Please visit our new site!


A night in Trump Tower

From the LabLit short story series

Rebecca Nesbit 11 February 2017

As Catherine made enthusiastic noises in response to a university publicity video, she felt polluted by her lead role in this farce

Is this what it feels like to stay in Trump Tower? Huge black panelling, glitzy door handles, a bed twice as wide as it is long, and a marble bath surround which may or may not be real – this has to be Donald’s style…

Catherine was new to the pharma industry, so hotels such as this one were completely beyond her experience. And not only did pharma have a larger travel budget than universities, the money goes rather further when you are building a collaboration two hours’ drive from Chengdu than when you visit partners in London.

It was only day two of her trip and she had already discovered that certain things are just as unpleasant when your hotel room has a 43” TV and a wet room as they are when your bed touches the wall on three sides. Jetlag and overheating are two of those things. Unable to stop the air con from directing a muggy breeze straight at the bed, she had tried the window. A notice informed her that it could only be opened by hotel staff, for safety reasons, and so she lay awake wondering whether she had the skills for this job.

Had she only been sent to help her Chinese colleagues because she was English? Did skills in functional genomics really qualify her to chat up Chinese professors? Unable to answer these questions, she let her worries morph into more mundane concerns. Given the amount she was expected to eat, how much weight could she gain in a week? Are all swish hotels in China quite this bling? Do the mini shower gel bottles get refilled (no = wasteful, yes = someone else has been in the shower with the same bottle as you)?

She spent much of her jetlagged night wishing it was time to get up, yet when the alarm abruptly switched her perspective to wishing she could stay in bed. At breakfast she rejected the table she was ushered to and instead chose one in a corner where colleagues were less likely to see her. She passed up the squid kebab, macaroni cheese and ‘noodle in duck blood soup’, instead settling for watermelon. When she had finished she propped herself up on the gilt-rimmed reception desk and prayed that she could extract the correct PIN for her corporate card from the fuzz inside her head.

In the taxi her colleagues’ enthusiasm cheered her up. She was also reassured by a level of seriousness which had been missing as they had shared a rice wine toast the night before. When all she’d wanted was to return to her room for a shower, they had amused themselves with attempts to teach her Mandarin. All she could remember now was Gan Bei, probably because they had taken the literal translation of ‘drink it all’. Thankfully, their morning introduction to Chinese culture was more useful. She was briefed about the facilities they would tour and the Dean who would be their tour guide.

The Dean, she learned, ran a benign dictatorship. If Catherine and her colleagues wanted the School of Pharmacology’s co-operation (and they very much did), they needed to be attentive, complimentary and enthusiastic. Above all, they were not there to question. The first meeting was not a battle of wits, an intellectual stag fight. It was a chance to submit meekly to the Dean’s show of importance.

The campus looked beautiful when they arrived – a small lake reflected the autumn colours, and a fountain shot up jets of water in front of the main entrance. They were greeted by a young man who introduced himself only as ‘the Dean’s assistant’. He led them to a VIP room with pictures of red blossom painted on the walls.

The Dean rose from his armchair to shake their hands. “Welcome to our University!”

Behind him a group of faculty nodded their approval.

The Dean grasped Catherine’s hand. “My friend from England! A pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you for hosting us. We’re very happy to be here.”

While her colleagues and the Professors engaged in the rituals bows which accompanied the exchange of business cards, the Dean leaned towards her and said conspiratorially, “I studied in Oxford. Very beautiful city!”

“Oh really? You like England then?”

“Very friendly people! England has a long history, I like very much.”

A long history of wars and colonialism, England certainly had that. Catherine was keen to focus on something else. “This is my first trip to China. I think it’s very beautiful.”

“You must come back. You will be always our guest.”

“Thank you. I certainly hope to visit the university again.”

“Yes. I think we can work together a long, long time.” This meeting hadn’t been easy to set up, given the University’s extreme wariness about the pharmaceutical industry, and so the Dean’s comment was a pleasing departure from his attitude on their first contact.

Catherine smiled politely. “We would like that very much.”

In her past life as an academic researcher seeking funds from Big Pharma, Catherine had felt grubby. Asking for money was always an uncomfortable business, and when the request was to a pharmaceutical giant she felt the world’s disapproval. Her soul hadn’t been offered up in return for a healthy grant (or more accurately her conclusions and scientific integrity hadn’t been a term of the transaction), but she knew that many people believed otherwise.

She had hoped that this guilt would be eased when she moved to the dark side. Giving money was much more comfortable than receiving it, and by working directly for the pharmaceutical company she had a certain amount of integrity. They were developing drugs which would improve lives and make money. No two ways about it – they were honest about their intentions. Unfortunately, her move had only made things worse.

She sat down next to her colleagues and tried to think through the many benefits of their work. The hot night in Trump Tower had left her mouth dry, and so she was glad when the Dean gestured for one of his assistants to serve drinks. The assistant scuttled round the guests, dispensing bitter tea in paper cups. Everyone was then instructed to focus on a projector screen where a video was playing.

As Catherine made enthusiastic noises in response to a university publicity video, she felt polluted by her lead role in this farce. The Dean was playing a game to ensure she would give him money, and she was playing a game to ensure he would accept it. They both knew this, they both knew that the other person knew this, yet somehow it was a role-play they needed to act out.

