Unless they happen to you, disasters are initially acknowledged as far-away abstractions. Yes, a terrible thing happened, but terrible things happen everywhere, every day. Any particular incident either slowly dissipates or lingers, depending on what direct relationship you can establish with it. 

An image of a lab
Academia could be a refuge for brilliant and productive minds, who would otherwise likely be institutionalized, in jail, or in and out of rehab

A plane crash for example. Where did it take place? Were there survivors? Why did it happen? Is it likely that you have an even vague connection to one of the unfortunate passengers? Unless the last question is engaged, whatever sad thoughts one might spare are unavoidably overtaken by others. 

So, when the Director overheard the news early in the morning, her silent prayer for the victims almost immediately gave way to a mental run-through of her very packed agenda for the day. Midway through the commute, however, the accident came back into focus, at first merely nagging, the suddenly in full force as the Director turned around and headed back home. That many passengers had been on their way to a major international scientific meeting was one thing. The clarification that this was a pathology-related event sent a shiver up her spine. Finally, the confirmation that a Very Famous Local Pathologist had been on board made that shiver turn to panic. Although the radio news anchor’s pronunciation was totally off, it could only be the Pathologist. And given that the vague memory of the initial news item, now recalled in force, had been clear on the lack of survivors, a change in wardrobe and a statement were in order.

Despite the botched pronunciation, the Pathologist would have liked to have been thus labelled, the Director thought. Very Famous Local Pathologist. He would perhaps prefer that the word “local” not be used but, despite mandatory hospital training, he still had no clue as to how the media worked, or why he should bother, and it was too late now. It was also too late for the Director to waste time regretting all the heated discussions they’d had throughout the years. Dealing with brilliant monomaniacs who are impossible to please, think the world revolves around them, and that no other research vaguely matters, was part of the job description.

Actually, the questions on her mind were simple. Had the two protégés gotten there already? And, if so, which one had been first?

There was absolutely no doubt neither would be grieving, at least fulltime. Their thought process was as clear to the Director as the cold and clear winter blue sky, while she quickly reviewed the hospital statement and approved press conference and memorial details stuck in traffic. She could not, for the life of her, remember any personal details about the deceased. Married? Children? A damned good asset was all he had ever been to her, and someone better look up all that other stuff so she could address it appropriately. Kids’ names, genders, ages, those things make for inclusion and a kinder picture in any similar situation, that much she did know. But that family was not the Director’s main concern, all due respect. The Pathologist had another family, his scientific family. And that family, more specifically the two tenured Principal Investigators that hierarchically sat right beneath their now-gone leader, was the Director’s focus. There was a succession underway, a heritage bounty with perceived spoils involved. The deceased would probably dispute all this, first of all because he would not acknowledge any hierarchy in his clinical research group that was not expressed as himself on top and all others below, at basically the same level. Secondly because, like all similar figures, deep down he viewed himself as immortal. Hardly believing that this was her current thought process, the Directed noted that had clearly not been the case.

 Regardless of his now-irrelevant mindset, the Pathologist would have been particularly raving mad to learn that his Biobank was to be placed in the hands of one of his two former star pupils, now (in theory) his right and left hands. Unfortunately, the Director did not remember which one; there were too many such feuds at the hospital. And, in the end, it didn’t matter. In previous meetings she did recall that the one who dressed in expensive suits was actually a left-leaning science-for-the-people-and-public-good sort of person, while the other one was in cahoots with Big Pharma and all about capitalism and value generation, although dressed like a past-their-prime hippie; but that was only because she had found the stereotype reversal amusing. All three of them were, however, not amused whenever the Director pointed out that the samples were actually the property of the patients first, and the hospital second. Especially the Pathologist.

It was understandable, in a way. He had started his sample collection many decades earlier, not quite before ethical approval and informed consent, but to be brutally honest, before any of that was taken seriously. Even now…the Director sighed, but that was a discussion for another time. At any rate, the “meticulous” nature of the Pathologist (colleagues used much harsher words to describe him) led to an impressive array of freezers, preservation jars, slide boxes and terabytes of data. He collected all the tissue he could get (from deceased patients, virtually every organ, not just those clearly affected), processed the samples so they could be used for different purposes (histology, sequencing, epigenetics), and paired the samples with detailed medical records that included not only diagnostics, treatments and outcomes, but almost every other aspect of the patients’ lives, some of which the Director was not even sure the Pathologist should have had access to. Regardless, before automation and electronics and artificial intelligence, he had amassed a potential scientific treasure. And he had put it to good use.

