From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 6 March 2014

Somewhere on the way from molar to millimolar to micromolar and then to nanomolar I lost my way. Like Dante

I want to quit.

My Prof is leaning in, a little closer than I'd consider comfortable, and all I can hear is the hum of the laminar hood behind me. Inside, a couple of T75 culture flasks wait patiently to be fed with our lab-special, patent-pending Minimum Essential Medium.

It will be a long wait.

I'm getting yelled at.

My Prof's eyes are wide and I can see my curved reflection in his contacts. His face is turning red, his ears have beaten it to it, his forehead vein is throbbing.

I'm no psychologist, but I'd say he's pretty mad.

The bone of contention? Rewind back to yesterday. New antibody came in. Been trying to find a vendor for a month, and the order took another three weeks. Had to settle for a polyclonal too.

Seven weeks to get some obscure antibody to stain some obscure protein in some obscure cell line to prove some obscure hypothesis. No matter. PhDs are built on obscurity. Illuminating the shadows and all that.

The greater good.

So we sat with my Prof and we designed a series of immunocytochemistry experiments, peroxidase and fluorescence, on a series of cell lines, in a series of repetitions with a series of dilutions.

That last one, that's why I'm getting yelled at right now.

It's why I want to quit.

So many series, I was bound to miss something. Got the experiments, the cell lines and the repetitions right.

Three out of four. Not bad, huh?

Three out of four would be spectacular in real life. If the world succeeded at three out of four, we’d be flying through time in jetpacks while eating bacon-wrapped steaks that were good for the heart. But in research, three out of four gets you yelled at in uncomfortably close proximity. In research, three out of four is Armageddon. The end of all things. Your Prof's thinly veiled ham sandwich wafting on your face.

I got the antibody dilutions wrong. And not by a factor of two or three – oh, no. We could live with two or three. One-in-twenty versus one-in-forty dilutions don’t get you yelled at in uncomfortably close proximity.

No, I messed up by a factor of a thousand. Yes, a thousand. Don't even ask me how. Somewhere on the way from molar to millimolar to micromolar and then to nanomolar I lost my way. Like Dante. It's a dense forest and I'm still figuring out how to tie my hiking boots.

Fast-forward to right now and here we are, my Prof's still yelling – something about "unacceptable" and "wasting resources" and "disciplinary letter" – and all I can do is look at him humbly, nod solemnly, reply inanely and listen to the hum of my lamina hood and think about my two hungry T75s, about how I don't need this, about how I don't need a PhD, about how I just want to quit, about how I could probably get a decent job with just my Masters, about how the future of science would be positively brighter if I were to be replaced by someone who actually knew how to make a proper series of dilutions.

My Prof is wrapping it up now with some final devastating verbiage – "useless", "can't trust you", "don't know what future you have in this lab" – and suddenly he pulls his scarlet face away from me, hisses something and tries to slam the lab door behind him but he fails because of the delayed safety hydraulics.

And I just stand there, breathing, thinking, reeling and wanting to quit.

Then I turn around and sit on the stool. My hands grab the ethanol and spray themselves and before I know it, I'm feeding my two patient T75s. No need for any other life forms to suffer.

Fast-forward five minutes later, and I'm closing shop. As I prop up the hood's door and snap it shut, I'm ready to drop it all, march over to my Prof's office and hand in my resignation. Who knows, I might even shock him. Just picture the scene:

Prof spins on his chair, he stands up and it rolls back. "Oh, no, I didn't mean to be so hard on you!"

I shoot him a stoic, film-noir look. "It's too late, Prof. Them was partin' words."

He wells up a little. "Please don’t leave. I was wrong."

I gaze out of the window, at the greyscale autumn dusk, dry leaves billowing across the empty campus. "This world ain't mine, Prof. My world – my world is somewhere out there." With that, I turn, Prof falls to his knees weeping uncontrollably, and I step out into the cold dark night, dilutions forgotten and my head held high.

Well. If I don't make it in research, maybe I can try writing.

As I peel off my gloves, I notice the slides. The immunocytochemistry slides, the prosecution's evidence, the shameful slides with my thousand-factor crime splurged all over them.

I never even got to look at them.

I pick one up and, on a whim, I put it under the microscope and do the whole Köhler illumination thing. Negative control – the fixed cells are dull, white outlines.

At least something worked.

I pick another one. Lowest concentration of antibody. Again, I see nothing.

In the third slide the cells are pinkish, and I shake my head dreading the non-specific mess ahead.

I pick up the fourth slide. This is where I messed up the dilutions. This is my crime scene and, like a true malfeasant, I have returned to it.

When I look down the microscope, my breath catches. It's not the blood-stained mess I expected. Factor of a thousand. My mistake. My crime. My Armageddon.

My best staining ever. My discovery. My obscure protein. My obscure PhD.

Contrast-sharp, beautifully red cells greet me down the microscope's body tube. I spin the objective lenses and the cells grow bigger and I start moving the stage up and down and side-to-side and all the right cells are stained and all the right cells are not and I think I'm screaming now, something about "woohoo" and "it's there, it's there" and then I'm laughing and kicking my legs under the bench and then I reach for another slide and then another and then another until the serendipity of it all stays my hand and I sit there, exasperated, excited and exuberant.

Then I reach for the phone and dial Prof’s office number.

I'm not going anywhere.