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From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 14 September 2009

I pipette like my life depends on it. It pretty much does

All day in the lab, and it’s as if everyone knows. It’s not like anyone’s come up to me and confronted me directly – oh no, labs don’t work like that. No, it’s all little silences between centrifugations and quick glances over the pipettes from the other side of the bench. It’s that stream of people who, today, just today, have decided to use the bin closest to my prep area to dispose of their gloves – small, medium, large, slack-slack-slack, it’s only noon and my bin’s practically brimming.

Then again, maybe it’s just me. I mean, it’s a busy lab, lots of people in and out, and it’s undergrad project season too – those kids’ll go through a whole box of gloves in one sitting. It’s the sweat; their delicate, eczema-free hands aren’t used to it yet.

Waiting for my eppendorfs to spin, I touch my wrists on the sides of the low-temp Biofuge in an effort to calm myself. It’s no use, partly because the thing’s insulated – obviously – and partly because there’s really no calming me.

Now, to the casual observer, this would look like nothing more than pure, unadulterated guilt. But that’s not fair. The guilt – that cold twinge at the bottom of my stomach, low enough to not be butterflies – sure, it’s there, but it’s only the price I have to pay. No, what I’m feeling, what I tell myself I’m feeling, what I know I’m feeling as I open the centrifuge, that’s called thrill.

Not a thrill. Just thrill, without definite articles attached.

“You ok?”

Trevor’s big round face descends upon me from nowhere, and the sweat on his brow shines in the flickering fluorescence above. Stupid thing’s been driving me nuts all week, but it’s August and that allows the department to simply do without maintenance of any kind.

Oh, right – Trevor. Just play it cool. “Huh?”

Trevor leans closer, as if violating my personal space is conducive to communication. “I said, are you ok?”

“Sure. Why?”

Something gleams in his eye. “Dunno. You just seem a little tense, that’s all.”


Trevor straightens up, but he doesn’t answer quite yet. Instead, he leans his 7-foot corpulent figure over the centrifuge and watches the tubes go ’round. “Isolating nuclei, eh? How’s that working out?”

“I need ten times the cells to get enough protein. Something I can help you with, Trev?”

He doesn’t look at me. “There’s been talk around the department.”

“There’s always talk around the department. What’s new?”

“Oh, well, you know, just stuff on the grapevine.”

“Yeah, well, it is August.”

He pauses for a second. “Oh, I see. Grape season, ha ha.”

“I’m busy, Trev.”

“Good. Busy’s good. Anyway, there’ve been some rumours – nothing solid of course – but it seems as if some of our students may be involved in certain, how-do-I-put-it, disconcerting extracurricular activities.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Now he turns and looks me straight in the eye. Sweat trickles down his temple. “The kind that’ll get any department talking.”

There’s a moment now, where the air between us seems to be sucked out and a blanket silence descends to fill the void. The little centrifuge continues to spin, a muted buzz, counting down its last two minutes.


Trevor stares hard at me, a ridiculous drama that only he can pull off, a big mass standing between me and the exit, a big, Easter Island face. “Like I said, there’ve been certain rumours making the rounds. Rumours of students from this department being involved in gatherings with students from other departments.

"And why's that a problem?"

"It's not. Gathering, free assembly and all that, no problem at all – we're academia here, not industry. Free exchange of ideas is of course encouraged. And if this was a case of mere socialising, it'd be alright. Everyone needs a break – now and then, and within limits, of course."

The Biofuge beeps and I open it. Cold floats up to my face and I realise that I've been sweating. Well – it is August. "So...?"

"So, it turns out that these students are not socialising at all."

"They're not?"

"Oh no. These particular student gatherings seem to be, how-do-I-put-it, task-oriented." He smiles to himself. "Yes, that would describe it quite nicely." He looks at me, as I fish out my eppendorfs. "Task-orient-"

"Trev, can you please just –"


Another silence, with no Biofuge buzz this time. One of the undergrads peers through the lab door and decides to wait outside.

I clear my throat. "Math?"

"Math. Students from this department, sneaking off to the Math department to do who-knows-what, while they should instead be working on their projects."

"I really don't see why –"

"We're up for the RAE assessment in a month, and the last thing we need is our PhDs wasting their time. We have deadlines to meet and reports to file, and as Postgraduate Tutor I expect all Biosciences postgraduates to focus their time and energy on Biosciences, not to traipse over to that box of academia nuts – heh – and spend their nights trying to figure out the Riemann hypothesis. The two don't mix. Is that clear?"

"Yes. Should I pass it along?"

"No, I've sent an email. But I thought I'd come over and see you personally."

"Oh? Why?"

“I don’t left pretty fast after the journal club yesterday.”

“I was tired. Long day.”

“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Because you’re busy, right?”

“Busy. Yes.”

“Too busy to have any time for other stuff, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Not much spare time, huh?”

“PhDs are hard work.”

“Exactly. Hard work – that takes up a lot of effort.”

“And time.”

“And time, yes. PhDs take up a lot of time. They demand focus, no distractions. So it would be counter-productive – nay, unthinkable – that you'd want to distract yourself with, I don't know, mathematical pursuits?"

"That's right."

"Good." Disturbingly nimble, Trevor shifts his bulk three quarters to the door, but his witch hunt isn't over yet. "Say... remember that paper you presented two weeks ago?"

"The Biophysical Journal one? Yeah."

"I didn't tell you, but I was very impressed."


"No, no really. You presented the methodology in such detail. Hard stuff, but you made it flow."

I'm pipetting the supernatant out of my tubes – it should contain cytoplasmic components, so waste not. "Thank you, I guess that what the Journal club is for."

"Indeed." Trevor turns the final quarter and heads for the door. As I start on my last tube, he stops with his hand on the handle. "You know, all those equations...that was some really complicated math in that paper."

I pipette like my life depends on it. It pretty much does.

I hear the door open, and Trevor's grinning voice fades outside. "Like I said, good work."

As if displaced by his presence, air seems to re-enter the lab. And with it, some undergrads.


I really shouldn't have come – not with Trevor onto me. I should have really given it a rest, laid low for a while. Stick to "Biosciences", like a good PhD.

But we're so close. And for all his mass, Trevor can't stop us.

People greet each other with nods, and talk in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Some wear hoodies and won't pull them down until they've entered the room. As we take our seats in Seminar Room B in the old Math department basement, someone wheels an old chalkboard in – we could use a whiteboard but you have to register time and place for that, and for most of us that would mean trouble. Everyone's got a Trevor over their heads.

The professor speaks up. "Good evening everyone, glad you could make it. Now, we left off with some interesting progress last time, but we still have some way to go. Anyway, if we could get someone to put those last two equations up..."

The door opens, and a newcomer appears. The professor looks up from his notes and smiles. "Ah, nice of you to join us." And then to us, "we're honoured to have another biologist in our midst. I was beginning to think that the chemists were the closest we'd get to the Life Sciences! Please, do take a seat. Now, the equations?"

The latecomer from my department takes two steps and then recognises me. He looks at me with a mixture of guilt and pleasure, and then, finally, "I'll do it."

He turns and walks to the chalkboard with an air of triumph, or maybe that's just me, feeling whatever it is you feel when you go exploring the unknown, when you go fishing in the stream where sciences flow together.

The equations are up, expertly written. And the newcomer, the other traitor of the Biosciences, he turns around and faces the class and grins wide. "If I may, sir? So far, this class has made two approaches to the Riemann hypothesis, and they both have their merits, certainly, but after carrying the second one to its ultimate conclusion –"

Of course, he had told me this morning, but I wasn't listening.

" – I have found it to be, how-do-I-put-it, inadequate."