Annibookery

This date one year ago marks the launch of my first novel “Matter Over Mind.” As I’ve been ‘scooped’ twice on this topic by Dr. Gee’s EXCERPT and then followed by his Uploads, Downloads, I will make this pathetic attempt to dispense additional propaganda very brief.

A first novel can often be–well, a first novel–with all the inherent growing pains and learning curve. Despite this, as a self-published first-fling it’s done okay. Not New York Times best-seller okay, but self-published okay. Heading towards 500 copies (well, I could say that even if I sold 2 copies!) in combined paper + e-book sales, with more than 3000 hits on my website (only 2500 by me) and 667 downloads of a sample chapter on Amazon, I guess I should be satisfied.

I don’t really know what I hoped for, but I guess I met it.

So for those of you with an interest in Lablit/science-in-fiction with real-life scientist characters, here’s your chance. I am pasting in a sample chapter, with some nice quirky realistic scientific characters, embedded with all the true cynical wit inherent in academia. Feel free to order on Kindle in the US for the price of a cup of coffee , or the paperback with the great science-icon graphic designs–can be viewed by Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

In the UK, you can order from the UK Kindle store for 2 quid and 14 pence (including wireless delivery + V.A.T.). Sorry, don’t know where the pound sign is on the keyboard. The book is also available in India for a steal price of 700 Rupees as well as in France, Germany, Japan, and so on. I’m not sure if anyone from Japan has ever bought a copy (or ever will), but the book is available.

Oh- and don’t forget to stay tuned for lablit novel #2: Welcome Home, Sir to be published in the near future by Anaphora Literary Press.

Well enough said. Below is a sample for those of you still debating what to get for your favorite enemy as a gift.

MATTER OVER MIND

Chapter One

Never a dull moment—put three scientists in a room and get five different points of view. Ironically, I have always been certain that my friends are all convinced that biomedical research is a tedious, boring, and dull enterprise. If it is not entirely dull, then they at least expect that the people carrying it out are a quiet, reserved lot: polite and self-restrained, scientific Barney the Dinosaur characters, pipette- and flask-yielding Mr. Rogers types, or know-it-all geeks and “goody-goodies.”

People view us as a scientific form of chartered accountant: terribly boring and polite in their eyes, if not somewhat more honorable than the average chartered accountant. “Some of my best friends are biomedical researchers,” I could imagine people saying apologetically. But there’s not a chance of us sincere lackluster scientists taking part in the adventurous Enron style of “cooking the books.” Fraudulent experiments simply do not hold up when the next research group tries to build on falsified data. They see us as a grounded, uninteresting form of astronaut putting his best foot forward in a valiant attempt to better humanity. Perhaps we are, but our passive and easy-going image couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I took a sip of cold water from my coffee mug. I had brought the water from the cooler situated in the department hallway across from the men’s room. Neal, my veteran Ph.D. student, is always on at me about the water cooler. “Steve,” he says shaking his head with overdramatized awe, “how can you actually drink from that? I can see the cockroaches climbing in and out of the drain every time I go by in the hallway.” I don’t really know why I do drink from it; it is disgusting, and Neal is certainly telling the truth. It’s sheer laziness, I suppose.

The only other options are to climb up two flights of stairs to the eighth floor water cooler or to go all the way down to the cafeteria to buy a bottle of water. Neither are mind-bogglingly difficult choices, but they do take up time. And time is perhaps my most valuable asset. It is also my private nemesis. Time may not necessarily be on my side, and my dream of maintaining an independent research lab at the institute may be slipping through my fingers like sand.

Neal has just been in my comfortable little office to go over some of his recent results. The room is cozy, with a fair sized window overlooking the Toronto area. The office resembles, as Neal would say, “a fucking botanical garden.” In spite of his hot-headed reactionary behavior and sharp and occasionally vulgar tongue, he has quite a talent for accumulating good results, and we have already published an article together in a relatively prestigious scientific journal. But Neal is hungry, and his ambitions are unfulfilled thus far. Basically, this is a good thing, because it leaves him extremely motivated and increases the likelihood that we might become a leading lab in our little niche. But that is still of secondary importance to me right now. I have my hands full just maintaining this job.

Of course, I have my own personal stake in Neal’s continued scientific accomplishments under my direction. My tenure is now a crucial issue and I need desperately to tip the balance to the publish side of the old “publish or perish” option. Professor Lewis Smithers, my clever departmental colleague and personal rival, sidled up to me just yesterday morning in the hallway with one of his typically sadistic grins fluttering on his thin lips.

“Say, Miller, did you hear about Jenkinson?”

