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The first rule of a PhD...

If Chuck Palahniuk wrote lab lit

Nik Papageorgiou 11 September 2011

One guy I knew, he wrote a novel about a scientist quitting science and writing a novel

Tyler gets me a job as a postdoc and then Tyler is pushing a pipette in my hand and saying, the first step in a research project is experimental design. For a long time though, Tyler and I were trying to build a hypothesis.

People are always asking me if I know Professor Tyler.

The pipette gripped between my four fingers and my thumb and Tyler says “We’ll get published.”

The pipette clicks with the tapping sound of the gel-loading tip locked in and a tiny hiss comes out when I let the plunger back up. You need gel-loading tips to place your protein solution into the wells of an SDS-PAGE gel. You have to dip the tip vertically into the buffer and then use the index, middle and wedding ring fingers of your free hand to hold the fine tip in place and then you have to very slowly press down on the plunger to load the blue protein solution. You can only do this with a gel-loading tip. You use the wrong tip, a regular tip, a yellow tip, your solution will spill out into the buffer. You push down on the pipette plunger too fast, your hand shakes a bit, the solution will bounce up and spill out into the buffer.

“This isn’t really a failed experiment,” Tyler says. “It’ll publish. We’ll be legends.”

I say, Tyler, we’re out of peer review.

The lab we’re standing in is large but empty. Most of the other researchers left when the science budget was cut. Started companies. Became bakers. One guy I knew, he wrote a novel about a scientist quitting science and writing a novel. Like a Russian doll game. Now he’s sipping mai-tais in the Bermudas.

With SDS-PAGE, you have to decide what gel you’re going to use. On the bench in the lab where Tyler and I are standing is a clear electrophoresis tank. The tank’s lid is connected with two electrodes to a red cable and a black cable and then to a power source and the power source is connected to the electrical outlet that’s on the bench separation running across the length of the bench. In approximately three minutes I’m going to flip a switch and the power will run from the electrical outlet to the power source and down the red and black cables to the tank’s electrodes, generating a current that will force the proteins down to the bottom of the gel. You get the percentage of polyacrylamide in the gel right, the proteins will separate into discrete bands. You get it wrong, you’re looking at a big blue smile.

I know this because Tyler knows this.

Three minutes.

The blue mix of protein solution with bromophenol blue is dripping slowly off the gel tip and Tyler is saying that the first rule of a PhD is, you don’t talk about your PhD. Then he says that the second rule of a PhD is, you don’t talk about your PhD.

The blue solution falls into the wells that I cut with the gel comb. The solution is heavier than the buffer because I mixed ten percent of glycerol to weigh the proteins down.

If you mix five percent of beta-mercaptoethanol into your sample solution before loading it into the gel, you can reduce disulphide bonds in the proteins and smooth their migration. If you mix equal parts of your sample with Laemmli’s Buffer, you’ll add a further negative charge to the proteins.

A lot of folks boil their samples before loading. This works too.

Two minutes. It’s so quiet in here, the feeling you get is that of space monkeys.

Hold a pipette.

Push a plunger.

Tyler peer-reviews a Nature paper and says, the third rule of a PhD is, if someone yells Stop, taps out, goes limp, ignore them. The room is spinning as the stink of TEMED fills the air and Tyler shouts, the fourth rule of a PhD is, only one person to a PhD.

The fifth rule, he says, is one PhD at a time.

One minute.

If you don’t load the wells right, it’s over. If you don’t use the right tip, it’s over. If your buffer is wrong or your gel doesn’t set or there’s a power cut or your proteins aren’t reduced or if you knock over your tank, it’s over.

Science is all about the little things and how fragile we are.

If your hand shakes, science is over.

Tyler walks over to the bench and he says, forty-five seconds.

Tyler says that the sixth rule of a PhD is, no life outside the lab.

You are not a beautiful snowflake, he says. You are not your publications. You are not your research.

Thirty seconds.

“This is our world,” Tyler says. “This is our time. The ancients used to worry about grants and papers and impact factors. All we have to worry about is data.”

Tyler says, the seventh rule of a PhD is, work will go on for as long as it has to.

You are not your thesis, he says. You are the all-singing, all-dancing slaves of science.

Twenty seconds. The blue is neatly packaged into the wells.

Ten seconds. I check the connections and I put my hand over the switch.

Science is all about the switch.

Labs across the world are empty like this one. All across the world science has stopped because there is no money.

Professor Tyler wrote a novel about a scientist writing a novel and sipped mai-tais and then Professor Tyler was the only one with enough money to do science. No competition. No peer-reviewing. No other research. Just his. Whatever this gel produces, it’s science.

One second, and I flip the switch, and Tyler says, the eighth and final rule of a PhD is, if this is your first time at a PhD, you have to publish.