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The battle of the gels

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 26 October 2014

I always say that starting your day not smelling of the lab rat droppings in a medical building’s stairwell is one of life’s greatest pleasures

It was one of those days when you somehow forget how horrendous being a graduate student is.

The sun was shining and the co-eds were dressed extra sluttily as I walked across campus on my way to the laboratory with a decided bounce in my step. There might have even been a smile on my face as I flung open the door of Clinical Research Building 4. I strode in full of scientific ardor, much as I imagine Archimedes must have felt when he entered the bathroom with the king’s own crown.

My mood was further bolstered by the fact that only three of the building’s four elevators were out of service, and the fourth only took about 20 minutes to get me to the ninth floor. I always say that starting your day not smelling of the lab rat droppings in a medical building’s stairwell is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I didn’t even bother to stop in the student breakroom for my usual hour or two of coffee and departmental gossip. The prospect of beginning my day with some polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis somehow didn’t seem as soul-crushing as the last 672 times I had done it. Straight to lab and scientific glory!

The sight that met my eyes upon entering the lab chilled my brain to its very cortex. My lab’s Principle Investigator, John Ukridge, Associate Professor of Biochemistry, was standing in front of my bench with a bottle of acrylamide in his hands.

“Tom!” he cried. “I know you’ve been busy with your statistical analysis whatsit, so I thought I’d take on the business of getting a really cracking, publication-quality gel for this paper figure.”

Luckily, the man was so busy spilling acrylamide everywhere that he was oblivious to the fact that I had doubled over and was clutching the nearest lab bench for support. Perhaps his vision was also impaired by the lab goggles he was wearing, an ancient pair from a time when it seems eye protection meant 12 inches of chicken wire suctioned to the upper half of your head with an industrial-strength elastic band.

It always amazes me that these fellows who get tenure and never come within 50 feet of a scientific laboratory again hang on to their lab memorabilia with the tenacity of a bulldog. They genuinely believe they will at some point need their slide ruler from 1972. I had been working for Ukridge for six years and I don’t think I had ever seen him out of his corner office in the comfort of his ergonomic office chair in front of his hand-carved mahogany desk.

After about five minutes of gasping at Ukridge waving around that bottle of acrylamide, I managed to recover my composure enough to respond to his steady stream of babble.

“Oh!" I heard myself say. "I thought we had already agreed to put the gels in the supplementals and not in the paper itself.”

My voice sounded unnaturally high and full of terror, but I kept going. “We agreed that all the controls and samples we needed wouldn’t fit on a single gel. We were just going to run multiple gels and put the quantification in a graph instead. You remember that graph, don’t you? I spend quite a bit of time putting that together. It’s more informative than anything else would be.”

Ukridge was now rooting through the fridge. He threw a rack of samples I had spent the last two days preparing behind him carelessly.

“Tom,” Ukridge said to me as he stepped over the remnants of a large glass bottle he had just broken, “I don’t think these controls are all that important, do you? Quantification is so…so…unsexy. Scientists today are too busy to be crunching numbers and looking at p-values. I say just show people some nice figures and then tell them what it all means!”

It was hard to argue with his logic. After all, it was this kind of logic that had got him a professorship at a top research university. As he began mopping up a puddle of blue Coomassie dye with a pile of latex gloves, I slowly backed out of the room. Clearly, I needed coffee. Unfortunately, the only thing in the breakroom coffee pot was the congealed mess that inexplicably forms at the bottom every time Ukridge tries to use the machine. He must have gotten in early today.

I decided to see if I could sneak into the well-funded Immunology department and purloin a cup from their espresso machine. It’s a bit tricky to get in there sometimes because Immunology likes to barricade its amenities behind several doors requiring keycard access and a guy in a security guard uniform who sits at a desk and stares at passers-by. I’ve found if you stride confidently behind some student with the appropriate credentials, it’s easy enough to get by this polyester-jacketed Cerberus. I was halfway through the door a smartly-dressed med student was helpfully holding open for me, when I heard a voice behind me.

“Tom! Stop!” someone yelled loudly. It was loud enough for the security guard to start awake and notice me. I could see defeat hovering in the air as the door began to creep closed. Just a moment of hesitation on my part and the smartly-dressed med student had disappeared ahead of me, the prospect of organic, shade-grown coffee vanishing with her.

