MY FRIENDS CAN READ IT FOR FREE (Excerpt 34 from THE HARVEST OF REASON) Maddie sat at her desk in the graduate student office trying to digest yet another binder of class notes, this time Quantitative Genetics. It was absolutely her worst subject…READ MORE

(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-33 in earlier Blogs )

Chapter 10

 The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal.

The Seven Valleys

Maddie sat at her desk in the graduate student office trying to digest yet another binder of class notes, this time Quantitative Genetics. It was absolutely her worst subject. She’d never liked it, never felt she understood it quite as well as she should. And she had left it for last. Now she was running out of time, there were barely enough days left to review her condensed notes one last time.

A paralyzing anxiety was setting in. What was wrong with her? She’d come this far, hadn’t she? But what if she failed? Then, she’d simply take her prelims over again in another semester, she told herself. But the shame would likely kill her. She’d heard the story of the woman who had failed her prelims. She had choked, and apparently the second time around hadn’t been much better than the first. There were other stories, but not many.

The worst thing about the anxiety was that she couldn’t talk to anybody about it. Not even her closest friends. It was too big, too scary to even mention. It would be like opening up Pandora’s box. Oh sure, they talked about it superficially, but not the real truth. The hardest thing was to gauge her progress against other graduate students studying for their prelims, because they were all emphasizing different things. Each had a unique set of professors on their committee. Even though she had gotten together with other students for quiz sessions a few times it was impossible to tell where she stood.

And then had come the last straw. Walking down the hallway yesterday, she had bumped into Dr. Ellison. What could have possessed her to ask him that question?

Influenced by his exuberant and gossipy chatter about bygone days and personalities in the department, she asked, “Dr. Ellison?”

“Young lady?”

“I…was wondering if you  remember…

“Remember what?” he couldn’t wait for her to finish.

“Well, do you remember any African American person that has received their Ph.D. in the department?”

“African-American. Now that would be a Black that wasn’t from Africa, right?”

“Uh-hum.” She held her breath. Sorry I asked now.

“None.”

“N-none?”

“To the best of my recollection.”

It stopped her in her tracks, it meant she would be the first!

Oh great! If I flunk, I won’t just be screwing up for the women, I’ll be screwing up for the race!

She had never given much thought before to the issue of whether she was breaking new ground here. Every now and again you heard of some black person being the first to move into a new arena. In the sports world, it was still happening. It was ridiculous, actually, that so many doors still had to be opened. But she had never even considered it as relating to herself. It wasn’t her motivation for doing things; she simply forged ahead with her plans, based on her own inclinations. But now, the weight of the race had just descended on her shoulders. She was aware of the implications and not immune to racial pride. A cold sliver of fear had begun to insert itself into her consciousness, further eroding her self-confidence and insidiously taking hold of her mental powers.

John had been trying to stay out of Maddie’s way. She only had a week to go ’til her prelims and he didn’t want to do anything to upset the apple cart at this stage. He already felt guilty about the kiss. Well, not the kiss, exactly. Because the feel of her in his arms was a memory he wouldn’t give up for any amount of money. Even now, when he thought of it, it was a warm tropical beach, beckoning him. And he savored it. Oh yes, he could taste her mouth still, and feel her soft breath. But he didn’t mean to push it for now. He had discovered he had quite a bit of self-control when he needed it. And patience, yes, patience.

So it was not his intention to disrupt her that caused his next intervention in her life. It was only a sixth sense that she was in need of some balance. He had begun to be able to read certain expressions in her eyes, and when he passed through the office that afternoon she had a desperate look.

“What’s on the docket for today?” he asked, matter-of-fact.

She looked up and the beauty of her face, the tone of her skin, struck him again.

“My least favorite subject,” she replied, “quantitative genetics.”

“Oh.” He sat down on one of the swivel chairs leaning his arms forward over the back of the seat. “Tell me, from the beginning, what you know of the science, what is it for?”

Maddie looked at him, his shoulders, his hands crossed in a relaxed stance and again, she wanted a pill of his temperament, his stability. His presence was always so forceful, so positive, so calming. Kind of addictive.

“Well…” she began slowly, glancing at her dog-eared copy of Falconer’s Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. “It’s used for studying the inheritance of quantitative differences, for assessing the relative importance of heredity and environment in these differences.”

