Copy No. 8

From the LabLit short story series

Evelyn Gutierrez 21 September 2014

Of course it was impossible to obtain useless data from a "validated" protocol. Validated according to everyone and their experiments for the past six months. Except mine.

I looked at my sample vial for the hundredth time, wondering if the dose was right.

Maybe the weight adjustment wasn’t well planned, or maybe I had somehow mistaken the experimental compound? I checked and re-checked the sample preparation, labels, expiration dates, contaminants in everything, as well as going through calculations over thirty times – and I wasn't exaggerating. It just didn't add up.

Even though I attempted five repetitions, I still stubbornly believed it was my mistake, not the protocol, not past data: it had to be me. Peer pressure in a lab can be the biggest downfall, especially when your peers are your superiors. But there they were, amber vials, spotless and not a speck of solid material in their solutions, and next to them a pile of useless data. Of course it was impossible to obtain useless data from a "validated" protocol. Validated according to everyone and their experiments for the past six months.

Except mine.

I remember preparations for my first shot at the protocol. It was all beautifully detailed, so I proceeded to follow it meticulously, and as close to perfectly as I could manage. Every single action was documented and checked twice before I moved along smoothly. A seven-day-long experiment can be exhausting at the very least, but mix in the need to deal with nanogram concentrations and you have a huge headache at the end of the week. To say nothing of a large amount of data to analyze on day eight, when you really just want to escape to that bar where you heard a good band playing the other night.

Guitar riffs stored away in my memory, I poured over statistical analysis, quantification and interpretation of everything I could think of. I began to notice data that seemed a little off, but since I was trying to finish the report before they asked for the tenth time, I decided to be as objective as possible and report the discrepancies the only way I knew how: simply and to the point.

But my results did not impress. Disgruntled remarks were followed by an audit of every single step I took, making me feel like I had committed a crime against the holy inquisition, and leaving me exhausted and a little weatherworn. With the expected verdict of: do it again, and better this time.

Not discouraged, I rolled up my sleeves and prepared again for another seven-day run, being extra careful at all the possible points that might have affected my results – according to obviously more experienced people who had taken the time to give me such valuable advice. Feeling grateful and lucky for the opportunity, as most new researchers do – and me a simple intern fresh out of graduate school – I carried on. And got exactly the same strange results as I had before.

Needless to say, at repetition number three, the cheerful skip in my step was more like a concrete thud as I dragged myself into another day, with more vials staring back at me. I began to dread day eight on my calendar, as if the purple highlighter on the white background was announcing the end of my life. I went through everything, on every single day, for nearly three months of apparent useless work. So useless in fact that on repetition number four I was assigned a tutor to oversee my work, one which spent more time playing Candy Crush than actually supervising, and who only curtly acknowledged my efforts and sighed heavily when I tried to explain my obvious anxiety.

And once again, on day eight of repetition who knows what number, I stared at my vials, at all my instruments and the pile of data that seemed only to emphasize how wrong I was. I did try to get the protocol revised, but this was only met with sneers and snorts of indignity, and at times undisguised anger at the insolence of a young researcher who dared question her betters and protocols that took years to perfect – when it was just obviously a case of my inadequacy. It was made clear that the only reason I was tolerated at all was because I seemed promising and still might have a chance to prove myself. And out of this mercy, I was finally given access to previous research results and data, by what they called brilliant students that had long since gone to share their brilliance with companies that hand-picked each one. Why was I not given this in the first place? Oh, quite simply, because it could have biased my interpretation, and influenced me to truthfully report my own findings.

I took a sip out of my oversized mug, and made myself comfortable for another long night at the lab, the soft shrill of the sonicator in the background annoying me as someone started to prepare brain samples for chromatography analysis. I read the first report and admired its concise wording and very clear narration. Looking at my report and finding it wanting, I sighed before picking up the next one and beginning to read: another great piece of writing. But after making my way through the results section and flipping to the discussion, I froze and nearly spat out my tea.