To be fair, the Dean had been cast in a perfect role. He had the kind of smile which made you feel as if you’d been singled out for special treatment, and a boyish enthusiasm which almost made you forgive his autocracy.

When the video finished, the Dean echoed its sentiments then stood up. “You will enjoy to see our facilities – they are the best in China.” He pointed towards the door. “Come, come!”

They may or may not be the best in China, but the high-throughput screening facilities were the reason for Catherine’s visit. With a glance at her colleagues to see who should go first, she followed the Dean. He struck up a conversation as they entered the labs.

“Four generations of my family, they all went to Oxford.” He held up four stubby fingers and grinned. “So I had to go.”

Catherine smiled. “My mother went there too, but she studied History.” She genuinely wanted to find out whether the Dean and her mother had overlapped, but she didn’t know how to ask the question without pointing out that the Dean was really old. Instead she asked, “What did you study?”

“English, English language.”

“A humanities graduate, how did you come to work in science?”

“No, no, English. I learn to speak English.”

Catherine was stunned into silence – it wasn’t even clear whether he’d meant her to assume he had studied at the university, or whether he really didn’t see the difference between an MA and a summer language course. Instead she turned her attention to the facilities.

The hotel decor might have been as repulsive as Trump’s bromance with Nigel Farage, but at least she had known what to think. As she had lain next to the black leather of her padded headboard, her head had been full of thoughts. In contrast, the high-throughput screening facility left her mind blank. Beyond the black robotic arms of the machinery, there were no clues about what work was going on. There were no posters on the walls, no books, no images. Her lab had been full of post-its and written messages about whose turn it was to use a particular machine, and so this absence felt unnatural.

She also wasn’t sure what to make of the young people working diligently at the machines. While the Dean’s double-breasted jacket made him look as if he had just arrived from the 1980s, the scientists made protective clothing look like fashion accessories. Lab coats and latex gloves were worn alongside thick-rimmed glasses, sparkly earrings and trousers which were stylishly too short. She tried to ask one for a look at his work, but the Dean informed her that they didn’t speak any English.

Most unsettling was the familiarity. A minus 80 degree freezer in Sichuan looks pretty similar to a minus 80 in Surrey. Pipettes and Eppendorfs were an aspect of Catherine’s existence which remained alien to her own family, yet these trendy scientists had exactly the same consumables she used to buy for her lab back home.

Some of the consumables, however, were specific to far higher-tech machines than her university budget had ever allowed. The Dean picked up a rectangular plate, with rows of tiny wells in the white plastic.

“One pack for $1,000 dollars.” With a flourish he waved his arm at a large stack of boxes labelled 1536-Well plates. “Every single one.”

When Catherine had told friends that her first trip to China would be in the name of industry-academia collaboration, she was given a range of advice. Use chopsticks well, it impresses them. Use chopsticks badly, it amuses them. Take two water bottles to Chinese banquets: an empty one to surreptitiously fill with rice wine you don’t want to drink, and a full one to replenish your glass with.

The more helpful information had been related to high-throughput screening. Firstly, she’d received warnings that even facilities which her former colleagues would consider selling their children for could be completely deserted. And a busy facility didn’t automatically mean success, so the best advice of all was to look in the trash can. A high-throughput screening facility may be able conduct millions of pharmacological tests, but if all the plates end up in the bin then you are better off with a technician and a pipette.

Had someone really flown her business class to China just so that she could suck up to the Dean and experience a night in Trump Towers? No, she had to be here for more than small talk. As well as making the Dean like her, she needed to confirm that he was actually equipped to do the science she wanted to fund.

She was going to check the bin, that was decided. The question was how to do it surreptitiously. It would be a hard one to explain if everyone was watching her. When the Dean moved to the next bench, still boasting about how expensive everything was, she stayed back. Everyone’s attention was focussed on the Dean, and she could only hope that worship of their leader would prevent any of his entourage from noticing her. Still, her hand shook as she lifted the lid of the bin.

What she revealed took her by surprise: nothing. Not so much as a pair of gloves or a chunk of blue roll. She frowned as she looked around the room of busy scientists. How could they produce no waste at all?

Seeing her confusion, a balding professor stepped forward and closed the lid. “Please no touch.”

As he stepped back, however, his sleeve knocked the stack of boxes containing the 1536-well plates which the Dean had been so proud of. His hand shot up to calm the wobble, but he couldn’t prevent the inevitable collapse. They landed not with the thump of falling labware, but with the gentle tap of an empty box. When the sound of falling boxes had subsided, the lab was silent. After a moment’s pause, the scientists, guests and hangers-on all watched as Catherine walked to the minus 80 freezer. She pulled open the door to reveal nothing but warm air.

Nobody moved while she closed the door then went to stand by a scientist who was regarding the Dean with a look of terror. She turned to her colleague. “Can you ask him what he’s working on?”

The question seemed to take far longer to ask in Mandarin than it did in English. He answered with a nervous glance at Catherine. She didn’t need to speak Chinese to understand that this ‘scientist’ didn’t have a clue.