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From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 10 January 2016

Just don’t expect everyone else to acknowledge the last-name-only geniuses you chose to work with, because likely you won’t know their geniuses either

Amelia hurried into the cafeteria, her laptop leading the way with a desperate faint glow. At 4 PM she wasn’t craving food, but a far more precious commodity. An outlet.

And, of course, everyone else had beat her to the usual first year PhD Program class table, the one strategically placed closest to the wall with the most possible power connections for the multitude of devices her already seated colleagues had judiciously plugged in.

It wouldn’t have been a problem at the beginning of the year, but now her battery seemed to be playing the “dead at the worse possible moment” routine too many times. Reluctantly she sat down at the table; chairs were always available, but the original plan was to make her classmates aware of her news via some sort of indirect tantalizing clues. Twitter? Instagram? She hadn’t quite decided as she was hurrying to the cafeteria, once again aware of her (obviously earned) tardiness reputation.

And now it was beside the point – no way the laptop would survive long enough, and no way (in hell) was Amelia going to beg someone for power. This was a highly competitive international PhD Program and, an essay and two interviews later, she was one of only eight successful candidates, out of unknown dozens. While getting to know her new colleagues at orientation, and then thorough the never-ending introductory and advanced courses, Amelia was sure she was never going to put herself in a position of owing one of them anything. Favors breed favors, that’s all they ever did.

Amelia shut the computer down and looked at her classmates busily tapping away. Could her news wait? No, it would probably go out over some institutional channel or other soon enough.

Darn, she would just have to talk to them.

But how? With which words, what sort of tone? Amelia tapped on her closed computer case as if using an imaginary keyboard to draft different scenarios she would then painstakingly test in her mind, like the pros and cons of the ultimate PhD choice she had juggled for the past few days. She wanted something grand, profound; ideally with some sort of buildup, subtle yet direct. Something that would reflect the weight of the moment appropriately.


Everyone in the cafeteria turned around, from patients with oxygen masks to different sorts of people in multicolored lab coats. Even Amelia’s colleagues managed a perfunctory glance from their devices. Although part of her multitasking brain couldn’t quite believe she had just blurted out the name as loud as she could without any conscious decision (where was the buildup, the subtlety?), she also felt a tad proud for her innate instinct: it had been an effective strategy. But she still needed at least one of her classmates to take the bait, or all that would be left of the moment would be an-out-of context scream in a cafeteria, all things considered, not even a noteworthy event for the hybrid Medical School-Research Institute-Hospital specialized in neuro-psychiatric disorders that ran the PhD Program.

“You chose her? Why do you want to work on Alzheimer’s, for god’s sake? Its like the McDonalds of neurodegenerative disorders.”

Unsurprisingly it had been Tasha, eyes darting between a methodology paper on optogenetics and some sort of elaborate puzzle on her cell phone.

Bilal Miller.” Amelia sighed, this time controlling her tone as the cafeteria returned to its normal mix of drool sounds. “Not Alice Miller.”

“The autism guy? The Shank mutations?” This time it was Eva: thank Watson & Crick, Amelia thought, interest was spreading. Although not exactly as she had predicted.

“No!” (Was there a hint of desperation in her voice?) “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders! The live-brain imaging experiments! The Nobel dude! The one that never takes on students!”

Amelia knew she had gone over the top, but great news often demands sacrifices to the data, and the best way to poke interest in her classmates was to trigger sarcasm.

“Don’t you wonder why this Miller dude never takes on students?” Tasha said with a growl. “The only real reason to study OCDs is because it runs in the family. Hey, maybe he wants you as his control!”

“And in which alternate universe did he win a Nobel? No one here ever did, at least no one that stayed. We’re not at Cambridge or Harvard, Amelia.”

From the first introductory class, no one had ever needed to guess which Programs Cory had unsuccessfully applied to before ending up at this specific cafeteria, although he volunteered the information freely, each time with a different take on the “dumb” selection procedures involved. Cory was a Prestige Seeker, looking for a Name Program first, an exciting research topic a distant second. No one was sure he’d actually stick around for long, probably applying to other places at that very moment. He’d just have to disguise the fact that he was a total tool better, Amelia thought.

“He was on the shortlist several times.” She knew how lame that sounded as soon as she said it, as the quips came in short order.