I flipped through it again, thinking I might even lacking basic printing skills: had I accidentally printed the same report twice? But no, from title to results it was different – until I hit the discussion page, which seemed to be a perfect copy of the first and supposedly groundbreaking experiment. Putting my cup down, I rummaged through the others, seven reports in all, each and every single one having identical discussions and carefully written conclusions. The actual experimental results had been ignored in these discussions, and some of them mirrored my own, supposedly faulty ones. But the discussion told a different tale: proven reproducibility.

I looked around me, still numb. I could see the best equipment I had ever laid eyes on, the best reagents, everything fine-tuned, calibration logs next to them, the empty ergonomic desks of my coworkers, and suddenly it all seemed to lose its brilliance. I felt cold as I held the truly useless papers. I put them down and did the most logical thing – went home and tried to sleep before going back to the lab again, and having to face my superiors with what to me was very upsetting news.

Not being able to sleep in the end, I decided to get to the lab extra early and perhaps re-read the reports so I could have a better chance to ask the obvious questions. The tutor I had been previously assigned was there, fresh-faced and washing out the column for his run, asking me what had happened to me, since I looked "terrible". I told him my discovery, the words just rushing out along with my worry. But to my surprise, he just laughed.

Looking bewildered and a little nervous, I waited for the laughter to subside, but he continued to laugh as he told me I was naïve, and too inexperienced to realize that all I needed to do was give my superiors what they wanted. To bow my head and simply do whatever I was told, and give them the results they expected, because in the end, as a lowly intern, I would never actually do any real research. It was all for show and to help get that little extra financial boost plus a nice heavy write-off for having interns in the first place. As another coworker came and joined the conversation, it seemed quite comical to him too – it all became the big joke of the morning.

I went back to my desk in disbelief, looking at the seven copy/paste masterpieces before me, produced by so-called brilliant students who had come before me and whose memories had shamed me for the past months. I looked at all my data, and felt suddenly very angry. Angry at the fact that my time had been wasted, not theirs, my learning had been stifled, not their progress. My tutor waved at me cheerfully as he went to lunch and even mouthed: wash my glassware before leaving the room.

That was the last straw.

Instead of discarding my data, I worked the whole day to file a real report, based on multiple repetitions and actual findings – perhaps the first ones ever to see the light of day inside those walls. I was engrossed in this task for the next few days and when I finished one late evening, I made sure to make copies for every one of my superiors and left with a peaceful sigh, sleeping soundly that night.

The next day, by midmorning, people were avoiding me like the plague. Side looks and whispers surrounded me, but for once they didn’t make me nervous or anxious. I spent the day waiting for any feedback, but got none. As I was preparing to leave, my superiors called me into the big meeting room at last, angry and displeased faces everywhere, taking turns to advise on how to be a real researcher. Perhaps, some suggested, I ought to rethink my entire career path altogether. Halfway through the two-hour meeting, which culminated in them announcing the premature end of my internship, I remember trying very hard not to smile. A few times I even put my acting skills to the test and bowed my head in shame. But the reality was that it felt like breathing again; the very idea that I would never have to see these labs or their gorgeous equipment ever again made me feel proud. The anxiety and torture I had submitted myself to all seemed so absurd at that moment. How many nights had I lain awake, doubting myself, blaming myself, assuming the role of the lowly intern, daunted by the big company and the PhDs surrounding me. How many weeks wasted obsessing over the obvious, isolating myself from friends and anything not relevant to work just because I was obviously failing or lacking in some way. Now, I could hardly believe the reality.

The meeting ended. Closely escorted, I emptied my desk. When I asked if I needed to hand in all my data, I didn't even receive a reply. Instead, they told that I would next chaperoned to my car and expected to leave the premises.

I couldn’t help but smile at the excessive drama as I turned in my lab coat and office supplies. I took a moment to look at my now empty desk and wondered if the new intern would leave the same way I did, or just become Copy Number 8. I didn’t think myself brave, or special in any way for having done what I believed was right. Keeping to my professional code and ethics had seemed easier than falsely becoming one more brilliant number. I looked at the desk again and wished I had left a message for whoever would occupy it next. I was shaken out of my reverie by a forced cough behind me, the only indication that I was taking too long.

I turned away and left as easily as I would have any other day, except that this time I didn’t look back. I had a certain bar I needed to get to.