(if you’re here for the first time look at excerpts 1-24 in earlier Blogs )
Sipping a cup of tea, staring at the field notes on her desk, Maddie could hardly believe she was on the trail of another possible resistance gene. With the addition of the ozone case, this now meant she was working on three separate problems in her thesis. It was crazy for her to think of pursuing it. But in her mind, it was even crazier to let it go. This was the stuff science was made of. The fortuitous observation, the search for an explanation, the thrill of discovery. Of course, she should turn this over to Dr. Gates. He would decide whether to let her pursue it or assign it to another graduate student.
Maddie set down her cup. She didn’t like that idea.
What was there to turn over? She really had nothing as of yet.
Oh, but the intuition was so strong. This is how things began, by the observation of a single phenomenon. She recalled how Barbara McClintock, the giant of developmental genetics, had begun her paradigm-shifting discovery of gene translocation. It was through the observation of the aberrant kernels of a single corn plant. Her theory of gene transposition, published in 1951, had been the beginning of genetic engineering. It was a discovery as revolutionary as Mendel’s[i]. Of course, science hadn’t been ready for McClintock’s ideas at that time; either because she was considered eccentric or because she was a woman. It had taken another thirty years for them to catch up to her. Eventually, though, they had awarded her the Nobel Prize.
Maddie was exhilarated by the fact that she had been able to pick up on the differences in ozone damage in her plants. It was a humbling thing to consider, that Nature would occasionally allow a glimpse of a secret, when all around us were mysteries without number. She was sure there was gene segregation here, not just random differences. But it would be months before she could validate that hunch. Right now she had to proceed very carefully with data collection in the field. Later on when her plots were all harvested, and the seed threshed and dried, she would run the electrophoresis to see if she could find a correlation between ozone resistance and any particular seed protein band. In any case, she would study the segregation ratio within each family to see how many genes were involved.
There was no telling how valuable a gene for ozone resistance might be. In the valleys of California where beans were grown in proximity to the pollution of urban areas, it would probably prove invaluable. Even in areas of Wisconsin and Michigan, ozone pollution could wreak havoc.
Dr. Gates walked into the graduate room at that moment and interrupted her daydreaming. “Maddie, what happened with the assay you were running?”
“Oh!” Back down to earth, Maddie. It was time to go and check on her other research problem. “I’m about to go over to Dr. Gillian’s lab right now, to get the final readings, but I think it’s going to be good.” She looked for her lab notebook.
“You think the protein you extracted from the pods is the actual toxin to the Bean Lesion Virus?”
“Looks like that. The test has stood up over time. Dr. Gillian is very excited.”
“How do the controls look?”
“Good. They look good, there’s a big contrast.”
“And you say you’re going over right now?”
“Well, I’ll come along then, to take a look.”
Maddie blinked. She could count on the fingers of one hand the times he had entered the lab, and she couldn’t remember a time when he had personally shown her how to do anything. He usually helped determine her course of action and then sent her on her way, to sink or swim according to her own wits. She often wished for a little more hands-on mentoring.
Maddie grabbed her notebook and they walked down the stairs and across the street to the Plant Pathology building. She felt like a kid taking her parents to see a mud-pie masterpiece.
Dr. Gillian’s research group had become like a second family to her, taking a keen interest in her experiment and helping her learn the techniques of protein separation. Over the summer she had harvested pods from her plots and brought them into the lab to make extracts. She had also isolated the virus from infected plants and begun growing cultures. Finally, when she had enough extract and cultures, she set up a highly replicated assay, to see if application of the extract could deter growth of the pathogen. So far, she had plotted growth measurements (taken at regular intervals) against the dosage of extract used. Today she would be getting the final reading, the last piece of the puzzle.
When they walked into the lab Dr. Gillian came out of his corner office. “Dan, what brings you over?” Dr. Gillian asked, shaking hands with Dr. Gates.
“Oh, Maddie seems to think she has some interesting results here, so I came to take a look.”
“Yes! This is very exciting. We may have stumbled on a real find.”
Maddie thought Dr. Gates looked a little taken aback by Dr. Gillian’s use of the word “we.” Clearly, there were territorial implications. Dr. Gates’ group had developed the bean line, but Dr. Gillian’s group had helped her set up and refine the assay. Whose property was the research? Maddie didn’t care, so long as there were interesting results. Everybody could be a co-author if there was something to write about. Maddie went into the growth room and pulled out the cart. She started measuring and recording her observations.
“Are we sure the extract was one hundred percent pure?” Dr. Gates asked.
“Oh yes, absolutely.” Dr. Gillian’s technician Elsa replied. Elsa had worked closely with Maddie on details of the extraction and on finding an optimum growth medium for the virus.
“Maddie, I want you to take this extract back into the lab and run a gel.” Dr. Gates said.
Everyone looked at him. Out of politeness Maddie covered up. “Oh, I forgot to tell you Dr. Gates, I did that over the summer.”
“It was the same band we saw in the seed. Nothing else.”
“That’s good. Yes, that’s good.”
