SKILLS.

TURNING THE SCREWS IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE
[posted 04.06.2005]

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I EXPECTED SOME SORT of ritual, a rite of passage the equivalent of dipping holy water and making the sign of the cross, but the door to the neuroscience lab at MIT was open, and I walked through without even a shrug. No one seemed to mind as I wandered around in my street clothes looking for Monica, the third-year graduate student who had agreed to let me watch her perform a surgery.

I was in the second semester of a science writing program at the time, and feeling very much the outsider. My peers in the program all had degrees in science and lab experience. One had even run her own lab. I, on the other hand, was a science naïf, with just a few science electives on my resume and no bench time. I was in the program in part because science, recently, had become a surrogate for a religion that was failing me. I was looking for some certainty, some hope in the pursuit of truth.

My meeting with Monica was an assignment: I was supposed to learn about day-to-day lab work. I never expected to find a community where I could feel I belonged.

While searching for Monica, I ran into the two neuroscience undergraduates who were there to learn the ropes. Their post-doc mentor, the equivalent of doctor just out of med school and doing her residency, was bragging about them: “You should see them. They’ve only been here a week, and they’ve got skills, man.”

One undergraduate was carefully setting up the dissection space with an absorbent pad, stainless steel pan, shiny scissors, probes and a scalpel blade sterile inside its packaging. He moved slowly, but clearly knew what he was doing. Later I would watch him anesthetize a mouse and remove its head with a pair of heavy scissors as easily and noiselessly as cutting through string cheese.

I followed the post-doc to the in vivo room, where they run experiments using live animals. When we arrived Monica had already anesthetized her rat and shaved its head.

“I’ve just started,” Monica said after we exchanged greetings. “You can sit here.”

Again I was surprised. I had expected masks, instructions to scrub my hands and arms up to the elbows. Maybe even copious amounts of brown iodine.

“If you want to touch him, just put on some gloves,” she said, focusing on her work.

As I pulled on the gloves and slid my office chair over cords and between carts cluttered with electronics, I tried to breathe slowly, to keep my germs hovering around my face instead of infecting the little rat. Monica explained that regulations for rat work required a clean, but not a sterile environment. They used sterile scalpels, but didn’t worry about masks.

I watched her struggle with a clamp-like device that would serve to keep the rat’s head from moving. This was only the third time she’d done this operation. She apologized for how long things were taking.

“Arnie could do this in three seconds,” she said, using a phrase that became a refrain during the surgery.

Arnie was a veteran, a demigod in the lab known for his steady hands and, incidentally, his brilliant practical jokes. One April 1st, Mark Bear, head of the lab, nearly burst an artery in his face as he read a carefully worded apology from the journal Nature explaining that it could no longer publish his breakthrough paper because his rival had beat him to it by two weeks. Arnie still loves to drag out the letter, stained and water-damaged over the years, whenever he gets the chance.

With the rat’s head secured, Monica cut through the scalp, exposing the skull. The purpose of the operation was to insert a set of electrodes, eight minuscule wires that together looked as thin as a hair, into the rat’s brain. The electrodes would let her detect the firing of single neurons, and perhaps figure out what was going on in a little-understood area of the brain called the LGN. Results from earlier experiments had suggested a widely accepted theory about how the brain adapts to new environments might be wrong.

Inserting the electrode meant drilling seven holes in the skull. Two would hold screws for anchoring ground wires. The screws in four more would serve to anchor the electrode assembly in place on the top of the skull, with the help of some pink dental paste. The last hole was for the electrode itself. The holes would each be only as thick as the tip of a ballpoint pen, each created by a cordless very high-speed drill.

But now Monica was having trouble. As she put in the second screw, it actually widened the hole in the thin bone. Instead of tightening securely, the screw wobbled in place. It was time to call Arnie.

Three seconds, or so, after he’d arrived Arnie had drilled another hole, and, of course, the screw went in fine. Then he turned his big face up at me and said, “You’re next.”

I laughed skeptically.

“Seriously. You’ll never learn if you don’t try.”

He thought I was one of the undergrads. When he realized his mistake, he apologized, but then said I should try anyway.

So I did. I drilled a hole in the rat’s skull.

As I sat, cotton swab in hand, dabbing at the fluid seeping out through the newly drilled hole, for a moment I felt I had become part of the lab. I wanted to stay. I wanted to help Monica figure out the LGN. I wanted a post-doc to brag about my skills.

“See. You’re better than me,” Monica said, breaking into my reverie. I smiled.

In the days that followed I returned to the lab. I began to understand details of the problems they were trying to figure out, and more and more I could ask intelligent questions that got to the heart of the issues. I even began dreaming up possible experiments. I enjoyed the conversations, the intellectual challenge, and the idea that the answers to the problems could tell us something real about the way the brain is able to learn.

But my visits soon came to a halt. Other assignments, including a major thesis, were nearly due. Months have passed now, and I have not returned to the lab.

The experience did not make me want to drop my program and pursue neuroscience. The change was more subtle, yet for me just as profound. In the company of my classmates, I began to see myself as someone who could pursue the same problems they had in labs. I knew I could do the work. And with this change I began to find myself in a community of my own, with skills of my own that could be valued as much as those of Monica, the undergraduate, or even someday Arnie.

And there was one more thing. I now knew the scientists that I had been holding up as priests of truth were people not much different from me. If they could pursue truth and find it, maybe I could too.

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kevin bullis is a science writer based in cambridge, mass.