In which I dream

Lab worker looking at a Petri dish

One from the archives: I check out some urinary tract infection bacteria, circa 2016

Last night I dreamt I was pipetting.

It was a beautiful Gilson p200, the classic model of my formative years. The precision instrument felt reassuringly heavy and solid in my right hand. Despite its age, the movements were smooth and easy after years of faithful service. Double-slam the yellow tip, plunge, immerse, pull up, transfer, expel while mixing up and down, shoot the spent tip into the benchtop bin with a satisfying rattle, repeat ad infinitum – movements as familiar and thoughtless as clutchwork while shifting gears.

I was in the midst of one of those experiments where you’d have to perform the same rote transfer hundreds of times, the hours somehow compressed into timelessness, into a state where tedium encroaches upon nirvana. The manipulations require little thought, so your head fills up with all sorts of other things: the next step in the protocol after these racks of tubes are finally completed; when you will get a chance to collect ice and thaw the enzyme, eat, grab a quick coffee, nip to the loo, write up your notes; what time you might manage to leave the lab, and whether any other late workers along the corridor might be up for a spontaneous evening social. It could have been one afternoon in any of the thousands that occurred in the roughly 25 years when I was heavily active at the bench, not just funding, planning, analysing and writing up research like now, but actually performing it manually.

When I woke, I wasn’t sad to find those days far behind me. My plate is full of ample nourishment. In the grand principal investigator cycle, I currently have two grants under consideration, three in preparation, two newly funded with personnel to hire, and two papers at draft stage. My substantial team is busy producing interesting data. I’ve got about ten invited talks or keynotes to discharge so far this year, and while teaching itself is winding down for this term, there is still plenty that needs attention in that sphere.

Do I miss my Gilsons? Of course I do. There is something raw and vital about benchwork – not just the work itself, but the phase of life it punctuates. My lost youth is rattling in that cardboard tip waste box, along with the camaraderie of my fellow travellers. It’s lonely at the top, and scientific friendships – though still present and important – are never the same as during your PhD and postdoc, when everything seems possible and the future is a bright unknown. The reality is probably less exciting, but far more satisfying than those long-ago aspirations.

I wouldn’t be young again for anything – but a girl can dream.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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