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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

The Big Disconnect by Louise Fabiani

In my entire time as an undergraduate in Biology, no encounter with science had as much influence on my life’s trajectory as my first part-time lab job.

The ad was for a “Clerk” in the psychiatry department, working with rats. Clerk? I pictured myself at a counter, distributing rodents to white-coated researchers. It turned out that Mrs. M, who ran the small lab for her husband, needed an animal caretaker. Actually, she wanted a rat “gentler”—something she could not have explained easily to the people at Student Placement.

Dr. and Mrs. M. studied neurophysiology in the rat model. Their work involved inserting very thin electrodes into the brains of hooded rats, then having them perform certain tasks. After “sacrificing” the rats, Mrs. M. would dissect the brains and fix them in paraffin. She sliced these in a microtome, like teensy, waxy deli hams.

The rats had to be accustomed to the human touch. That’s where the gentler—me—came in. My thrice-weekly cuddles would desensitize these nocturnal animals, dampening down their natural fear of bright light and new situations.

I liked the black-and-white study rats. I enjoyed fitting them into the crook of my arm while I stroked their ears, feeling their cool, clawed paws on my hands. I loved the babies—the new recruits—which were as soft and cute as mice. On the other end of the scale were the retired “grandfathers.” They scared me. I never had to touch them, but I dreaded being forced, by an emergency perhaps, to pick one up. Each was about the size of my family’s tomcat. Mrs. M. loved all the rats, cooing when she entered their cage rooms, and calling them her honey buns. I never saw her dispatch them. A good Biology student learns not to question that kind of death.

My comprehension of the, shall we say, inconsistency of her behaviour lay far ahead. On some level, however, it confused and disturbed me. I quit after six months.

I eventually graduated in Biology, but I never worked in a lab again. After nine years of self-directed, multidisciplinary study, I returned to school. In Environmental Studies I found support for my raw philosophical insights. I belatedly discovered why Mrs. M.’s single-minded inquiry numbed her to the fact that she caged, vivisected, and killed sentient beings she adored. That kind of reductionism is common in the life sciences.

Despite its many benefits, science in general has an undeniable dark side, or costs. Faster ships and sonar help catch more fish—but deplete the oceans. Painkillers that can alleviate suffering in some people create deadly addictions in others.

The failure to see the implicit cost of every exciting experiment or discovery can be described as the big disconnect. Avoiding it requires perspective: standing back to see the big picture.

I acquired a new way of seeing when I left the lab, but it may have depended on having worked there first.

Louise Fabiani is from Montreal, QC

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