From the LabLit short story series
6 September 2016
This is not the moment to get excited. All it is, he tells himself, is a moment of perfect clarity
How does he do it?”
Mike put his cycle helmet and backpack under his desk, and leaned over the bench to see into Ivan’s office.
“I don’t know, Maria,” he said, “but my head’s killing me.”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
This was not a good way to start a Thursday.
Take two. The tearoom diaspora. Ivan’s door closed, murmurings from top floor brass. Twelve little Eppendorfs, sitting in a rack, one named Peter, one named – no, that wasn’t going to work.
Concentrate, man. It’s a miniprep, should be easy enough to handle. Set up the RT-PCR after lunch when your head’s clearer. What the hell had they been thinking last night? What had they been drinking?
It had seemed to start harmlessly enough: a bottle of Australian fizz at tea to celebrate Maria’s JMB paper, then moving down to the Marly for a pint before the post-work rush. Several pints: Ivan had been in a good mood and put his card behind the bar. A jealously guarded corner of the pub. A few rounds of chips; cheese sauce. Ugh. Ivan and some of the younger lab rats had moved off to a club. He and Maria and Cath and Jon and ... someone else had stayed behind, sinking more pints from the bottom of the barrel. Then what? A text message from Ivan saying they were having cocktails; they joined up again, someone suggested a kebab.
Oh God, the kebab. Mike’s stomach gurgled unhappily at the memory.
And here they were, two cups of coffee later, mouths still like the bottom of the proverbial cage, with Ivan apparently for all the world as fresh as the dew on the morning of Creation, hobnobbing with the DVC Research.
Mike walked to the shaking incubator in the corridor, located his rack of twelve little tubes and came back to the lab. Went back into the corridor to the ice machine; returned to fetch a polystyrene bucket.
Ice, bench. Solution I, ice. Lysis buffer not frozen, check. Pen, racks, clean tubes. Overnights into centrifuge. Boot the Mac.
Mike typed his password, getting it right on the third attempt. He skimmed the usual batch of spam and vacuous dirty glassware and lost property messages cc’d to the entire department; heart suddenly THUMPing when he read “Your sequencing results are attached.”
The message had been sent at 16:59 the previous day: just making, as usual, the “results delivered within 24 hours!” promise and yet at the same time guaranteeing the impossibility of a re-run before the weekend.
He pulled up the first text file with its contextless five characters, skimming it anyway for anything he might recognize, a palindrome perhaps, or even a run that might look unique... Bah. A hangover was no good for this. He couldn’t even remember how he’d named the primers.
Getting up from the desk Mike shook his head, immediately regretted it, and returned to his minipreps. Wash steps, he hated wash steps. Why was he doing it like this again? Oh yes. DNA is DNA, but the sequencing facility gnomes insisted on kit-prepped material. Spin, tip, leave to dry. Perhaps another coffee would help.
No. Thaw the buffers for the reverse transcriptase step, set that up, then go have lunch with Jo. He flipped through the last few pages of his lab book, looking for the most recent time he’d done this experiment, trying simultaneously to remember if the RNA was in the minus eighty in the basement or skulking guiltily at the back of the lab freezer.
Someone was standing at his elbow.
He continued turning the pages, pausing occasionally to rub ineffectually at a blue stain on the paper. Finally he could stand the pointed politeness no longer.
“What is it, Aiko?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Dr Mike. Have the data been sent to you yet?”
Mike looked up. She was staring at him. Her lips formed the word ‘liar’.
“I know you’ve got the sequencing results, Mike. First thing you looked at this morning,” Maria said.
“Yeah, well. You know what Aiko’s like. It’s my data, I want to look first.”
“She did help you,” Maria said, her eyes dark. “It’s only fair.”
“The sequencing technicians ‘helped’, if you want to be like that.”
“They also saw your sequence first,” Maria said, unreasonably. “Anyway, you can’t hide it forever. And your annealing reaction is done.” She turned and went back to the office.
The electronic timer on his bench beeped. Mike started, checked his notebook. The thing to do, he thought, the thing to do is keep busy. And then no one will bother you.
“Free for tea?”
Mike looked across to Maria, then at the nervous student next to him.
“So you’re happy with that?” he said. “Do the digest again and throw some phosphatase in half an hour from the end? This is a really good start, so don’t worry about it.” The student nodded and picked up her notebook.
“But Mike, what about the–” she began.
“Don’t worry. Accidents happen. We all make mistakes. Just get that gene cloned.”
When the student had gone, Mike looked up at Maria again. She raised an eyebrow. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Were we ever that clumsy? And yes, I could murder a cuppa.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
Lab coat off, gloves in yellow bin, hands washed in the tiny sink; check the timer, reach up to the top shelf above the desk to get a mug (free from a lesser-known antibody supplier, stained thick with the tea of ages) and a teabag; down the stairs to the common room.
“Somebody’s got a birthday again,” Maria said.
Mike sniffed. “Talbot lab. You know how many she’s got in there. They’re always having birthdays, and birthdays mean cake. It’s a wonder they get any work done.”
Maria sniggered. “Or that they’re not all obese.”
“And they’ll all be gone at five.” He looked at his watch. “Hell, I wish I could work eight hour days. With two for lunch and one for cake.”
“Come on Mike, you enjoy it. At least, I hope you do, ‘cos it’s certainly not the pay keeping you here.”
Mike grinned. “Maybe it’s the company?”
They helped themselves to hot water from the urn, found a seat. Mike fished for his teabag with a finger.
Maria looked surprised. “What for?”
