The beautiful hypothesis
From the LabLit short story series
11 August 2016
“Wicked?” Eugene harrumphed. “That is not a term that will command much respect at the British Skin Cancer Society meeting
Dr Eugene Travers MBChB, MD stroked his smooth, cologne-scented chin with one hand while the other tentatively held the graph up to the watery March light. The sunlight drew a pale glow from his crisp white lab coat and the nascent waves of grey hair flowing back from his temples. The paper was still soft and damp – like a used tissue – the data being hot off the inkjet printer. His pale blue eyes darted back and forth as he followed the red and black curves. The chin stroking slowed and stopped as the thin trace of a smile crossed his lips.
Ye-esss...the protective effect of the antisera was going up with the applied dose – it confirmed the initial experiment. The rate of chin stroking increased gradually; it was a great antidote for his Monday blues.
“So what do you think, Eugene – looks pretty cool, eh?”
Kelly-Ann, his PhD student, was leaning her elbows on the bench, her lab coat open as her elfin face swung up to meet his.
His deliberations interrupted, Eugene winced at the contemporary salutation and looked down – momentarily docking with Kelly-Ann’s eyes. Doing an ocular body swerve around her cleavage, he misjudged it and ended up addressing the glass ranks of chemical solutions on the shelf above her head.
To claw back the initiative, he rolled out the jargon and stifled his leaping enthusiasm.
“Yes, it is clearly an interesting development, but could equally represent a random event.”
“But I’ve done it three times now – and got the same result. Looks pretty wicked to me.”
Kelly-Ann bounced up off her elbow and rammed her arms into the hip pockets of her lab coat, the lapels stuck up like the barbs on razor wire.
“Wicked?” Eugene harrumphed, “That is not a term that will command much respect at the British Skin Cancer Society meeting; you really must be more specific.”
Kelly-Ann's hand were out of her lab coat and her red hair flicked back at the speed of petrol igniting. Her forehead furrowed and the pout could only be milliseconds away.
“Well, I thought that you'd be pleased, but I will set it up again.”
Kelly-Ann turned away, her arms beginning that petulant swing. Why did she have to be so damned bolshie? Then he remembered he had had twenty-two years of the opposite extreme with Elizabeth – and look how that ended up.
“Kelly-Ann, I'm…maybe...I'm not sharing your joy enough – I appreciate that you have put a lot into this.” The words they had taught him on the supervisor's refresher course were unfamiliar, sickly-sweet in his mouth. She stopped the arm swinging.
“Look, think on more results – better statistics. There is the Sensation Science Café evening coming up. Firm this up and it could be pressworthy. It's that type of opportunity that opens doors; you know when I was – ”
“Well, they looked good enough to me, but you're the man, Boss.”
Why was she so obstructive? With a flick he released the damp printout over the bench, where it dived like a stalled airliner. His chest swelled as he pulled his shoulders back.
“In any case, I want to see your talk, including another repeat of the antibody titration, on Thursday in seminar room B at 2 pm.”
She looked at him, her lips moving, but silently, and her eyes fell as she turned away.
As Kelly-Ann marched the red dot of the laser pointer through the data, Dr Travers sank back in his seat in the semi-darkened seminar room full of admiration. Her data was elegantly presented. She had learned well from him, but there was something more, a natural ease with which she described the highlights of the results, while not shying away from the shortcomings inevitable in any experiment.
He found his gaze drawn to her form, a dark rolling silhouette against the bright primary colours displayed on the slide screen. On one level he despised these unprofessional thoughts, but on another they seemed to provide something sweet to ruminate on and it was a long while since that had been the case.
Coming back to business, Travers was now convinced – unconventional as she was –that she had potential, possibly more even than Hassan, who had published six papers under his guidance.
During his turmoil, Kelly-Ann had talked breezily through the final slide – the acknowledgements. She stopped talking and turned to him. It took him a moment to come around; the silence gaped, before he broke into applause.
“Superb, Kelly-Ann: a great talk. You have come on so much since the last section seminars. You handled the data masterfully, and you are so much more at ease. How was it for you?”
