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Fiction

Strainspotting

From the LabLit short story series

Calum MacKichan 8 June 2012

www.lablit.com/article/724

Choose walks in the park feeding bread to ducks without wondering how such absurd creatures evolved in the first place

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose leaving work at 5pm on a Friday and not giving a toss until Monday morning. Choose a family. Choose walks in the park feeding bread to ducks without wondering how such absurd creatures evolved in the first place.

But I chose not to choose life – I chose life science.

I chose staring at petri dishes wondering what life means on a Sunday morning. My friends, accountants and electricians, high-flyers and morons, watch football and guzzle medium percentage alcoholic beverages until they piss their brains down a public urinal. I think I’m slightly high from a waft of isopropanol, but that is the limit of my inebriation this Sabbath.

The reasons? There are too many reasons. The childhood version of myself who was caught in awe for one mind-numbing moment in microbiology class and couldn’t look back. The undergraduate version that was too lazy to think of a proper job for himself. The current version that dreams romantic notions of grandeur as he joins the altruistic search for the meaning of life. But each of those reasons melts away a little with every experimental failure.

The postdoc beside me works diligently and methodically. He must have been doing this for ten years or more. Why does he put himself through this desperation and misery? He has what I want, he has finished this mad life experiment we perform on ourselves and he still comes back again for more. He’s not stupid. At least he’s not that damn stupid.

I guess I’m forgetting the pleasure of it all. As he picks apart his problem piece by piece, he’s building up the tension, waiting for the climax, the conclusion, the publication, the gratification. The more he’s immersed in it, the more he can’t live without it. It’s like the football match I’m currently not watching. Football, by its nature, is a low scoring game; for every goal there is hours of passing back and forth, hundreds of near misses, and a lot of not very much happening. The waiting is punctuated by anticipation-quenching microcosms of elation or despair. If you’ve experienced it once, you want to go through it again.

This Sunday I find the bacterial strain I’ve spent weeks working towards on my petri dish. My heart beats a little quicker; my senses heighten a little further. I make a culture and wait to peek at how it looks under the microscope. Dopamine is coursing across my membranes as I check what might be revealed.

Just one last result, one more result for the presentation, the poster, the paper, the PhD, the postdoc, the professorship.

Just one last result.

I chose not to choose life. Why would I want to do a thing like that? I’m a new player in a bigger game, a scientific field of dreams that sucks you in until you can’t leave again.

I chose science.

Other articles by Calum MacKichan