I turned around and discovered the voice belonged to one of the two people standing before me: my labmates Mike #1 and Mike #2. They had just joined the lab as first year grad students – young, moonfaced things still in thrall to our professor, and seemingly able to materialize anywhere in the building to do his bidding.

“Dr. Ukridge needs you back immediately. His gel won’t set,” said one of the Mikes. (I try to know as little as possible about the new lab members, so they won’t ask me for help. I would have avoided knowing their names but they all seem to be called Mike.)

“He says you must have mislabelled the reagents,” added the other Mike.

To calm my burgeoning rage, I tried to remember back to when I was the age of these gravel-brained brownnosers. I was probably almost as big a ninny as these two prepubescent bootlickers who think professors were scientific geniuses of the first order. With the steady tread of a man mounting the gallows, I allowed myself to be led back to the lab.

When we arrived at the door, I saw the fridge door was still open and its contents strewn across the lab. The high temperature alarm was beeping rather loudly but Ukridge was busy with the gel casting apparatus.

“Oh, Tom!” the pestilence said upon seeing me. “These gels don’t seem to be hardening. Do you think it’s too warm in here? I asked the maintenance people to turn up the A/C. I had to yell at them a bit, but they did it.”

A fairly vigorous Arctic blast was now coming out of the air vents, which did give me some hope for the contents of the fridge. It seemed the entire room might reach 2-8 degrees Celsius in the next three minutes. With a burst of reckless energy, I decided to attempt to reason with the man.

I started, “Well you know, sir, we don’t really pour these gel thingamajiggies ourselves anymore. We get a good price from the stockroom and there’s a box of ten of them on the top shelf of the refrig – I mean, right here on the floor.”

“Oh, Tom! We can’t be wasting our money on something a child could make. Now do you think this has gone bad? Its expiration date is May 2018.”

“Well you know, sir, it’s actually not that straightforward to pour a gradient. I’m not sure children –”

“Tom! Not one more word about these factory-made gels. What about this TEMED chemical? I tried adding about 100 times the amount in the protocol.”

“Well you know, the ammonium persulfate solution needs to be made fairly often. I don’t know how lo –”

“Ammonium per-what? What are you talking about?

“Well you know, sir, the catalyst? For the polymerization? It should be here in the protocol.” I pointed to the page of The Molecular Cloning Handbook he had open, which now seemed to be covered in something green and viscous.

“Oh! I don’t believe I've used that before. When I was a grad student, I poured four gels a day and we never used a catalyst.”

Again, I found it hard to argue with his logic, and as it was almost lunchtime, I thought it was time to give up and look for some grub. I mumbled something about a going to a seminar and hoofed it before Ukbridge could get out the words 'sodium dodecyl sulfate'.

The only seminar going at noon was one in the Biophysics department about actin and cell motility and all that nonsense, but pizza was being served so I went down for two slices and an hour-long nap in the back of the auditorium. Afterwards I went to get some cookies at the Cell Biology student talks in the med school and snuck into a university fundraising cocktail hour. By the time I got back to the building, the fourth elevator was broken again. And by the time I climbed the nine floors to lab, it was practically time to go home.

I approached the lab with caution, taking the time to peer around the corner with the camera on my cell phone. There was no sign of that tenured bane of my existence so I headed into lab.

“TOM!” a loud, familiar, inane voice bellowed behind me. I’m generally a bit of an atheist, but I could see my optimistic hubris of the morning walk to work had really offended the gods.

“Oh…Dr. Ukridge? Was there something you wanted?” I tried to arrange my facial expression from 'psychopathic murderous rage' to something more neutral.

“Tom! I just submitted the paper online! I realized we didn’t need another gel! It’s a great paper! Great work!” he exclaimed. He slapped me on the back and, before I could move or respond, he disappeared behind the doors of the elevator, which must have started working again.

I had never before heard him sound so enthusiastic about this paper in the five long years I had been working on it, combined. He usually told me to do one more experiment or to take that experiment out of the draft because it might slightly contradict one of the earlier experiments. Come to think of it, the current draft was probably almost identical to the draft I wrote five years ago.

I’m not a very philosophical fellow but there’s probably something in that. Something one of those Greek fellows wrote about how the examined life is not worth living.

I headed back into lab and started putting things back in the refrigerator.