“Earlier. Lying to Aiko. You know, it’s not that I don’t like her,” he said, “but sometimes she’s a little too...”
“Inquisitive?” Maria said.
“Overbearing? You’re twice her size!”
“You know what I mean,” Mike said, teasing the teabag out by a corner and letting it drip into his mug. “It’s like having a mini Ivan running around.”
Maria laughed. “Come on. She’s not that bad.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “You should try working with her. Do you remember when we all had to help Astrid get those gels done for the Nature paper?”
“I think that was before my time.”
“Don’t be coy. She was a slave-driver.”
“Worked though, didn’t it?”
“Hah! Yes,” Mike leaned over the table. “But it wasn’t even her paper. None of us got co-author credit. That’s what really grates. Six weeks of my life, in summer, working for somebody else’s Nature paper, and I didn’t even get a lousy acknowledgement!”
“Mike,” Maria said quietly, “you just ran some gels.”
“That’s all we ever do, Maria. We just run gels, send some things off for sequencing, do some PCR and run more gels. Every day is a succession of tiny failures. Occasionally, just occasionally, we have a bright idea, or a lucky break, and one of the gels shows us something different, something now, somebody nobody ever thought of – and then we spend another year repeating the experiment trying to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Is this science? Why do we do this, Maria, why?”
Maria put her hand on his. “This is nothing new, Mike. You’re a senior postdoc, you know what it’s like. Perhaps you need a holiday.”
“Chance would be a fine thing. And I’m serious. What makes you do this?”
Maria shrugged. “I guess I can’t imagine doing anything else really. And I’m scared that I can’t do anything else. I mean, yes, we’re all bright and intelligent and good with our hands, but what else can we do?”
“I know what you mean.” Mike stood up. “Come on, back to the grindstone I guess.”
“Wait a minute,” Maria countered. “You haven’t told me why you keep doing it, yet. Fair’s fair. Or are you serious about packing it in?”
“I don’t really know,” he said, sitting back down. “I get frustrated sometimes. It all seems so pointless. You try and try and – well, it’s a struggle, isn’t it? A fight. Data are variable, standards don’t and controls aren’t. Every day you hope you get a result that means something and you never do. Each success is a battle, and we celebrate out of all proportion, don’t we? Running to stand still.”
Maria nodded. “It’s an addiction. You can’t help yourself.”
“Yes, yes that’s it exactly. It gets worse, though.” He scratched his chin, looking towards the tearoom door. “On top of it all I wonder whether any of it means anything; it takes so long just to get one piece of knowledge, and even that’s provisional, and please don’t ask me if it actually makes a difference in the real world because I don’t know any more. I know what Ivan writes in the grants, how he spins tales of mapping the genetic causes of cancer or resistance to HIV or whatever this year’s hot topic is, and I think that he sometimes even believes it, but I, I, I’ve got to the point where I question everything I do, every little PCR and gel, and I’ve got no hope of seeing the bigger picture.”
“That’s what makes you such a good scientist, Mike. You do question everything. And it’s why you’re going to be great. You do have vision, and you know it – me, I’m going to be somebody’s technician for the rest of my life. Which is great, really, I enjoy it. You’ve got more than that in you though.” Maria stood up. “Come on. Another hour and I’ll buy you a drink.”
Mike laughed. “After last night? I don’t think so. Besides, it’ll probably take another three hours to figure out what’s going on with my results.”
“The ones you haven’t got back yet?”
The light from Ivan’s office is still on as Mike makes room in the lab freezer for the clear plastic plate of spent sequencing reactions. He peels off his gloves and drops them in the bin. Maria left two hours ago, but he can still hear the steady click click click of Aiko’s pipette in the lab next door. A single set of footsteps in the corridor. Next to the Mac his phone glows accusingly – an unrequited text message, probably from Jo. Time for that soon enough.
He opens all twelve sequencing files, stacking them on the screen. Somewhere in this mess of As, Ts, Gs, Cs and Ns there is – hopefully – some kind of answer. One way or another.
Worst-case scenario? Hah, if one or more of the reactions have failed, or if he can’t make sense of it; that would be worse than a negative result, because he would have to do it all again. Even a negative result would be better than that. A positive result ... well, best not get too far ahead of yourself, Mike old son. Probably best simply to walk away now, enjoy what’s left of the evening with Jo, save the disappointment for tomorrow.
He sighs out loud. Launches the alignment program. Loads the sequencing files. Runs the alignment ... no, that can’t be right. He opens his notebook, hunting for the Sellotaped piece of tissue paper with his look-up code for the primers. One of these days he’ll get out of this habit and write directly in the notebook.
After the weekend. Sure.
So these six are the reverse runs. Hunt through the program menus for the keystroke that will turn them the right way round. Trim off the Ns. Add some spacing. Align – let the program work its magic.
No, this one can’t be right. Add some more spacing. Run it again. Better, but what – hang on. Damn it, why isn’t this working?
The smart money, Mike realizes, would be to play against type and read the manual. If he could even find it. But for a moment, just for fun, assume he’s doing it right. Take a closer look. Find the landmark six bases, and hunt around for a bit.
His heart skips a beat.
He pushes away from the desk, brow furrowed. If the primers are labelled correctly, and if he didn’t mix up the tubes, and if he’s not overlooking something obvious, then just maybe this is it.
His hands are shaking, and his heartbeat is preternaturally loud. This is not the moment to get excited. All it is, he tells himself, is a moment of perfect clarity. It is probably nothing. It is just a start; even if it does mean something, there’ll be more questions than answers, there always are.
“Ivan,” he calls out, unable to keep the tremble from his voice, “I think I’ve got something.”