“For the literature prize?” (Ivan) “So was my auntie Luísa!” (Rosangela) “In his own mind.” (Eva)

It was time to shift gears, Amelia realized. If a reveal doesn’t work, force comparisons. “So. Which great geniuses did you guys choose as supervisors?”

The calm in Amelia’s voice was studied; this was the touchiest subject of all at this stage in the Program. For weeks they had been run through the mill of course upon course, information literally pouring on from all sides, speakers and subjects. But in the last month they had been individually released into the wild that was the Institution, in search of a career-defining project, and someone to supervise it. Their searches and the several opportunities that became available were thoroughly discussed with the assigned Program mentors, but rarely with each other, at least not at a profound level. This was a competition; statistically speaking, only one of them (at best) was ever going to amount to anything in the Science World. You do not give the competition an edge, not even Cory, who everyone was sure would be doing something else entirely in five years.

The problem, they all soon discovered (and this information they did share), was that what make the structure appealing for a PhD Program also made it excruciatingly difficult to select a topic. There were great basic scientists dissecting the molecular mechanisms of protein aggregation in computational and cell models, who tended to forget that this was also a Hospital, unless the Institutional Evaluation was underway, in which case they were all about curing disease. There were great clinical researchers studying large cohorts of patients and innovative therapy options who only rarely delved into mechanistic hypotheses. Then there were the outstanding people working with animal models for various disorders, who tended to walk a tightrope in between. Two weeks into interviews and informal lab visits, Amelia felt she was back in high school, the available options seemingly as varied as they had been back then.

Of course this was not really accurate: it was only Science now. Life and Health Science, to be more precise. But different flavors of it, with distinct approaches, tools, language, benchmarks, prized journals. And, as it was becoming increasingly obvious, different names. However, uncomfortable though the topic may be, silence was not an appropriate response, not for this crowd of high-achieving and opinionated individuals. This one fact Amelia was sure of.

“Not really sure yet, I like too many things…” Eva started out, to a collective groan, this being the standard non-answer for pre-project PhD students everywhere.

“I was thinking O’Halloran. Or maybe Xu,” Rosangela volunteered.

“Who?” several around the table asked, and Amelia was happy to see some instances of devices being forgotten or, even more extraordinary, being put away.

“They gave those cell stress and autophagy lectures in the MolCellBio module. Xu’s work was more interesting, but O’Halloran publishes in Nature.”

“Aren’t both working on Alzheimer’s? The McDonalds of diseases?”

“But autophagy is the steak of molecular cell biology!” Rosangela quipped.

“I thought all those non-coding RNAs were,” Eva added pensively. “This O’Halloran… The blonde flashy woman?”

“Bald guy!” Rosangela looked offended “He gave a great funny lecture!”

“I’m all about the jokes… Whatever, his only paper in Nature was last century, so says PubMed. He has some papers being questioned in PubPeer and his funding seems pretty iffy, if you ask me.” Cory was, among many other things, known for his in-discussion searches and uncanny power to instantly uncover hidden information on anyone.

“I’m looking into optogenetics and deep stimulation as behavior modulators,” Tasha said, surprising absolutely no one. “But I’m not truly convinced by any of the projects so far. Not Heskey, not Le Tissier. Prinz and Hagi are great, but have too many students already, and everyone I talk to says to avoid Miura.”

“Why don’t any of those names ring a bell?” Ivan looked genuinely puzzled.

“Oh, come on!” Tasha dropped her phone with a disgusted thud.

“In Ivan’s defense,” Eva offered, “we’ve had literally like hundreds of lecturers in the first semester, both in-house and guest speakers. It is hard to keep them all straight, and that’s why I’m having such a difficult time…”

“Those are all taught in the behavior module,” Amelia clarified charitably.

“Oh, that explains it then! I slept through most of it. It was all mostly CIA-sponsored crowd-controlling and revolution-stifling research anyway. Or if it wasn’t, it soon will be.”

“That’s kind of a stupid comment, even for you, Ivan. The Hospital is running a clinical trial on deep brain stimulation, and it seems to have some effect in many hopeless cases.” Tasha was already towing the party line: the topic was clearly chosen, even if the supervisor wasn’t.

“They have no idea on why or how it works though. They’re just like Volta shocking the frog legs.”

“That was Galvani – guess you slept though the historical Physio lecture as well… But anyway, what are your worthy choices, pray tell?”

Ivan stretched, crossing his hands behind his back, a gesture that was also his blatantly obvious tell in poker.