“No,” I replied with extreme caution. Smithers was dangerous. I felt almost as though I were being arrested, and I could vividly imagine the handcuffs coming out: everything you say can and will be used against you…

“He got the boot.” Smithers was now smiling and rubbing his hands together with an unmasked evil glee. “The reports say that he got good recommendations from all the external reviewers. He even published two articles last year in Journal of Biological Chemistry. But the committee here decided that he doesn’t have what it takes.”

This was news to me, very bad news indeed. In fact, it truly frightened the hell out of me, but I was determined not to let Smithers see any weakness in my reaction to his information. He himself had probably sat on poor Jenkinson’s internal committee and did the damage. He probably even chaired the committee, steering the members towards the sad outcome. For all I knew, he was on my own tenure committee, too. The best thing to do was to play calm, outwardly agree with Smithers, and not allow him to see me flustered.

Inwardly, I was queasily shaking with mounting fear, making my own desperate calculations to assess my own chances of passing the committee.

“Oh,” I answered, trying to be as flippant as possible, “I suppose the committee members know what they’re doing. He probably just isn’t good enough.” I felt like a traitor. Bruce Jenkinson and I had practically arrived at the institute on the same day. We had each been through the myriad of complications and havoc of putting a research lab on its feet and starting from scratch. I tried not to look at Smithers’ eyes.

Smithers nodded in agreement, rubbing his hands methodically as if to dry them, “Evidently not. Better to weed them out early before they take root. We don’t want this institution to decline altogether.”

Was Smithers treating me as a fellow colleague, an equal, someone who like himself, was naturally above such criticism? No, I decided, Smithers would never treat me like an equal. Not even if I received tenure. I would always be below his level. Who wouldn’t? After all, he was a top-notch and highly respected scientist. It was far more likely that he was trying to frighten me, to bait me, to see how much I was afraid of losing my own position. He was testing my self-confidence and digging for fear. Smithers has always had a nose for fear. I think he can smell it. And was I ever afraid!

It had taken me a total of fourteen years to receive the reins of this laboratory: three years of undergraduate science, two years to receive my master’s degree, another five years for my Ph.D., and finally four more years doing postdoctoral studies at the famous Wafton Institute in Boston. I imagined that poor Jenkinson had more or less “sacrificed” the same number of years to attain the goal of becoming an independent researcher.

Now he was probably packing up his belongings, downloading files from his personal computer, and making SOS phone calls across the continent as he desperately searched for an opportunity elsewhere. How would he tell his wife? How would he face his students? What an awkward situation! To openly admit that the university doesn’t have confidence in his abilities in front of them—how could he retain his self-esteem? Worse yet, what would his students do? He had two Ph.D. students who had started their work several years ago. They would undoubtedly need to begin anew.

There was little chance of Bruce’s finding another position in Toronto, not to mention anywhere else. What university would opt for an outcast, someone who had already been rejected? They were better off starting fresh with a younger, newer applicant. If our institute had “excommunicated” Bruce Jenkinson, other universities would suspect that there must be a reason. And there was, I thought grimly—people like Smithers. That wasn’t entirely fair, since Smithers may not actually have been on his committee, but he certainly was in agreement with the verdict. And how could he form such an attitude without being on the committee? He must have had access to poor Jenkinson’s files and information. He must have been on that committee. I resolved to call up Bruce afterwards and wish him well, although I knew he would be bitter. His family wouldn’t starve, I was sure, but after dreaming of this career, running your own independent laboratory, and carrying out your own research ideas and plans, anything else was a poor substitute. If he couldn’t find anything in the biotech industry, I supposed that he could always teach high school.

I shuddered at the thought and tried not to think of my own, as-of-yet undetermined fate. I could always find a little lab at some unknown university in South America, perhaps in Chile or Argentina, and make my own little kingdom even if the money for research was poor. Anything would be better than humiliating myself teaching high school. I might not stay at the forefront of research, but at least I would fight to stay in the minor leagues if necessary. But now I still had a shot at the major leagues, and I wasn’t prepared to let Smithers push me around. At least not yet.

Although my own position was extremely unstable, it was still not a lost cause. Neal’s success “at the bench,” his series of experimental findings, was proving fruitful for me. Every new piece of data that he uncovers, every slice of new information that he derives working with me, every discovery, and every successful experiment will ultimately lead to peer-reviewed scientific publications and the “Holy Grail”—grant money. These are the very things that I desperately need to enhance my job security. And my job will not be secure until the committee had assured me of tenure. Until then I am as dispensable as a plastic test tube—or a 7-Eleven drinking cup—just like poor Jenkinson.

