By M.S. Coe
During the first year of my undergraduate degree, when working in the lab was new to me—when everything (country, language, people, food) was slightly distorted and strange—I took refuge in the consistency of experiments. My alarm would ring at two-hour intervals, and I would awake to check my cell cultures for growth.
One night, in the midst of an experiment for which I held the high hopes of receiving my first publication credit, I entered the lab at two in the morning. A fellow undergraduate researcher, Alyssa, was in there with her boyfriend. They were partly undressed next to the autoclave.
Eyes averted, I said, “It’s no wonder that your cells are always getting contaminated, if this is the way you treat a biosafety level three.”
“You need to get laid,” she said, her voice floaty. I imagined her pupils like the lenses of a microscope, dark and bubble-shaped. Her boyfriend mumbled something and she said, “Don’t worry about him; he won’t say anything. He’s too shy, like all those foreign students.”
And then they ignored me, but at least they went about it quietly.
They left as I examined my cell culture, which looked like a dull, sickle-shaped puzzle backlit by green luminescence. I thought about skins rubbing together, the way the friction would graft cells from one skin onto that of the other. My cells were unwell. Spindly red candida fungi were encroaching from the right side of the petri dish, and I stayed up so long making notations about this in my laboratory notebook that, by the time I’d finished, the next two-hour interval had passed and it was time to examine my cells again. Through my latex gloves, the petri dish felt warmish from the incubator. I laid it on the stage of the microscope like a sacrificial offering.
As expected, the red spindles had increased and taken over half of the green cells. I wondered if I could blame Alyssa and her boyfriend for the contamination, even though they had been across the room. Maybe the bother of them had kept me from following procedure. In any case, a fungal reaction had infiltrated my experiment, ruined its integrity, and the only thing to do was throw this bit in the biohazard bin and start over. Those moments might have been the closest I got to happy back then: the tossing away as soon as something didn’t work, the starting it over, same steps, same order, as if the disappointing outcome hadn’t really happened.
As a graduate student at another university, in a much colder climate, I was unable to live on campus because married housing was full, and I’d recently found myself married. My wife and I both despised the snow; in our hometown of Bangalore, no one ever had to deal with shoveling the sidewalks or muffling the senses with scarves and hats or sinking into cold-bodied despair.
Several on-campus undergraduates were at my disposal to complete the overnight cell examinations, however, I didn’t trust them. I imagined them drinking too much beer and then sleeping through their four a.m. alarms. What if they ruined my career by falsifying their predawn data points? What if they were all sneaking their English major boyfriends into the lab and then draping their dirty underthings over the autoclave?
The walk from our apartment to the laboratory was twenty minutes and took me up a steep hill and over a bridge above a hundred-foot waterfall. At first, I shuttled myself back and forth from my apartment building to campus, but so much walking tired me, and after a week of this fruitless exercise, I set myself up on a couch in the back of the lab, behind a Japanese folding screen. The screen was decorated with a crane, and the folds crossed through its body, which bothered me immensely. Each time I put myself to bed, I had to wring the crane’s neck.
My wife, newly arrived in this country that had been my home for the past four years, did not enjoy my absences. She asked if I planned to change my hours completely—that is, sleep during the day—but I couldn’t do that, either. I had classes to teach and attend, office hours to hold, papers to grade, and, of course, experiments to oversee. The experiments never slept, and so neither could I. It was probably this sort of thinking that caused the accident.
During supper one night, my wife said, “Maybe we can bring my parents to live with us. They are growing older; I want to see them.” From what I understood, her parents had pursued mine quite industriously through one of the more popular marriage websites. They seemed like savvy people who did not need their daughter to care for them yet.
I said, “We’re not ready. I can barely support the two of us.” I explained to her, as I had already, that before I could give her anything she wanted, I needed to secure a professorship and graduate students of my own who could be trusted to stay up throughout the night with the cells.
“I’m tired of waiting for my life to start,” said my wife, which made complete sense to me. I felt as though my life had never started, like I could easily be a collection of the cells I suspended in tubes to wait patiently for the time when they could become useful to the experiment. Some of them never did become useful, and expired, and were tossed into the biohazard bin. I had a vague idea that everything would settle once I received tenure.
“All I need is a few more years,” I told her.
My wife could not sense how uninterested I was in continuing this conversation, and so she said, “Maybe you could become a salesman—a microscope salesman—or find some other job with more regular hours. You know, my brother tried to become a professor; then he had to return home. He’s a food inspector. He’s still unmarried.”
“I have to go to the lab,” I said. I preferred to wring the neck of my delicate crane rather than sleep beside her cold body. “Thank you for supper.”
“You’re welcome,” she said.
