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© 2009 João Ramalho-Santos

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