Neal is well aware of my situation, and he has been a bulldozer in clearing the way towards the “mission impossible” called tenure. Although Neal’s loyalty to me is beyond question, he certainly has his own stakes in not seeing me pack my suitcases and leave the department. He would not relish the prospect of finding another supervisor in the middle of his Ph.D. research; starting all over from scratch would be daunting. Additionally, finding another advisor who would put up with his rather blunt behavior might be another serious issue.

Neal also knows that his loyalty is a long-term investment. One day, in a number of years, he might be standing in my very position. Even as a student he has the foresight to understand that in future years, researchers such as myself—assuming that I do not get tossed out of the system—might help determine his own fate. But now I was way ahead of myself, daydreaming again. I must not take anything for granted.

Not all my colleagues, however, share my grave doubts about my chances of becoming a tenured faculty member. Professor Davis, that old gambler, has even been trying to get me to wager with him. But I cannot bring myself to bet against my own tenure; it’s a conflict of interest. Aside from that, I am not willing to give up my new fluorescent microscope to Arthur. He just doesn’t deserve it. He hasn’t brought in a dime of grant money to the department for years. In fact, for some time, I have felt that Arthur Davis is acutely jealous of my newly developing lab.

My mainstream interests are becoming ever more popular in the scientific community, and this is of prime importance in obtaining grant money for research. My specialties lie particularly in the biological and molecular mechanisms involved in mental disorders, especially depression. It seems that all the students attracted to work for me thus far, including the postdoc/technician called Singh, have their own vested interests in understanding the mechanisms of depressive disorders.

Neal once confided in me that his mother had been severely depressed throughout his childhood. Neal himself also has a mild form of dyslexia, and he frequently comes to work wearing his favorite “I Dyslexia Love” T-shirt. Singh’s brother is a schizophrenic. Tania, my new Ph.D. student, professed to me that her uncle had psychotic depressive tendencies. My new master’s student, Ken, has not yet mentioned any family connection with depression, but I am willing to bet that with time one will be uncovered. Ken has only been with us a few months and he’s not very talkative; he probably feels that he’s got to get over the student stage and complete his academic courses successfully before he feels more at home in the lab and with Neal, Tania, Singh, and me. However, looking at the pattern, including my own reasons for choosing such a line of research, I doubt that Ken is here by any coincidence.

I think back a few minutes to my meeting with Neal. He always starts these conversations with his obligatory and somewhat obsessive complaints. “Jesus, Steve, is this a second class research joint or what? Don’t tell me it’s like this in the States, too.”

“What’s the problem this time, Neal?”

“I got here this morning a little late, after Opera-Singh had already started, but he was practically working in the dark,” Neal ranted.

“Opera-Singh” was the name that we had unanimously coined for Singh; he was crazy about operas and Neal often complained that he would awaken at night in a cold sweat, suffering from palpitations and the noise of heavy nasal voices humming Carmen. That was before I decided to split my forces and keep the two of them in the adjacent but separate labs. I am still debating whether to move Ken in with Opera-Singh or with Neal and Tania. Not that Tania is a problem to get along with.

“So?” I queried. “You know that he often works in the dark. Let him. Why should you care, you’ve got your own lab to work in?” This was true; my little kingdom here at the University Center for Disease Research was composed of two separate but joined laboratories and my little office just down the hallway.

“But the reason,” Neal blurted out, “it’s so bloody stupid that it hurts—it’s not even Opera-Singh’s fault this time.” Coming from Neal, this was a major concession.

“Well,” I replied, “are you going to keep me in suspense for much longer? I’d really like to get some work done today. You know that we both could be out on the streets looking for work in the next few weeks.”

Neal sat before me, smirking slightly. We had a tacit understanding about my tenure situation, with each of us referring to it only indirectly.

“Is he on at you again?” he said, hooking his thumb in the direction of Smithers’ office.

“Never mind,” I countered, trying to be offhanded. “Just get to the point.”

Neal’s veins were almost popping out of his forehead. His closely cropped hair showed signs of receding like a glacier during global warming. This only enhanced the danger signals evident in his pulsating blood vessels. To some extent, he reminded me of myself, ten years earlier. I, too, had once been even more obsessive and a rather excitable character; I was highly motivated and extremely volatile. But since receiving my position as an independent investigator, something in me had relaxed. Perhaps it was an anticlimax, after so many years of dreaming and striving to prove myself worthy. Maybe it was simply resignation.

This Canadian institution would never be on par with the top American institutes where I did my postdoctoral work, no matter what the University President proclaimed in his weekly propaganda releases to the local press: “Cancer cured again and again by institute investigators.” Well why were people still dying of cancer? In any case, Neal did not yet know that our institute would never be top tier, or at least he didn’t believe it. And I did not want to damage his motivation at this stage. Let him see for himself in a few years’ time.

