For the love of science, Part 2


Henrietta opened the door to the tissue culture incubator. She had stopped by the lab this late in the evening mainly to check on her cells. Also, she had gotten a message from Harry.

He felt that the only way to get to the top – no, not only to get to the top, but to survive as a scientist at all – was to know how to be convincing

“Hen – if you’re going into the lab – can you check on my cells too? They might need a bit of feeding…”

She and Harry had been covering for each other since the beginning, when she was a new student and he had recently joined the lab as a postdoc. They knew each other well, had each other’s backs. Harry had saved her more than once when she was out taking a painting class or setting up for one of her art shows. She’d disappear – sometimes for weeks at a time – to paint with her boyfriend Tom at his art studio in the mountains. So she and Harry had a special bond, one that couldn’t easily be replicated or explained to the new lab members, whom Henrietta at this stage did not have time or energy to get to know.

This evening she’d been in stealth mode, hoping to avoid chit-chat with the other lab members on her way to taking care of a few things in the lab. She’d had to pass several of them on her way to the tissue culture room – Rochele, who’d seemed lost in space as she silently pipetted liquid from one tube to another, and Bernard, who was sitting at his desk and appeared to be sulking. Henrietta had darted past Steve’s office, since she didn’t want to be pulled in to talk about her paper, the one that had yet to be written. And she had almost run into Rajiv, who was emerging from the cell culture room carrying an ice bucket, filled to the brim with tubes.

“Sorry,” he’d muttered, and she’d jumped to the side, but had kept going. She was glad that the cell culture room was now empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, she switched on the radio and sang along to a Madonna song as she pulled her plates and Harry’s one by one out of the incubator and checked them under the microscope. 

Her cells were a little overgrown, but it was nothing that a quick split wouldn’t take care of. Cancer cells were so hardy. She was embarrassed to say it, but that’s why she loved them. And they really were beautiful: the little ruffles around their edges suggested graceful movement, while the denser areas at their centers contained the nuclei, the blueprints of life. Most of all, though, Henrietta never tired of watching the mitotic cells, the ones that were in the process of dividing. Their DNA condensed into a line of chromosomes holding hands down the center, the rounded cells slowly pinching off into two while the chromosomes moved gradually away from their partners, dragged apart by a triangle of fibers tethered to opposite ends of the cell. Henrietta could only see snapshots of this through the eyepiece of the microscope – the actual process was too slow – but she could envision the cells dividing in her head.  

It was this – the art within the science – that motivated Henrietta to keep going even when she struggled with her day-to-day lab tasks. It was, perhaps, what had drawn her into research all along – the beautiful images she’d seen in her college biology lectures had made her intrigued to find out more, to unravel the mysteries that were wrapped up in these images, even if at the time she had not realized that this was what was driving her. But the reality of graduate school research had turned out to be different than what she’d imagined – lately, she’d found herself counting and re-counting mitochondria, the topic of her thesis project, until she’d almost gone dizzy in the head. She’d plotted graphs of their different numbers and lengths, had demonstrated trends of mitochondrial networks connecting and reconnecting. And now her committee members were requesting additional biochemical proof of the trends she had found, and Henrietta had been dragging her heels, hoping that someone else in the lab would volunteer to do these experiments.

She could see the mitochondria in her mind’s eye: splashes of red weaving in squiggly lines throughout the cells. She’d first painted these mitochondria in a burst of creative expression at the local museum’s art class, and this had set off a chain of events that she found hard to believe even now. When she’d met Tom while preparing for one of the museum’s art shows, her painting streak had exploded. The first piece she’d made while visiting Tom in the mountains had been titled, “Gene Expression.” It had shown, from her perspective, what it might look like if genes tried to express themselves in ways other than becoming proteins. Since then, she’d painted mitotic cells, differentiating cells, and dying cells, depicting them as she saw them under the microscope.

Thankfully, Steve had not yet kicked her out of the lab and had even shown up at some of her art exhibits. Her frequent absences meant that she would probably never have a first author paper, but at least she was second author on Harry’s big Science paper. It was she who had found Harry’s cells when, after being left too long in treatment over the long weekend, they’d undergone a sort of differentiation process, turning from epithelial to mesenchymal, their edges elongated and ruffled, migrating like crazy across the dish. It was she who’d taken the time to document this change, to take a few pictures and to realize the potential importance of the cells’ metamorphosis. She could have just thrown the cells away, but she hadn’t. More than anything, she had wanted to capture their beauty, and she was certain that without her artistic proclivities, this new scientific discovery would have gone unnoticed.  

