(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-37 in earlier Blogs )
…yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love,
unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.
The Seven Valleys
Maddie opened the envelope with the beautiful Malawi stamps right away. She was surprised to hear from Dr. Mgoro after so many years. When she had won an overseas studies grant to do go to Malawi after her Bachelor’s degree Dr. Mgoro had been her supervisor there. She had not communicated with him in several years, though. She sat down at her desk and read:
Dear Ms. Hawkins,
Greetings from your old friends at Malawi University! We read in the proceedings of the Bean Cooperative a preliminary report of the discovery of a multiple allelic series of genes resistant to Rusty Leaf Spot.We have had a very bad infestation of Rusty Leaf Spot, which seems to get worse every year. Particularly in the region of Nyasa village where you visited, farmers are suffering very severely from this disease, which seems like a plague. Therefore, we are very interested to hear of your discovery of several different alleles. Although you report different levels of resistance for each allele we feel they could be very useful, because we have had very bad results in introducing single gene resistance. A new strain of the pathogen seems to arrive a few years later, which devastates the crop.
We wonder if you would allow us a small seed sample to test here in Malawi. This would be a great courtesy to us. We would, of course, report the results to you, as we understand this to be part of your thesis work. However, the results would also be very useful to us and so the Malawi Department of Agriculture is willing to cover the expense of the trials.
It only took her a few minutes to understand the implications of the request. It was a tremendous opportunity. She went immediately to knock on Dr. Gates’ door. Edgar was sitting in the office; they were apparently in the middle of a meeting. Maddie apologized and then told Dr. Gates about the contents of the letter.
“Sit down Maddie,” he said, reading over the letter she had handed him.
“Well, this is certainly very interesting. It is unfortunate that we did not advance all of the lines containing the different alleles, but we can certainly send them the initial F1 seed.”
“Excuse me, Dr. Gates. I did…in fact, advance lines with all four alleles. They’re all at the same stage.”
“Yes, sir,” she hastened to explain, “I thought it was too soon to discard them. I mean, we didn’t really know all that much about them, so I thought, well, you know I had hopes of a multiline,” she shrugged her shoulders.
Edgar leaned back in his chair and scoffed, “You’re kidding, right? A multiline for the U.S. market, that’s cute. The Bean Grower’s Association throws a fit at the slightest lack of uniformity. If you’re thinking you could bulk all four selections into one line forget it. They’d never pass on a bean cultivar with uneven levels of resistance.”
“Even if it was proven that the combination produced higher field resistance?” Maddie tried to stay calm.
“You don’t have any proof of that, do you?” His eyes said “gotcha.”
Dr. Gates seemed content to let them argue it out.
“No, I don’t. But this is a perfect opportunity to test out that theory!”
Edgar shook his head and smiled an acrid smile. “That’s a whole lot of time and money spent going in the wrong direction. It’s not going to advance our line development one bit to have this data because we’re never going to be able to release a multiline for a U.S. market!”
Maddie didn’t look in his direction, she kept her eyes on Dr. Gates waiting for an answer. “Dr. Gates, I guess I always had the hopes of something like this. I didn’t want to throw away any of those alleles. It seemed so… serendipitous that we found them all. We can test out this theory in field tests in Malawi. If it pans out we’ll have the data to support the development of a multiline.”
“Do you have the materials ready now?” Dr. Gates asked.
“No,” she answered. “But it’s just a matter of advancing it one more growing season. After the summer we’d have enough seed.”
Edgar jumped in again, “Yeah, and four times the work this summer and God knows how many seasons after that, till we get all four to the point where we can combine them! It’s crazy.”
Again, Maddie didn’t look at him but kept her focus on Dr. Gates. Edgar got up saying, “I’ve got to get to the greenhouse, Dan,” and walked out the door.
Maddie made a mental note that ignoring him was a good way to neutralize Edgar.
As soon as Edgar closed the door she said, “Dr. Gates, just for the record, I want to say that I think this decision is being driven by the wrong priorities.”
“What do you mean, Maddie?”
She took a deep breadth and plunged ahead. “I…my funding, sir, does not come from the Bean Growers Association, so why should my priorities be determined by them?”
His eyes opened a fraction wider.
She went on slowly, “With all due respect, sir, I brought my funding with me when I came. And the stuff I’m proposing to do won’t cost the Bean Project a dime. Dr. Mgoro’s University and the Malawi Agriculture Department are willing to put up the funds to continue the research along those lines. All that I’m proposing to invest is my own time, and that,” she emphasized her point by striking her index finger against his desk, “is not paid for by the Growers Association.”
It was a very assertive gesture. He seemed to digest this and then he said, “I’ll remind you that your fellowship is not the only cost involved in your research. Don’t forget the lab and field facilities and materials, Maddie.”
She was starting to get mad. But it was okay, because that’s when she got stubborn.
“Sir. I…really am committed to this course, and I’m urging you…no, begging you to let me proceed in this direction.” She stopped abruptly because she felt she needed to breathe.
The tension in Dr. Gates’ silence was palpable. Finally, he shrugged, “Very well, Maddie, if you think that you can take that on in addition to the line development, then go ahead…”
“Dr. Gates, I’m sorry but this is, well, this is what I want to do instead of developing the U.S. line.” There, swallow that. “I mean, all that’s involved there is to advance several more generations, selecting the highest yielding lines and making sure the plant architecture is uniform. Even Edgar can do that, and take it to completion. And if he can’t do it it’s another thesis project for somebody’s masters degree. I…don’t want to invest my energy in that. It’s old hat, it’s boring. I want to work on developing multigenic resistance, for a third-world market! I want my thesis work to be…useful, innovative, to make a difference where it’s most needed!”