Neal breathed deeply, “Get this. Three out of the nine neon lights in Opera-Singh’s lab have burned out. He claims that he called maintenance to come and replace them, but they—”

I cut him off. “But they say ‘after the Christmas holidays.’” It was only mid-November, of course.

“No!” Neal ejaculated, all revved up now like a turbo engine, “They say that due to budget constraints each lab will only have two-thirds of their fluorescent lights working. Only if another light burns out in Opera-Singh’s lab will they come and replace it. And only that particular one!”

Neal was now livid with anger, trembling like a leaf in a in a sudden gust of wind. Even I was surprised at the level that this university could sink to. A bottomless pit, apparently. Next thing you know, they’ll be charging me for the electricity and water that I use in the lab, too.

I picked up my phone and dialed Hugo’s number. Hugo was the department “do-all.” What he really did, though, was absolutely nothing. Usually we preferred when he was doing nothing, because when he was actually doing something, it was inevitably related to the recruitment of students, lecturers, or generally unlucky passers-by to his reborn-Christian meetings. Neal practically shrank from Hugo, presenting with symptoms resembling a panic attack.

Somewhat surprisingly, having Hugo around was actually good for the atmosphere in my lab; he allowed a union of forces, albeit temporarily, between Neal and Opera-Singh, both of whose opinions of Hugo wavered between disdain and utter disgust.

“Hugo,” I said into the phone, “would you please stop by for a minute.”

“Hallelujah, Steve, God willing I’ll be right there.” I could already see Neal cringe at hearing the twang of Hugo’s nasal voice.

Neal scratched his left ear and stared at me with a look of pure skepticism. “You don’t really think Hugo is going to be of any help, do you?”

“Of course not,” I said cynically, imitating Neal’s tone of irritation, “but let’s not get him angry at us for going over his head.”

“If we did to him what King Henry the Eighth did to two of his wives, we wouldn’t have to go over it anymore,” he muttered sullenly.

Hugo arrived and sat down in my office in the empty chair beside Neal. He was a thin man of medium height with narrow shoulders and small brown eyes. He wore a rather sparse moustache proclaiming his masculinity via testosterone-induced facial hair. He came to work every day with his battered attaché case, wearing scuffed and peeling dress shoes, wrinkled dress pants, and a button-down shirt that never properly concealed his white tank top. He also made a habit of really overdoing the aftershave.

Neal would often complain, “He’s barely got whiskers, why does he have to shave every day? He smells like a fucking perfume department. When he gets near the lab, before I even realize it’s him, I foam at the mouth afraid that the organic chemists downstairs are terrorizing us again with their bloody concoctions.” Opera-Singh, whose sense of smell had never been very good, had different ideas. “If de department vuh able to dispense of Mr. Gunther, shuhly ve could find bettah vays to utilize the money saved.” No doubt Opera-Singh had plans of his own to set up a speaker system so that he could listen to his operas from any of the labs in the department.

“How’s everything, Hugo?” I ventured politely as Hugo sidled into my office.

“Praise be the lord, wonderful. No problem at all,” Hugo answered automatically. I could see Neal pivot in his seat and glance at his watch. I noticed that his nostrils were quivering slightly, perhaps in a vain attempt to avoid breathing in Hugo’s all-embracing aftershave.

“Listen, Hugo. The good lord once said ‘Let there be light,’ isn’t that so?”

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Thus sayeth the Lord, and light there was,” replied Hugo.

“Well listen, then, Hugo. The maintenance department here at the university has a bone to pick with God. Three out of the nine fluorescent bulbs in Opera-Singh’s lab are out, and the chaps at maintenance refuse to obey the good lord and provide us with light. We could really use the light, you know—it’s surprisingly helpful with the research.”

“Sorry, Steve, those are orders from the top. The university has decided that this way they can cut down on one-third of the electricity resulting from lighting the buildings.”

Neal was about to say something, perhaps a sarcastic comment about the possibility of ordering night vision goggles, but I cut him off abruptly preempting him with a wave of my hand. “Listen, Hugo, we need the light. What happens if I order three more desktop fluorescent lights for each lab. Will that mean that the university will have to give us three more working neons?”

Hugo thought for a moment. Neal later would claim that he could hear the wheels clicking in his head, the isolated IQ beads knocking into each other as the process of thought perforated through his brain. Indeed, Neal would often groan that Hugo’s problems could be resolved rather easily by a simple IQ transplant. “Yes sirree, praise the lord, that’s true. But you’ll have to pay for the new light fixtures through your own research budget.”

