The art and science of medical rsearch | Leonardo

The art and science of medical research

By Caroline Wellbery

Here's to my trial run as an artist-scientist (from my current writing efforts), an account of my attempt at research before I went to medical school: Luckily, another job opportunity came along. Luckily, I say, for me. I can't say the same for my boss. It's possible that the collapse of her lab and her subsequent departure into administration was a direct result of her undiscriminating choice of research assistants such as myself. The lab was ugly. Such places are made for scientists, meaning that they contain no drapes, sofas, art prints, or nice rugs. The researchers stand with a touching sincerity at their workbench, as you'd expect of anyone sacrificing themselves for higher truths, while they shove around racks of test tubes and pieces of bubbling equipment. Meanwhile, the supervisor sits in a back cubicle, surfing the internet. In one such lab on the 14th floor of a research building at the local medical school, I found employment, under the premise that a literary scholar would be a valuable addition to the investigation of the immune system’s major histocompatibility complex. My first task was to kill mice. Simonetta, my tender-hearted Venezuelan bench partner, chloroformed them in a drawer, but everyone else cracked their necks. I was taught to lift the mice out of their cage by their tails and as they clawed their way across the metal grate to escape, I pressed a scissors against their neck till I heard the snap of the spine. I then operated on them, removing their tiny spleens, which looked like a bean filled with blood. These I ground into a solution, which I labeled with some radioactive material and fed between gel-plated glass panes. May the mice forgive me for not knowing why exactly I was doing any of this. Because we used radioactive isotopes to tag the spleen cells, a quality control team from Occupational Health and Safety would burst into the lab with Geiger counters every couple of weeks, waving the detectors in all directions. Whenever the inspectors got near me, the Geiger counters began ticking and the needle would swing wildly into the danger zone. Everything I'd touched would click frantically. I must have absorbed so much of the stuff that I’ve had to wonder if any problem I’ve had since, whether losing my keys or my lovers, might be due to my underlying radioactivity. The lowest moment on the job occurred when my boss designed a new experiment, which I was supposed to run. In a rare frenzy, she emerged into the lab, took down books with strange recipes, and pulled out a machine which when you plugged it in, sputtered and gurgled like something in Frankenstein's underground cellar. "Here," she pointed. "Try this." Then she disappeared as quickly as she arrived; in fact, she went off to a scientific conference and I didn't see her for another three days. Meanwhile, I extracted a half-dozen spleens and followed her instructions as faithfully as I could. On the third day, after gelling, bathing and radioactivating the spleen cells, I placed the resulting concoction into two test tubes, which I gently twirled in my fingers while chatting with Simonetta, who was telling me about an Australian lover who had jilted her. Simonetta wore flamenco-red lipstick and body-hugging clothing, so I could always vividly imagine the scenes in which she described herself swinging around and slapping her lovers across the mouth. Without thinking--perhaps as a gestural reenactment of her romantic disappointments--I emptied the contents of both tubes I was holding into the radioactive waste. The instant I had shaken off the last drops, I realized I had just tossed out my entire experiment and that my boss was returning tomorrow. "What will I do?" I moaned in despair. Everybody in the lab assembled around me, offering excuses I might try on my boss. "You could say a starship sailed into the lab and knocked over the test tubes," Louise, the lab’s Trekkie, suggested helpfully. Simonetta offered to blame the whole thing on her faithless Australian. But I doubt even Tom Sawyer could have invented his way out of my dilemma. I had to admit to myself once and for all that my destiny was not in the realm of research.