The calmest moment of my day comes when I walk through the park. The tall elms, planted by a foresighted, public spirited planner, form colonnades and avenues: fresh, intense green in late spring, gold in autumn. The Institute, ensconced in a hospital lies across the park, with splendid views through rare windows over its faux-meadows, forever dreaming of England. This walk makes my day.
Peter is at the lifts. He’s part of an army of volunteers who give their time to the hospital, helping patients, or simply manning the lifts. He’s been there for as long as I have worked there, longer. He smiles, and points upwards, mouthing the word “up.” I don’t even need to ask.
Belongings disposed of: no food is allowed in the PC2 labs, for fear of DNA escaping into the air and attacking our food items. Rush in. The day begins.
First things first: Check in with the boss. Are there any pressing items? Any extra experiments that must be planned for this week, or done today? The timetable I was forming in my head in my walk across the park is readjusted. The day is defined by the longest experiment, more often than not, a fluorescence assoaicted cell sort (FACS), where cells are stained with antibodies to determine or confirm various outcomes. For example, we use them to determine whether the cells we are studying express a certain gene or protein, or factor. We use it to check whether the cells are growing and proliferating, or dying when we treat them with drugs. The experiment has breaks in it, or incubations. The cells sit with the reagents for about half an hour at a time, leaving me with a break into which I insert other tasks – or a lunch or tea break. Everything else must be arranged around it – the other, shorter experiments, the maintenance work of keeping cells going, mice happy, the lab tidy. Science is the prosaic means by which we discover the sublime.
I don’t have to start the FACS experiment straight away. Not always. The cells we frequently use are grown in the lab, as sheets growing on plastic,or suspended in media. Less frequently, the cells are harvested directly from tumours. The tumours must be mashed up to separate the cells, processed to extract the cells we are interested in – either the tumour cells themselves, or the immune cells that infiltrate them. If I do that experiment, then the whole day is made over to it. But not today. Today, it’s a run of the mill FACS stain, by my standards at least. Two incubations, half an hour each, and I’m set. I can do many other things today.
My timetable coalesces as I read my email. Around me the lab banter continues, an endless stream begun some time past,it’s an ongoing conversation that’s added to, day by day, meandering from an original subject, which was probably a query as to where the magnetic beads were kept. The English PhD students and postdocs mock the recent loss of Australia to the Indian cricket team, on Australia’s home soil. The Old Enemy has never forgotten the sting of the first Ashes. “We’re just checking the H2N lines for expression profiles today,” was the brief. H2N is short for Her2neu