As Henrietta threw her final pipette into the Biohazard waste container and began putting away her bottles of media and trypsin, Rajiv walked back in, his face looking dejected.

“What’s up?” Henrietta asked, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. 

“Nothing,” said Rajiv, wincing. “I just – it’s just – never mind,” he said. “Everything is under control now.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Henrietta, certain that things weren’t under control. But she really didn’t have the time or the inclination to probe further. She had done what she had come in to do, and now it was time to get out and go home. There was just one folder of papers that she wanted to retrieve from her desk – some articles that she hoped would help her to write up the next part of her final committee meeting report – and then she would head back to her apartment for a nice dinner of leftovers in front of the TV, maybe even a glass of wine. 

“Have a good night,” she said to Rajiv as she switched off the light in the tissue culture hood and began heading out the door. Just before exiting, she turned around and saw that Rajiv’s hood was piled high with tubes and bottles, and she thought with a sympathy that was at once compassionate and self-righteous, that it looked like the poor kid still had a long night ahead of him.


After Rochele finished distributing her cell lysates into tubes and storing them away in the freezer, after struggling with the door of the freezer for several minutes, pushing against the shelf of thick, deeply frozen ice that was stuck to one of the inner drawers and seeing it finally release, after removing her gloves and washing her hands slowly and thoughtfully in the lab sink, she decided to spend a few more minutes on her presentation before heading home for the night. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Henrietta making an appearance one bay over, shuffling through a pile of papers on her desk. Rochele hadn’t seen Henrietta in a while, and she had wanted to ask her about borrowing one of her antibodies, but she didn’t have the energy now to start a conversation. In any case, Henrietta seemed a bit frazzled.

As Rochele sat down at her computer and started flipping through her slides, an alertness suddenly overcame her. She could feel herself being drawn into the figures and the words on the pages, and she wondered whether she had been missing something before. It seemed, now, that there was an interesting story here – that she had all the pieces, that she just had to connect them somehow. For the story, the one that she wanted to tell, the one that she would present at the department meeting, that would tantalize and rouse interest, even without a full set of data. There was a question here, a clear train of logic – she could sense it, feel it.

Yes! Rochele began typing frantically, her aha moment overtaking her. She knew what it was that she wanted to say, what she wanted to ask. There wasn’t a moment to spare. She had to get it all down while it was still in her head.


Bernard had just had a moment of despair. While waiting for his final gel of the night to finish running, he’d been searching Pubmed for other papers that used live-cell imaging to study proteins in his pathway of interest. When he’d scrolled to the last page of the forty or so documents that had appeared in his search, he’d come across a paper in which it looked like someone had done precisely what it was that he was planning to do – five years ago. It was in a somewhat obscure journal and the article’s title was not very relevant to what Bernard was working on, which would explain why he hadn’t seen it before. But there it was, in the abstract, unmistakable. Bernard couldn’t believe that he had been scooped before he’d even begun.

Bernard banged his fist on the table; noticed Rochele look up briefly at the noise, then turn back to her computer. F—, he thought. There’s probably something else that I can do with these constructs, but I’ll have to think about it.

He continued searching in Pubmed, feverishly scanning through abstracts as they came up. He was already beginning to think of a new idea. Labeling of endogenous genes was becoming even more hot now, and there were several new methods to do it, ones that were better and more reliable than the one he had been trying a couple of months earlier, shortly after joining the lab. Bernard was sure that he could get one of them to work for his gene, maybe even improve on existing techniques. He began scribbling furiously in his lab notebook, nearly forgetting about his gel. Luckily, he’d set a timer to beep when it was done. As he switched off the gel and prepared to take it to the imager, Bernard ran through his new idea in his head. 


Steve was puzzled by some figures in his presentation. Bernard’s western blot was simply not compatible with Henrietta’s staining experiment, or at least he didn’t see how it could be. In Henrietta’s experiments, the TRel protein bound to a mitochondrial factor that promoted cell survival, whereas in Bernard’s experiments, it appeared to elude that very binding and promote cell death. In previous presentations, Steve had found a way of weaving the two pieces of data into compatible stories while also suggesting that it was an unsolved question, but something about it was still bothering him.

There had to be an answer – perhaps there was just information, still, that they didn’t know. For now, any of his explanations would merely be interpretations of the data, and there were several possible interpretations. It occurred to Steve that maybe he didn’t need to figure out the true answer – that he just needed to learn how to be better at communicating nuance. The best scientists, the ones that got the money, the research grants, and the attention, were those who were the best at creating and delivering their scientific interpretations and stories. Steve knew this, and yet he wished it weren’t so. He wanted a biological reality that he could set out logically, cleanly.