Kelly-Ann looked incredulous before finding his meaning.
“Yeah, I thought it was cool. I felt okay, not too rushed, not too slow...Yeah! It rocked!”
“Yes...indeed, it’s the best delivery from you that I have heard. You know, I think that the Sensation Science Café programme would be a great place to start showcasing this exciting piece of work. I've taken the liberty of putting you on the programme for next Friday evening.”
The colour drained from her face.
“Eugene, I've got plans – it's our band’s three-year anniversary gig, a lot of people are expecting to see us.”
He felt the heat flash over his cheeks.
“Do you want to make a career out of science or not? These opportunities don’t come along all the time, you know. A researcher has to be seen – and you never seem to make any of the summer meetings.”
As she started to speak he brought the hammer down. “As your supervisor, I expect you to present, if you don't make an appearance , I will be bringing this up with your supervisory committee. The subject is closed.”
Kelly-Ann wrenched her pen drive from the computer. Sensing the mood, Travers picked up his papers and quickly left, choosing not to acknowledge the stabbing middle finger silhouetted on the screen in his peripheral vision. He was doing it for her own good. She would thank him.
The following week Eugene enjoyed a cool detente with Kelly-Ann. Though she seemed a bit agitated on Thursday, she kept up with her lab work, even if, when he passed her office, he was aware of the omnipresent electric guitar case by her desk. On Friday morning he had discussed the matter at one of his regular appointments with Professor Sylvia Revey, the staff counsellor, whom he had been seeing since Elizabeth left. Eugene felt the session had gone well. He discussed all his students with her, but Kelly-Ann in particular.
As he strolled along the Perth road on Friday, en route to Sensation, he passed the blind man who so often seemed to walk this way. Not to be able to see things clearly…it was a thought that made Eugene shudder and he found himself side-stepping He replayed the highlights of his conversation with Sylvia.
“I'm sorry to interrupt, Eugene, but I'm a little confused. You have voiced concern about her origins, for want of a better word, before. I understand that she came into the degree programme through a Higher National Diploma route. Are you saying that because of this she does not make the grade? I am afraid I don't see the relevance. The fact is that she is in a PhD programme now.”
“Well...I just wish she would be more co-operative, more collegiate. I mean, she insists on continuing to play in her group, or “band” as she calls it. When I was in her position, I leapt at every chance to get my work in the public view. Science is not an easy mistress. Your efforts have to be concentrated. It takes dedication – single minded sacrifice for the greater good.”
“And you don’t think that Kelly-Ann is up for that?”
“She obviously made the grade, but her family has no academic background; I don't think that she realises what this work involves.”
“So you say, the work needs the sacrifice, the merciless focus...”
“Indeed, that was what I had to do.”
He hoped now that Sylvia Revey would share his reservations about Kelly-Ann.
When Travers arrived at Sensation, the crowd were already filling the seats, a curious mixture he thought. There were two distinct tribes – those of the slacks and fleece and those of the indie frayed jeans and plaid shirts.
The slide screen was huge above the stage. But he didn’t understand the presence of the instruments and drums. Perhaps there was entertainment later in the evening.
Professor Sir James Hamilton, the famous cancer biologist, was there, with a few of the great and the good of the Wellcome Building. Travers loitered on the periphery of their circle and was eventually invited to join the conversation. Yes, one of his students was presenting this evening and there did seem to be an unusually large turnout. They took their seats as the first talk was announced.
Kelly-Ann took the stage and to Travers’ horror, a ragged band of musicians shuffled into position to the spacy sounds of final guitar tuning. His head spun and a sickness filled the pit of his stomach as Kelly-Ann plucked the mic from its stand and waved to the crowd, turning slowly in a semi-circle to face them all in turn.
This was outrageous! Had she no respect? The people he had invited…He must stop this travesty; he rose to his feet, calves trembling, as he hunched in the cramped row.
“Good evening, folks, and welcome to science sessions at Sensation!” Kelly-Ann was saying into the microphone. “Tonight, in a break from the usual format, I’m going to tell you about some hot-from-the-bench developments in skin cancer research, and I’ll be assisted in this multi-media presentation by…” – Kelly-Ann rolled her wrist out with a flourish – “From Dundee, The Fabulous Coomassie Blues Band!”