“Retrotransposons! I’m in advanced negotiations with the best specialist here, who will be on the Nobel shortlist.”

“And that person is, of course…?” Tasha did not bother to tone down the irony.

“Xu, of Cell and Science fame, naturally.”

“Wait, Rosangela’s Xu?”

“No, his wife.”

Rosangela laughed out loud “The Xu I talked to is a woman, moron!”

“Oh…” Ivan was a bit ashen. “That could explain some funny looks she gave me. Maybe they’re sisters?”

“Sorry buddy, unrelated.” Cory gazed into his screen, hard at work. “They could be married, I guess, these are wondrous times. Nope. Both in relationships, and one is, in fact, a lesbian! Want to guess which one?”

“For crying out loud!” Amelia was not exactly sure how her great news on being accepted by the top guy in neuronal mechanisms behind obsessive-compulsive disorders had degenerated into this discussion. “I don’t really know their work, so why should we care about that?”

“Because we care. This is also a Hospital, after all.” Not being expected to provide any answer to Amelia’s challenge, Cory was clearly having the time of his life.

Maria and Russ had kept their peace during the whole thing, Russ because that’s what his ghost-like persona always did, Maria because she waited a while before saying anything, in any discussion, about any topic, including always being dead last in picking a meal or drink at one of their outings; and then making everyone else rethink their own choices. Amelia glanced her way once every couple of minutes, couldn’t be long now…

“I have one question for you guys,” Maria announced, instantly spreading silence around the table. “Do any of you know Lynn Massey or David Coelho? Ubiquitination regulation? No looking it up, please, Cory.”

The silence was disturbed by only a few nods. Of course, following the theme of the day, no one seemed to be more than vaguely familiar with any names being thrown around.

“They were my Masters Thesis co-supervisors. A power couple, by the way,” Maria explained. “We published in JBC, went to meetings where everyone seemed to know them. I thought they were the best ever, at the very least names to be reckoned with. Then I come to this Program to do more applied research, and all they seem to be here are vague references in some tangent paper, if anything at all. I had to explain who they are as if I was describing a long-extinct or weirdly amusing invertebrate species. Really annoying.”

“And your point is?” Ivan was never one for the kinds of meditations into Life and Everything that Maria was obviously hinting at.

“Do the work, do the research, talk to who you think is best, make whatever decisions you need to make. Be happy with your choices. Just don’t expect everyone else to acknowledge the last-name-only geniuses you chose to work with, because likely you won’t know their geniuses either. It’s a big world where concepts and methods are more vital than names, but it’s made of little egotistic worlds. Class dismissed.” Maria reached for her juice.

“No, wait,” Maria went on. “Just in case you don’t know, JBC stands for Journal of Biological Chemistry, it's a pretty big deal where I came from. And I’m going to work with Gheorghe Hagi, on the role of neuro-inflammation in modulating epilepsy. By the way, Tasha, that’s why he didn’t have an opening: I asked him not to tell you that, but it was childish of me, you’d find out eventually. The problem in your interview was that you confused his line of research with Birgit Prinz’s, that’s something all the last names hate. Oh, and that’s why Prinz wouldn’t take you either. She’s taking on Russ, because he let her do most of the talking, is my guess. Good call on the others though, especially Miura.”

“Burn…” Cory whispered slowly as silence fell over the table; Russ turned an alarmingly deep red, and Tasha refocused back to her phone, apparently oblivious. But not quite. “It appears as if I have to think some more about my options. Good to know Maria, thanks.”

Hard to tell what level of irony Tasha was dialed into – couldn’t be that high, Amelia thought. But what really worried her was something else entirely. Had she been so stoked about working with Bilal Miller because he was the B.F. Miller in most of the key papers she had read? Had she read those papers because Bilal Miller was one of the most charismatic Program Professors, and those tended to present their own findings as the key findings? Should she research other possible thesis supervisors without thinking about their names? But how could anyone possibly do that? At the very least names were needed to follow the science, find out which labs to peek into.

Amelia sighed as she plugged her laptop into the outlet Russ had vacated as he quickly abandoned the cafeteria (everyone else already seemed far away, mentally). She wondered if she knew enough, names or otherwise. She wondered if she ever would.

But any such thoughts were quickly dismissed. Of course Amelia didn’t know enough of anything. And that was exactly the point. It was why she was in Science.

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© 2016 by the author

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