“Fine,” I agreed, “just do it quickly please, before we need to bring light bulbs from home in order to work, or even candles.” I recalled a story Neal had told me some time ago. While working at the department where he had obtained his master’s degree, there had been a month when Neal received his monthly scholarship receipt with seventy-five dollars deducted for electricity. Neal claimed that he had gone directly to his lab supervisor, who was also his employer, and said, “Professor Winters, I know that I may have forgotten to turn off the lights one evening when closing up the lab, but isn’t that a little too steep?” It had eventually turned out that a guest professor whose name was also Neal Parsons had been staying at a university guest residence, and that somehow there had been a real mix-up. Neal lamented, “These mix-ups are never in my favor somehow.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

Once Hugo was gone, Neal furtively asked me whether he should raid Jenkinson’s lab and grab all the fluorescents and light bulbs before they disappeared anyway. I could see that he was well informed and had already heard of Jenkinson’s sad fate. But I wouldn’t allow him to land on poor Bruce’s lab like an eagle in for the kill. It was too vulgar. I eventually shunted Neal back off to work, with a few new ideas to play with, some articles to dig up in order to see whether they contained methods applicable to our research, and lots of new experiments to plan. Neal was the type that always had to be busy, he always had to have ten things cooking at the same time. Of course he complained about the masses of work and pressure that I constantly put him through, but he enjoyed the work. “Happy like a pig in shit,” he himself would say. And I usually managed to supply him with his necessary “shit.”

I sat down and tried to get myself organized. The key for me was to set up weekly lists and schedules of important things to do and keep crossing them off in real time as I managed to accomplish them. Unfortunately, crises with university bureaucracy, Neal, and Opera-Singh were not included in my lists of accomplishments. These were daily issues that had to be defused as they came along. No wonder so few of us actually received tenure and were kept on at the university. Between the bureaucracy and squabbling within the lab, I felt better prepared to be a kindergarten teacher. Maybe Jenkinson couldn’t handle that part of the work. I knew him from way back and was sure that he was qualified to do first class research. Perhaps he didn’t have the management skills. But as these thoughts flooded my brain, I remembered Smithers’ sadistic grin and decided that this was unlikely. Oh shit! I had to stop this. I wouldn’t be able to get anything done if I kept thinking of the future. I had to go step by step.

I looked at my list for this week. My main occupation should be gathering ideas for a new proposed grant application. This application was focused on studying a horrifying, debilitating mental illness known as “manic-depressive disorder.” It has more recently become known as “bipolar disorder,” due to its habit of swinging the patient’s mental status back and forth from severe depression to manic highs. Although I had built up my reputation and the lab on the more common depressive and anxiety disorders, I think that ultimately I had always intended to diverge into studies of this illness.

Unlike the other depressive disorders, of which many could be induced chemically in animals, this particular illness is especially difficult to study since no animal model is available. For this reason, this type of research requires a very close collaboration between basic researchers, such as myself, and qualified psychiatrists.

Fortunately, a new psychiatrist here at the adjacent hospital, Dr. Julia Kearns, is very interested in a collaborative effort. I have promised Julia that I will have an outline ready for her to read and critique by the end of the week. However, each time I finally manage to sit down and disentangle myself from Neal, Opera-Singh, and the others, I just can’t seem to concentrate on the proposal. I sit here facing my computer and feel its hypnotic effect sweeping me back years and years to my childhood in that cold, snowy prairie city of Regina.

 

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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7 Responses to Annibookery

  1. Alejandro says:

    Well your article very suggestive M………

    Chile is not for you, scientists in Chile are very envious, I’ve lived in the flesh, is very unpleasant, since they are not creative and are very copying.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    “Chile is not for me?”

    I’m afraid you are wrong on that account. I spent about 2 months traveling in Chile in 1992 and another 7 weeks in 1996–and loved it (see http://occamstypewriter.org/stevecaplan/2011/07/24/chile-ing-out/ and also http://occamstypewriter.org/stevecaplan/2011/07/31/chile-ing-out-part-2/). My wife lived there for 2 years as an adolescent.

    We wondered what it would be to live in a beautiful place like Valdivia and work at the university.

    As for Santiago, “Dos completos, por favor!”

    • Alejandro says:

      Were you not working with chilean scientists for several years, furthermore, you doesn’t have idea how is the idiosyncrasy of chilean scientist, sorry. You lived in fleeting form.

  3. Cromercrox says:

    Matter Over Mind downloaded to iPhone kindle app. Presumably it’ll appear on iPad through the magic of iCloud.

Comments are closed.