Employing his Biobank trove of well-characterized samples in almost everything the Pathologist did not only led to several large high-impact studies on different diseases (genetics, outcomes, lifestyle risk factors), but made himself into a world-renowned go-to person for government agencies, companies, societies. In all international consortia that anyone could think of putting together to test for anything in any disease, his name had to be mentioned. That was one of the reasons the hospital was on the map and had been so well-funded, as the Pathologist was constantly reminding everyone. That was also why he was now almost always on planes, giving keynote lectures, why he was on that particular plane, why the Director had to move fast. 

Luckily, this was not her first rodeo. There had been the neurologist who’d tried to sneak in a moving van during the holidays to remove state-of-the-art equipment the hospital had bought for him and planned to use to attract his replacement. That he had accepted a better deal for himself elsewhere without being fully aware of his new circumstances was not the Director’s fault. There was the transplantation guru who had gone to industry because of sexual harassment rumors, and had tried to publish hospital-owned data under the umbrella of her new employers. Right before they fired her for sexual harassment allegations. There was the retiring endocrinologist who switched off freezers and tried to delete all the data so that the incoming replacement he had not chosen would have to deal with a scorched-earth scenario. There was the junior cardiologist who had replaced labels and notations with her own undecipherable code, so her confused colleagues/competitors could not access the information. The list could go on, but there was no time for stories best served at (non-hospital-related) dinner parties. The key thing being that the Director appreciated the fact that academia (even clinical-based academia) could be a refuge for brilliant and productive minds, who would otherwise likely be institutionalized, in jail, or in and out of rehab. The problem was when they actually went that extra mile, and quirks turned into liabilities.

As is usual in these situations, the Pathologist had been a eucalyptus-type figure. He grew tall, sucking up water and resources from the land around him. While he was encyclopedic, both in knowledge and in the different types of projects he got the hospital involved with, this meant those on his team could never grow in any vaguely similar fashion. His current two ex-star pupils were actually not his ex-star pupils, but the “good enough” ones that had not moved on. Because, the Director knew, they were counting on something like this in order to take control and steer the research into the different directions each viewed as a priority. Not as dramatic an event as plane crash, perhaps; but regardless, they had been lying in wait for so long it was not fathomable they wouldn’t pounce immediately.

The Director jumped out of her car almost before it came to a full stop, and raced to the executive elevator she had berated as a fellow, but could not see herself living without as an administrator. Tucked away from the clinical setting, the Director breathed a sigh of relief in the silence still enveloping the research lab and Biobank this early in the morning, the absence of movement but for the people she had summoned on the way. The IT person to make sure all team member cards would no longer grant them access, the locksmith to change a few key locks just in case one of them fancied themselves a hacker, security to ensure that good old human brawn was in place if all technology failed; and the cleaning staff to mop up any blood, she chuckled to herself.

She had just finished giving out her instructions when a sound of shouting coming down the hall started growing. The Director recognized the voices: conveniently the duo had arrived at the same time, good for them. As for her, she would only need to have this awkward conversation once. There were guidelines and requirement lists being drafted, at some point there would be an announcement, and both were welcome to apply for the now-vacant position. However, they should be aware that there would unavoidably be a wide international search call, with a selection committee as knowledgeable, demanding and independent as the Director could manage. Because the prize was huge, and they should therefore get ready for very stiff competition. And, for now, a lock-out would be in place. Once they finished their unavoidable protestations, which the Director would understand as important for momentary catharsis, she would calmly remind them of the memorial they were all about to attend. And ask them to behave accordingly. 

Maybe she’d get lucky.

© João Ramalho-Santos. In memory of Milton S. Costa.

About the author

João Ramalho-Santos is a Professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and a regular contributor to LabLit.com. He conducts research in reproductive biology at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra, Portugal. His fiction has been published in Nature.