“Great! Now tell me…” and he went on to spend the remainder of the afternoon, well over two hours, slowly leading her through her understanding of gene frequency, population means and variances, and the implications of selection from inbreeding and crossbreeding. They made diagrams and sketches, reviewed how terms were defined, how things were calculated. When he left her office she felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She whispered a silent prayer of thanks for the coincidence that had placed John Pitts near her desk right when she was struggling with her greatest nemesis.

The remainder of the week passed without much incident, the seemingly interminable countdown increasing her well controlled nervousness. Lisa was wonderful in assuaging some of the jitters. It should have been the other way around, because Lisa was going to defend her thesis the following week. They went shopping together for their outfits and all the accessories.

The day before the exam Dr. Gates called her into his office. “Thought you’d like to know the second set of results has come in on the rat feeding trials.”

“The second set?” she wasn’t aware that the first set had come in.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry,” Dr. Gates waved her to a chair. “I forgot to tell you, the results from Costa Rica came in last week. I just opened up the results from Michigan right now.”

“And?” Maddie’s breath was in her throat, not knowing whether it was bad news or good. If the compounds in the seed were toxic to mammals then they would be useless as disease resistance compounds. All of her work would have been in vain.

“Actually, Dr. Rosas used mice, not rats.”

“Does it matter? I mean, they’re both mammals, right?”

“Oh no, it doesn’t matter, they’re both used routinely.”

She couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer, “What did they find?”

He held out the papers to her over the desk. “See for yourself.”

Maddie quickly scanned the tables of figures. The rat trials showed that no significant weight loss had occurred in rats fed on bean meal from her seeds. In fact, the results were almost identical with the controls. Quickly, she scanned the other set of papers and found that there were no statistically significant differences in the mice trial either.

“Yes!” she nearly jumped out of her seat.

“I thought you’d be pleased.” Dr. Gates smiled indulgently.

“This is great! We’re batting a thousand. Look, there’s no difference in band 34C, A, B or D beans.”

“Well, yes, but 34C is really the one we’re interested in. I’m not quite sure why you sent those others along.”

Maddie looked apologetic. “I…I had the seed.” Quickly she changed the subject. “Dr. Gates, do you think anyone will raise the issue of the pod compound being toxic to mammals? I mean, we’ve only done these trials on the dried seeds, what if there’s a problem with the pods?”

“Well, Maddie, we’re working on dry bean cultivars here. The seed is the final harvest product, not the pods. But if you want, I’ll suggest to Griffins that he continue the process and examine the pod tissue also. For our purposes though, I think we’ve passed the test.”

The news acted as a temporary relief of anxiety, because it was such good news. When Maddie told Lisa though, she wanted to know why Dr. Gates had withheld the previous results from Maddie for a week.

“I don’t know.” Maddie shrugged, pushing open the double doors as they walked outside. She didn’t let Lisa know the same question had crossed her mind.

“Didn’t he know this would make you happy?”

“I guess he forgot,” she shrugged.

“Forgot that it was your research? That you had the right to know? Man, who do they think they are, anyway!”

“C’mon, help me look for some earrings, I still don’t have anything that’ll go with my suit,” she said, trying to distract Lisa. She knew Lisa had some problems with her own advisor, which made her feel professors were all feudalistic in their treatment of students. But because Maddie wouldn’t allow herself to engage in backbiting she was frequently in an awkward situation when Lisa began to vent.

On the morning of the exam, she came in at seven a.m. to find two cards on her desk, wishing her good luck. One was from Lisa, the other from John Pitts, and Maddie was touched by their thoughtfulness, even though both cards were kind of funny and irreverent. At eight twenty Dr. Gates stopped by her desk and asked cheerfully, “Well, are we ready?”

She’d been down to “the room” once already, to set up the coffee pot and doughnuts she’d brought in. As they walked down the steps together she tried to take deep, calming breaths. The other members of the committee arrived on time and as the door closed at eight thirty, she found herself staring down the narrow room, at five white male faces seated around the long table, all eyes on her.

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About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, bahai, chastity, college students, educators, equality, female professors, food security, freedom, genetic engineering, genetics, global discussion, graduate school, interracial marriage, John Pitts, Maddie Hawkins, national discussion, plant breeding, race, race on campus, technology, Uncategorized, unity in diversity, University of Wisconsin-Madison, women in science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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