He wasn’t implying, heaven forbid (though he didn’t believe in heaven), that those other scientists were fudging their data, or even worse, that the data itself were not real. Or that there was not an absolute scientific truth, based on measurable facts. It was just that he had become somewhat disenchanted with the scientific process and culture. He felt, lately, that the only way to get to the top – no, not only to get to the top, but to survive as a scientist at all – was to know how to be convincing. He used to think that the data would speak for itself; but really, the data needed a good lawyer. His own postdoc supervisor had had a natural talent at it, and it was that, as much as Steve’s own luck and hard work, that had moved Steve’s project forward to the point that he’d been able to get a faculty position at a university. Even so, he had not had his pick of the draw – that was the job offer, and he had taken it, making his then girlfriend, now wife, follow him to the other side of the country.  

Steve glanced at the clock: nearly 8 p.m. He had told his wife an hour ago that he was headed home. The puzzle of the TRel protein would have to wait. 

But as he gathered his things, he continued thinking about the TRel mystery. Maybe he already had enough information, and he just had to figure out how to piece it together. On the other hand, there were still some things that they could try. New experiments to be designed – and he’d have to figure out who in his lab would be willing to do them. 

Because even with all his jadedness, Steve knew that he wanted an answer. That once a seed was planted inside of him, that he would tend to that seed, go after it feverishly until it had sprouted into a plant. That he was driven by a burning excitement that made him question, made him want to find answers. That it was this that had made him become a scientist in the first place. 

Yes, he wanted to understand where this conflict in the data would lead. There could turn out to be a simple technical interpretation, or it could turn out to be something much greater. A paradigm shift, maybe, in the lab’s whole research program.

Steve snapped his briefcase shut and headed for the door.


A loud bang sounded from the far corner of the room, breaking the silence that had been previously characterized by only the low hums, beeps, and whirs of a standard evening in the lab. 

Henrietta looked up from the stack of papers she had been sifting through at her desk. 

Rochele turned around, annoyed at the break in her concentration that had finally allowed her to begin making progress on her presentation. 

Bernard flinched but continued the careful unwrapping of his gel from the running device.

Steve, about to walk out the door, stopped in his tracks, trying to decide whether he should see what the noise was or leave it to the members of his lab to deal with, since he was already late.

Rajiv rushed to the centrifuge. The lid was open – hadn’t he closed it? The machine had stopped, and his tubes were scattered all over the floor. Some remained sealed, but at least two had cracked, their pink liquid leaking out in dribbles. 

For a moment he froze, unsure of what to do. His experiment was ruined – or at least part of it was. He’d have to see what he could salvage. Why had this happened? He had made sure to balance the tubes – 

Or had he? There was that one extra tube – still sitting in the machine, seeming to glare at him accusingly – that had no partner. Had it fallen out, landed somewhere? Rajiv scanned the tubes on the floor, counting. An odd number. Had he really just done that? Rajiv wondered whether he should go and get someone or clean up and try to cover his tracks. 


Rochele tried to ignore the bang and go back to her presentation, but then she became worried, and knew she wouldn’t be able to continue working without going in to see what had happened. Hadn’t Steve just given her the job of babysitting Rajiv? And now she was going to just sit there, ignoring the possibility that he might have set himself on fire? Rochele rose from her seat and rushed back to the cell culture room, with Bernard close behind.             

She knew the culprit as soon as she saw the tubes on the floor: exploded centrifuge. Rajiv’s sheepish expression was hidden as he bent over, trying to gather the evidence, and Rochele didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, Rajiv’s experiment was probably ruined, and the machine was likely broken and unusable. On the other hand, no one was hurt, and no fires had been set. Rochele thought that maybe there was a lesson here: without balance, everything flies to pieces. She wished that she could share this bit of wisdom with the others, especially Rajiv, without it sounding condescending or trite.

“What happened?” Bernard nearly shouted.

“It’s okay,” said Rajiv, “It’s under control, it’s okay – ”

“No, it’s not okay…”  Bernard seemed to have lost his cool. “You’re endangering all of us by not running things properly – all the biohazards can leak out! A centrifuge is a machine that needs to be respected…”

Henrietta and Steve had both appeared at the entrance to the room. “What is going on?” asked Steve. Henrietta seemed to be unable to decide whether to cut her losses and slink away or join in on the fun.  

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Rajiv was saying. He wished that they would all go away. 

Spinning, spinning, always spinning. Henrietta was overtaken, suddenly, with a new idea for a painting. A pottery wheel, spinning paint in all directions… splattering everywhere… “The Centrifuge,” she would call it. 