Good! It had been the highlight of her summer when she’d discovered the two bands side by side on the gel. Dr. Gates had been out of the country and when he came back she was already engaged in the next step of the work. But she could have sworn she had reported that bit of information at a group meeting.
As Dr. Gillian and Elsa were standing around, a few others started converging on the lab bench. Maddie was a little nervous at the gathering crowd, even though they were patient. When she finished the measurements, she calculated the means quickly and plotted them on the graph she had sketched in her lab book.
“So, Maddie, do you find a clear dosage response?” Dr. Gillian was eager.
“Well, my plot is rough, I’ll have to do this on the computer later, but…” She held up her notebook for them to see the graph. There was a murmur of approval.
“Wow, there is definitely a response there! It’s there!”
There was a little buzz and then some applause, which made her cheeks feel warm. This was not the way they acted in Dr. Gates’ group, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was smiling too.
“You’ll have to start thinking about a name,” someone said.
“A name?” she asked.
“Yeah, for the toxin. You’ve discovered it, now you have to name it.”
“Too bad you can’t cash in.”
She and Dr. Gates talked it over on the way back to the department. It seemed that a discovery like this, made at a public institution, would mean the gene would be public property, because the taxpayers had funded the research. If some seed company had discovered it, it could have been patented, for their own profit. Maddie was happy it would stay in the public domain, especially because it could be shared with developing countries.
“But we have a lot of steps to go yet,” Dr. Gates cautioned. There was a long road ahead to verify the findings, to satisfy FDA regulations. “Introduction of a new compound into a food product has to be validated and scrutinized for safety.”
“How do we do that, I mean, determine that this new protein band is not toxic to humans?” Maddie looked at Dr. Gates’ as they walked.
“Well, first of all, we’ll have to start rat-feeding trials.”
“Me?” Maddie asked, a look of sheer horror on her face. There were a lot of things she would do for science, but working with rats was not one of them. She recoiled at the thought of the furry, pink-tailed creatures. Oh, I’m gonna hurl.
“No, no. Don’t worry. You wouldn’t have to do this personally. I can send the seed to a collaborator in Costa Rica. Dr. Rosas. He’s a nutritionist at the university there. I’ll also send it to Wilkins at Michigan State.”
“That’s a relief,” Maddie muttered under her breath. “How much seed would we need?”
“Oh, they’ll probably each want at least half a kilogram. Do you think you’ll have that much?”
“I hope so,” she answered. She had planted numerous replications, but a kilogram was a lot to spare from experimental plots. She needed to keep enough for her own analysis and for the next plantings.
They had reached the department and walked up the stairs when Dr. Gates asked, “Have you given your seminar yet this term?”
“No, not yet. It’s coming up in a few weeks.”
“Why don’t you present your research findings.” It was more of a command than a suggestion.
Maddie’s mouth nearly dropped open. “Really? Do you think this is ready?” she asked.
“Certainly. You have enough to report on, and the department should know what’s being accomplished here.” Maddie got the distinct impression that letting his colleagues know of a breakthrough was part of the reason Dr. Gates was pushing her to do this. Ready or not, she had no choice but to agree.
“You can present your seminar to us at the group meeting the week before. We’ll critique it.” He wasn’t taking any chances about the caliber of her presentation.
Maddie’s head was spinning. Her seminar would now have to rise to the top of her priority list. Presenting your own research was much more serious than reporting on other people’s work. Every table, every statistic and significant difference would have to be perfect. She would have to be prepared for tough questions, about her methods, her hypothesis, her interpretations, her choices.
The next few weeks she walked a fine line, between classes and fieldwork; between data crunching and literature searches; between sleeplessness and exhaustion. Intensely focused, systematic and thorough by nature, she ran the gauntlet with discipline. Unaware of how much her confidence had increased in the space of twelve months, she prepared for this seminar with better-tempered zeal than she had last fall.
Dr. Castle called her the week before the event, to tell her the second presenter had canceled out and she could make use of the whole hour if she wanted to. By no means engaging to fill up an hour, she nevertheless felt more relaxed, knowing that it was harder to stay under a time limit than to be free to finish at her own pace.
On the day of the seminar she wore a skirt with an African print, topped by a severe black jacket with a close-fitting cut. Her scarf matched her skirt, her earrings were gold and bold, a definite statement of her ethnicity. She knew her attire was unconventional but she didn’t care. Clothes were very important to her; they helped give her confidence. In her family they had always dressed “right” for the occasion, and she was through with dressing down to the level of polite, white academia. As Maddie set up her slides in the auditorium, she squared her shoulders, determined to make no apologies for who she was.
The seminar audience slowly filled in to the auditorium, carrying their coffee mugs and nodding to acquaintances. Instead of reviewing her cue cards Maddie stood thinking, idiotically, that her black friends had caused quite a stir. This department had never seen so many black people all at once. Girl, you’ve really come out of the closet now. With her journal club appeal a few weeks ago, the African style clothes, and the invasion of her friends, no one could fail to notice she was BLACK now. It then struck her as ludicrous to be thinking that she had been inconspicuous before. That was her last thought before she went on autopilot.
[i] Gregor Mendel – discovered the mechanism of inheritance (genes) by studying crosses in peas.
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