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Threading the needle

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 11 June 2019

She asks me every week if I think I am cut out for this life

I screw a glass capillary into the heating element. A flash of light and snap! – the capillary pulls into a thin clear thread. My hand shakes. Lab meeting in three days.

Lab meeting. The older students call it the Kobayashi Maru, a term that needs no explanation to a bunch of science nerds. A no-win situation that not even Captain Kirk could cheat his way through. Professor Sharma will stare flint-eyed at our PowerPoint slides. At best, we may get a brief nod indicating we can take our seats. At worst, a machine gun barrage of questions. What is the role of non-coding RNAs in this pathway? What was your positive control? Why is the p-value so high for this data? Why didn’t you run a positive control? What experiments do you have planned for the next six months? Did you seriously not include a positive control?

She asks me every week if I think I am cut out for this life.

I clip the capillary into the injector, place a slide on the microscope, and tap the side of the apparatus. I need the tip to break in a sharp point. Tap. No break. Tap. A jagged edge that would rip a worm’s gonad open. Are you sure the effects you’re seeing are due to the transgene? Or your injection technique? Did you have a positive control?

I screw another capillary into the heating element and start again.

Snap. Snap. Snap. Finally a good needle, a delicate string that bends in my hands and breaks into a sharp point on my first try. I pipette the DNA solution into the other end and roll the needle between my fingers.

Surface tension makes the liquid move slowly into the tip. But that’s physics. This is genetics. Are you cut out for a life of research? Are you taking this seriously? Science demands sacrifice.

Stop. This experiment will work. I will have a nice PowerPoint. I will win. Eventually.

With my silver pick, I scoop up one Caenorhabditis elegans worm and slip it onto the bed of agarose and oil. Look through the eyepiece. Line up the needle. Tap. Nothing. Tap. The needle slides through the membrane right into the germline. Nobel Prize here I come! Take that, Sharma.

I depress the pedal of the pressurized air system with my toe. It should blow a femtoliter of DNA into my worm. Instead it blows a large hole through its body. Worm guts swirl in the injection oil. Worm guts clog my painstakingly-crafted needle. Poor little C. elegans.

What time is it? 5pm? 10pm? Midnight five days from now? In a lab without windows, who can say.

I screw a glass capillary into the heating element and begin again.