A burst of applause and unacademic foot stamping broke out from the indie tribe, to the alarm of the ranked fleeces. She clicked the handset. Eugene’s courage deserted him and he sat down.
The room darkened and projected on a big screen above the stage, a benevolent sun rose as the band softly picked out the tune of “Here Comes the Sun”. Before the song faded, Kelly-Ann advanced the slide and explained about ultraviolet radiation as a giant animated image of a section of skin rose like a wall. The band switched to the cranked bass line of The Stranglers’ “Skin Deep” instrumental as Kelly-Ann made the scientific points, taking breaks during the brief choruses. Travers could not look at the once familiar, friendly graphs but this time, both camps clapped and cheered. Sir James looked at Travers askance.
The forty-five minutes flew by, and for the finale, a great red angry sun writhed in video, throwing up arcs of flame. Kelly-Ann slung on her red Telecaster and hit the first chords of the “The Ultraviolet Blues”. As the beat picked up to a rapid stride she flailed out the chords, her hair tossing, necklace bouncing, her rolled up shirt exposing the Celtic knot tattooed on her upper arm. And the words poured out in hot rush:
Going to be some changes round here,
Now the ozone’s gone, no more March break way down South
No more skinny dipping in the lake, the weenie’s a terrible thing to bake
Sun block 1000 is the latest scam – score you a deal for £100 a gram…
Later as the electric climax rolled away to fade-out, the crowd rose together and clapped and cheered. Kelly-Ann was bowing and smiling to the crowd, to the band, but Travers refused to catch her eye as the twisting in his stomach tightened his nerves. He was going to be sick. As his head flailed around Sir James slapped Travers's shoulder, his face creased with laugher.
“This is the best talk I've been at in years! This is just what science needs to get to the public!”
Travers nodded like a puppet as he rose and hurried to the exit.
Eugene Travers was low, foot achingly low, as Sylvia Revey plied him gently with questions.
He was confused; it wasn't jealousy of the headlines that Kelly-Ann had garnered in The Courier:
“Biggest turnout at Sensation breaks the stuffy perception of scientists.”
It didn't even seem to be the fact that Kelly-Ann had requested a change in research schools. He realised that it wasn't going to work between them. No, it was the irreverence of it all.
“Eugene, I know you take your work very seriously, the hours you put in...”
“Well, you got to – what is it they say? Pay your dues?”
“You have sacrificed so much and – from what you have said – sacrificed Elizabeth as well?”
He found the words too painful. After some moments he nodded.
“And if someone did not take science seriously…?”
“Well, it would be demeaning. Science is a serious subject.”
“How about Professor Brian Cox? He clearly is a competent scientist, but he has a family, appears on TV and indeed, once played in a band.”
He blustered. “Well, I can’t say...I don't know the man.”
“I'm wondering whether an affront to “science” is actually an affront to your values, Eugene? Perhaps it was an affront to the way that you chose to live your life?”
“All I was trying to do was give her a hand up. God knows no-one ever did it for me – and all this band nonsense flies in the face of all my efforts! She could have been someone...she was immature, bolshie but perhaps...like the daughter...I... ”
He stopped, flustered and blushing, noticing he was perched on the edge of his chair, his hands up, fingers stabbing the air.
“She probably will be somebody. But she must live her life, Eugene, and you can't live yours vicariously.”
He melted back in the chair as the anger blew over, leaving a chilling epiphany.
After a few moments she said, “Eugene, I'm afraid our time is up. I'm sorry, I should have warned you sooner. Please, feel free to sit for a few minutes, take your time.”
Travers closed the door of Sylvia's office and walked along the empty, after-hours corridor of the Counselling School. He paused at the stair head window.
On the Fife hills, the snow had gone now, as quickly and as unnoticed as the years. His wasted years, far behind. The warm tears on his cheek shocked him into recognising the contrasting glacial cold and polar emptiness in his heart.