Balance, thought Rochele again. It’s all about balance. And these people have none!

“OK,” said Bernard more calmly. “So, you know that you’re supposed to balance the tubes?”

“Yes, okay, yes!” said Rajiv, looking up. “You know, you guys have to stop being so patronizing. I don’t know what happened. I guess I messed up!”

“What happened is that you’re trying to do too much,” said Steve. Somehow, having a baby on the way these past months had softened him. He no longer saw things in black and white. There was no “good for the lab” or “bad for the lab.”  There was just “lab,” and a bunch of students and postdocs, dedicating themselves, each in his or her own way, to the pursuit of science. Working for HIM. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to jump up and down, sweep the tubes off the floor. 

“But Rajiv’s right,” he continued, not knowing where his own voice was coming from. “He’s got this. We all make mistakes. It’s part of doing science…”  

And then he was telling them all about the time, when he was a student and had nearly set his own lab on fire. He hadn’t realized the Bunsen burner flame was still on, had stuck some cardboard packaging right through it and watched as the shelves around him caught fire. The fire department had been called in, and his bay mate’s experiment had burned up into nothing. 

Henrietta started giggling; she couldn’t help it. And then they were all laughing, each recounting the times they had blown things up, dropped things, screwed up royally – or watched someone else do it. Bernard told about the stickers falling off into the liquid nitrogen in his ice bucket. Rochele described how a former colleague had once stored blocking buffer in a milk container in the lab coffee fridge, and someone had almost added it to their coffee. 

They told of lost tubes and contaminated cells and irreproducible results. They gripped their sides, all but rolling on the floor like the scattered centrifuge tubes. Talking at once, chaotically, randomly. But feeling, strangely, inexplicably…balanced.

Harry appeared – there was something he’d forgotten. He was followed by two of their neighbors from the lab next door who’d heard the laughing and had come in to see what all the commotion was about.           

“The ultimate imposter!” Steve laughed, pointing at Harry. “If it isn’t the ghostly Harry, gracing us with his presence. Harry, who publishes the top papers in the lab by being careless!”

“Hey, not careless, man – just carefree…” Harry did not want anyone thinking he was irresponsible, or unfairly lucky. He knew that his randomness had an order to it. That it was all, somehow, meant to turn out the way that it did; that his brain was behind his experiments, and that working wasn’t about doing more and more, but about doing the right amount.

“I’ve got it!” said Steve, leaning up against the lab bench, suddenly more serious. “I understand how TRel can both bind to the survival factor and elude its binding…”

They all stopped laughing. “What?”

“It’s an imposter!” he said, hurrying out the door. “Can’t talk now – I’m late. Really late. But I’ll see you all Monday morning, in lab meeting, when I get back from the conference! All except you, of course,” he said, turning to Harry, “unless you choose to make a guest appearance.”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Rajiv stood in the corner, surveying the situation. His tubes were cleaned up. After some fiddling with the buttons, it became clear that the centrifuge was not broken. It had ground to a halt, burped, and spit out its contents – as if expressing its unhappiness, its lack of balance – but it would take a lot more to cause it to break down. 

And he had discovered that his lab mates, boss included, were a crazy, happy bunch. He wasn’t sure whether he liked this or not – but for now, he knew he’d better accept it, since at least this time, it had worked to his advantage. 

Henrietta followed Steve out the door, no longer worried that he would delay her. She had new questions to ponder now: on cells spinning, spinning, and falling. And getting back up again.

Rochele went back to her computer and turned it off. Her presentation could wait until tomorrow. Her earlier epiphany was beginning to gel even further in her mind. Imposters. She knew that she could connect this idea of Steve’s, somehow, to her own story. A story of cells, and of experimenters testing those cells. Of the cells pretending to be one thing, but really being another. 

Will I cure cancer? thought Bernard. Probably not. But I will invent something great. 

Will I invent anything? thought Rajiv. Probably not. But maybe, just maybe, I will find a better treatment for cancer.

Will I make a new discovery? thought Rochele. Probably not, at least not today. But I will wow the department with my seminar.

Will I get a first-author paper? thought Henrietta.  Probably not, but at least I will have created some art and expressed my curiosity about life.

Will my next grant get funded? thought Steve. Probably not. But at least I had some fun trying. Because in the end – in our own ways – we are each doing this, no more and no less, for the love of science.

About the author

Deborah Flusberg has a PhD in cell biology and currently works in biotech in Cambridge, MA, USA. She has been dabbling in fiction writing since she can remember and is interested in the human elements that motivate scientific research and the interplay between art and science. She is equally passionate about photography; a sample of her photos and literary publication links can be found on her website,