Dr. Gates’ color was heightened. He looked positively shocked at her categorical refusal. It was clear he had never expected such resistance from her.
“Young lady,” he said, and the use of the words chilled her. “The data does not suggest that any of these other lines would contribute any additional resistance. Their levels are too low. You will waste your time and mine, chasing a chimera!”
Despite feeling like she had been slapped she didn’t back down. She slid to the edge of her seat and continued to state her case, careful not to use wrong words, like “intuition,” and “hunch.” “Sir, it is possible, that the interaction, the synergy resulting from the greater diversity within the allelic series would provide broader resistance. We have precedent for thinking this way. It has been done,” her index finger struck the top of his desk again, in rhythm with her words, “in the case of wheat rust, and countless other crops!” He appeared to digest this, while she sat and breathed deeply. She couldn’t believe she had pushed so hard, she didn’t realize she was so invested. But it seemed she was invested enough to really stick her neck out.
She wanted this to be her gift to the farmers of Nyasa village, or some other village elsewhere in the world. She had never known that things would come together in her life in such a way that she would have an opportunity to help them, to better their lot by some effort of her own. But fate, serendipity, or God, had decreed it to be possible, and she saw clearly now, that if only she could have enough moral courage to choose this fork in the road, something could be done.
“Very well, Maddie, you appear to have thought this out very carefully. I suggest that you proceed then. Make the selections to create the multiline and make arrangements with Dr. Mgoro for a preliminary test.”
“Yes sir! Thank…” she stopped when he raised his hand.
“I am giving you permission to take this track only if you continue to work on pure line development. Now, now,” he was waving his hand to forestall any further protest, “you can reduce the scale of that project, and Edgar can get you some undergraduate help for the screening and harvesting. But I want you to make the crosses and the selections and keep it moving in that direction. That’s my final word.”
Maddie merely nodded, knowing that she had probably just doubled her research load.
“Keep me apprised of all your steps,” he said, going back to his paperwork to indicate the interview was over. She had prevailed, and he did not appear at all pleased.
Maddie went directly out of the door, dropped her stuff off at her desk and headed straight down the hall to the bathroom. There, she carefully locked herself into a stall and cried as silently as she could for the next twenty minutes.
She was angry, scared and disappointed. Angry at herself for feeling so vulnerable, so much like a little girl who had displeased her parents. Scared that by forcing her way as she had just done she had perhaps appeared ungrateful. God forbid she should ever be thought gauche and ill mannered. She was often hindered by a code of behavior that prevented her from getting her way by force. And she had come very close to that. And she was disappointed with the whole system of science, for having its priorities so screwed up that it could see no purpose in pursuing a line of research that might be of benefit to fellow humans who lived on the other side of the globe. What could be so wrong about focusing on the problems of those who were most needy? Why must their needs be subjugated to the almighty dollar?
Maddie’s experience in Africa had affected her deeply. The fresh, shimmering vegetation, the browns and reds of the multicolored beans, the open expression on the shining ebony faces, they had all left their mark upon her mind and heart. It had left her with a desire to contribute a concrete solution to some of the problems she had witnessed.
She had met many farmers, mostly women, when she went out into the countryside interviewing people to gather data on farming practices. Their hospitality was the best she had ever experienced. As she was offered the best stool in the hut, and sat interviewing the mother, the children would bring her an offering of tiny sweet bananas, or a fresh mango. She couldn’t turn down such gifts because she was afraid to offend, but it pained her to take away even one mouthful of food from their meager fare. Generosity had nothing to do with the size of the gift, but rather, with the percentage it represented of the giver’s wealth.
A favorite interviewee was Mama Tsongo, from the village of Nyasa. Maddie sometimes remembered her when she thought of the possible cures for the things that plagued the bean crop. And now, she was remembering her once again, when she had to fight for a research direction that might have some bearing on a life like hers. On the lives of her children. And the mental image she had of that little woman was the one thing that brought her back to center again, and made her pull herself together and walk out of the bathroom with square shoulders, albeit with red eyes.
Right outside the door of the bathroom she bumped into John.
“Maddie! What’s the matter,” he asked.
“Hi, John,” she said, more cheerfully than she felt, “Nothing’s the matter.”
He frowned. “You sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. What have you been up to lately?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ve been off on a couple of job interviews. Post-docs,” he explained. “I’ve got another one in North Carolina next week.”
“You’re kidding! I didn’t know you were done!” That was a shock.
“I’m not, I’ve got my defense coming up on Friday.”
“Oh! Then how could you afford to take off like that?”
“Hey, I’ve got to have a job, you know. Dr. Pinkerton can’t keep me on the payroll forever.” Then he whispered, “And I, of course, have no desire to work indefinitely for minimum wage.”
“Yeah, but your thesis, is it done?”
“Oh that! Well, I turned that in to the committee a month ago, so all I had left to do was twiddle my thumbs. Actually this was a pretty good time to be taking off.”
Maddie was impressed, as always, with his cool and collected way of handling his stress. She needed a dose of his unflappability. “Lisa’s defense is tomorrow. She’s freaking out.”
“I know. Let me go see what I can do.” He said, walking with her in the direction of Lisa’s office.
When they reached Maddie’s grad office he said, “Maddie, I really enjoyed meeting your parents.”
“Oh, they liked you too, John,” she answered politely, before walking into her office.
Apparently, meeting her parents had kept him from getting any ideas about herself. That’s probably why she had barely seen him for the last few weeks. But no—he had explained why he hadn’t been around much. Anyhow, all her mother’s conjectures had clearly been off the mark.
GLOBAL BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION!
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DISCUSSION QUESTION 38: What should drive the priorities of science?
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