From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 12 March 2011

But these were cells, not patients. Surely unraveling their mysteries was worth cutting a few corners

It looks like a lot of work, but it isn’t. At least I hope not. Just a quick glance at each one, and it’s off to rehearsal. The play is coming along nicely, although you really can’t tell with these “organic methods” to generate characters and plot. The theatre company won a grant to create something that involves Science and the “World”, with a few “embedded” scientists thrown in with the professionals for good measure. Not sure what the final result will look like, but somewhere between celebration and cynicism we’ll figure it out.

The point here is this: I’m thinking about the play and the budding character I play in it, not the rows upon rows of microscope slides. It’s not that these slides aren’t important. Actually quite the opposite: they are absolutely crucial, each and every one. But the results I’m looking for are only black and white. Literally. There is very little thinking involved in analyzing what needs analyzing. And that’s because these experiments aren’t really experiments.

Just controls.

Last week I thought a lot about this. In my old job the boss went crazy if we didn’t always cover our backs, dotted T’s and crossed I’s. Was the effect of a certain drug dependent on the drug itself, or merely on the solvent it was dissolved in? Did the antibodies we were using react specifically with their targets, or was there some unspecific reaction with the detection reagents? Did a scrambled sequence have the same effect as the correct one in my short hairpin RNAs? Was I amplifying junk in my RT-PCR reaction? Was something no one else had ever thought of thinking about creating an artifact?

Science is partly about discovering, but mostly it is about showing that what has been discovered has no other reasonable explanation. Run all the controls, that was the mantra. In fact, running controls often seemed like the only important endeavor. Coming from someone who also dealt with clinical data, where controls can literally be involved in life or death decisions, the mantra might have seemed reasonable to our maniac leader. But these were cells, not patients. Surely unraveling their mysteries was worth cutting a few corners.

My new boss is the opposite: discover the improbable, and only then worry about what mistakes might have been made along the way. In truth that was exactly why I picked this lab, to brazenly open new trails, not painstakingly maintain those already cleared.

But that was last week. After the trail was opened. After I presented it in triumph at a lab meeting. After people (including my suddenly two-faced boss) started asking for experiments I hadn’t done, the experiments that proved that what was presented meant anything at all. So today I just need to run controls. A lot of them, once I think about it with my old eyes. Which brings me here, to where I will spend the next few hours on this fading Saturday. Looking at microscope slides, both optical and fluorescence microscopy. Except I won’t be in awe of cells brimming with colored brown and fuchsia deposits in the former; or glowing with red or green Christmas lights in the latter. All I want is white and black, respectively. No gray at all. A lot of experiments that don’t work because that was exactly what they were designed to do. Their inadequacy proving that what I did before actually means something.

I picked Saturday afternoon because, to be honest, I don’t know what I will do if the slides talk back to me with unwanted information – better to be surprised while alone. But if it comes to that how can I undo my presentation at the last lab meeting? What can I tell my boss when he comes asking for the paper I should be writing, the paper explaining the brave new path I have uncovered? How can I come in on Monday if I can’t have controls?

It’s a funny concept, one my rehearsal friends out in the “World” have a hard time grasping. As we finish writing the play, how can we be sure how good it really is? What are the controls? A worse play, most likely; one that doesn’t work, like the oodles of negative controls I am running today. But who writes that? Would it have to be about the same thing, use the same characters, try to fail at every turn?

Most of all, why bother? Why not just write the better play straight away?

Not that I think about that much. As my grandmother says, it’s really easy to endure other people’s sorrows. I just look at microscope slides with cells on them. Put on, focus, see, take notes. Hoping they will all be....

Black, black, black. White, white, white.

So simple, so beautiful. I shut down the microscope having discovered nothing at all. Which actually means I discovered something, months and months ago. I know what that is, I really do. I’m just so relieved I can’t even remember any of it. I’m sure I will, tomorrow, Monday, by the time I finish writing the paper. Right now I don’t care, I just need to get out of here.

Some days it just feels great to be alive, uncontrolled.

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© 2010 João Ramalho-Santos

For Teresa Girão

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