My parents had recommended that I marry so that someone would take care of me: feed me, clean my clothes and my home, enrich my life with children. Neither of my parents had been scientists.
During the second year of my graduate degree, my principal investigator shifted our focus from cells to mice. The embodiment of our experiments was a difficult adjustment for me, but luckily, my concentration was complete because my wife was visiting her parents in Bangalore—her mother had been in poor health for ten months, approximately the same amount of time my wife had been on her visit.
Everyone back home understood both the importance of my wife’s obligation to care for her mother and of my career. Many families encouraged their children to go into the sciences, and my parents touted me as an example of success; during my weekly phone calls home, my parents often asked for advice for this neighbor’s or that bank teller’s son: how could he work towards a profession like mine? What was my key to success?
After the change to mice, I spent most of my time inside the Animal Care Facility, a gray, windowless, nondescript building on the edge of campus. Only a handful of students and very few faculty were told of its location, and its purpose was not published in any directory: this was so that radicals, vegans and so forth, wouldn’t attempt to break in and free the animals. The walls were blank except for several posters of yellow, smiling faces commanding us to BE HAPPY. These posters had appeared after two engineering majors had jumped from the bridge across the waterfall during finals week.
The truth was that my mice had been weighing on me, lately, their warm bodies packed tight with oversized livers. I’d made those livers; they were a gene splice. At night, if I couldn’t sleep, it was usually because I was seeing those blackberry jelly livers.
The veterinarian and I were almost always the last ones left in the Animal Care Facility each night. After she departed, I would listen for the resounding clicks from the three sets of security doors, after which I knew I was alone with my mice. They were horrible looking things, their scabbed skin showing through their patchy hair, their torsos distended by the disease I’d given them. They waddled around on tiny legs and twitched their noses curiously at me. Unlike my cells, it was no small matter to simply scrape the mice into the biohazard bin if the experiment soured: a single mouse of this kind was worth three thousand dollars. They were living creatures; they needed me.
When the accident happened, no one seemed much surprised. In the weeks prior, my colleagues and even some of the more impertinent undergraduates had been making comments about my appearance, the dark circles under my eyes, the unhealthy sag of my cheeks. Of course I wasn’t sleeping.
Alone one night in the Animal Care Facility, I fed my mice sweetened poisons through a dropper. Eating, they were overjoyed, their small pink tongues dancing towards the droplets. My gaze focused on their gaping mouths, then softened, then focused, over and over, leaving me with a headache. I might have been in a waking nightmare when I saw their yellowed teeth growing. Frightened, I jerked back from the cage; it overturned. The ten mice spilled out onto the vinyl floor and, heavy with disease, they lolled around my feet. I didn’t mean to do it, but I stomped.
The floor shook beneath my heavy winter boots. I knew that the mice wanted to consume me; all I could see was their scaly, whipping tails; and then all I could see was their blood. Their plump bodies had burst beneath my shoes like water balloons.
I thought, I must be asleep. Finally I am sleeping.
From the doorway, I stared at the ruin of the experiment which constituted approximately one-third of my supervisor’s new grant—and then I walked back to my apartment. Crossing the bridge, I felt overwhelmed by the waterfall’s relentless crashing; it drowned out the turmoil in my head. I tried to roughly calculate what volume of water fell per minute: I was a scientist, which meant that I focused on problems outside of myself.
The Office of Equity and Access opened an investigation into what had happened that night at the Animal Care Facility. There were questions about the sheets on the couch, the crane screen, the changes of clothes I kept on top of the printer, the toothbrush resting on the windowsill. Questions about workload expectations.
I felt certain that my deportation to Bangalore was imminent. My supervisor was incensed; he would never work with me again. I imagined returning home, humiliated, to my mother’s comforting arms. I packed a small suitcase, leaving out all of my strangling winter clothes, and cleaned the apartment. But then the conclusion to the investigation fell in my favor.
The staff person conducting the process implied several times that my supervisor might have been pressing me into a sort of scientific slavery. She explained that the university was committed to curbing cultural insensitivity, and the new president had made it her mission to ensure the retention of foreign students. I was told that I’d been abused by an absentee principal investigator, and so I was assigned to another one, a woman, who worked with rabbits, and I accepted my continued fate.
Repetition in science, unlike in life, is success. It was funny to think that, if everything went well, I would continue atrophying the muscles of rabbits for years; only failure would knock me out of this loop. Ahead of me lay—if I were lucky—millions of dollars of withered rabbits, thousands of hours of cataloging their discomforts.
When the investigation concluded in my favor, of course an immense relief washed over me, a punishing cascade, like a waterfall relentlessly pounding a river.