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Coffee first


Everyone in the dark office was relaxed today, but then again, people here were always relaxed. When she started her PhD, Samantha had expected everyone to be a little more agitated. They were doing cutting edge research here. At least an Eureka from time to time would have been her minimum expectation. But no, everyone just stoically typed away unless they were in the lab and she hadn’t had nearly enough lab time yet. Every day here started by staring at the currently scarce document of her write up. Samantha didn’t believe in cramming. She would finish this write up on time.

’Good morning!’ Samantha smiled at Lazarus, the other PhD students, when he passed her the coffee that he had made for her when he came in today. He made coffee for all of them every day.

Lazarus and Samantha shared their write-up area with the immunology research group, but apart from Rasmus no one drank coffee. Samantha had only learned Rasmus’ name thus far and from how often the others were at their desks, she wasn’t sure she needed to learn theirs. There were too many names in this building and she kept on meeting new people. It was a little overwhelming. She liked it better to keep to herself and doing that had enabled her to finish the entire literature review in about a month. Dorothy had been impressed and Samantha was proud of herself.

’Did you really finish your literature review?’ Lazarus asked as he pretended that drinking his coffee as fast as he did hadn’t burned his tongue.

’Yeah, I sent it to Dorothy Friday evening. Haven’t heard back from her yet. How far are you along?’ Samantha asked.

Writing the review had been hard and Samantha knew that Lazarus was a perfectionist. He would never submit anything that wasn’t practically ready for publication. No wonder he had finished his undergrad summa cum laude. His career had been the opposite of Samantha’s. She had arrived as a little bit of an outsider with an undergraduate degree from an unimportant small university abroad, less than impressive grades and no publications, but still, they had let her start her PhD without having to do a masters first. Academia was a strange place indeed and she was glad that she could be here.

’Just the introduction, the reference list and a couple of notes on each of the paper. There’s far too much stuff on heat shock proteins out there. Honestly, If I see one more paper that tries to entirely reinvent HOX genes, I’m going to scream.’ Lazarus grumbled.

Samantha almost snorted. Just like her, Lazarus loved the homeodomain gene cluster they worked on. Just because they had about a million miRNA to consider didn’t mean that they couldn’t get sick and tired of certain papers.

’Don’t be silly, you don’t know how to scream. Get back to modelling.’ She tried not to laugh, but the giggles were too much now.

Modelling the interactions was something Samantha didn’t dare too tackle yet, while Lazarus had loved procrastinating on anything by unsuccessfully trying to learn how the code they needed worked. They were far past the phase where it was perfectly fine to just punch 2L7Z into RasTop. Now they had to solve structures.

’I’d have to figure out how to use the algorithm first. Have you figured out how we can bribe Rasmus yet?’ He asked, almost cracking a smile.

Lazarus never smiled. At first Samantha just thought it was because she wasn’t particularly funny, but soon, it had become clear that he just didn’t like jokes.

’Why would you want to bribe me?’ Rasmus’ voice made Samantha jump in her seat.

Rasmus was a short man who loved the sandwiches his wife prepared carefully almost as much as he loved designing new antibodies. When Dorothy had introduced him to Rasmus and Samantha she had suggested they should go to him with all trivial modelling questions. Samantha hadn’t bothered her supervisor since that day except for the meetings required by her degree programme.

’Nothing. Do you speak Japanese? I have this paper that someone recommended and online translators aren’t helping.’ It was a pathetic attempt at a safe, but she really did need his help.

The paper seemed to be somewhat important judging from how many people referenced it. At least she hoped that it was.

’Nah, but if you have a Danish paper, I should be able to help you.’

He took the cup that Lazarus held out of him.’When are you guys going for lunch? I’m starving. The missus made one of those really good sandwiches again.’

The sandwiches that Rasmus brought with him every day always looked amazing and he pretty never shared them. He liked to joke that his wife made them so good to make sure than no other woman would ever be interested in him.

’How about lunch at 1? I want to try getting this bit of code right a little longer,’ Samantha said, earning herself a death-stare from Lazarus would looked like he was ready to jump out of his chair and run to the café.

’That’s fine with me,’ Rasmus said and sat down at his desk.

Most days, people from Samantha’s group ate lunch together. Dorothy and Lazarus were nice enough, but Samantha wasn’t too sure that she wanted to spend time outside work with her nervous boss and her silent colleague. Dorothy dropped her cutlery often, almost as if she was waiting for someone to ask her to leave the café. Samantha didn’t want to comment on it, just as she didn’t comment on the fact that Lazarus ordered exactly the same food in exactly the same sequence every day. Samantha herself never knew what to do. She sat down with her packed lunch, waiting for Dorothy and Lazarus to join her. Sometimes, Rasmus ate with them, but he didn’t talk much. Today, lunch was slightly less cheerful than usually. Samantha didn’t know what was going wrong with Lazarus’ literature review, but her own was beginning to be an exceptional piece of garbage.

’Sometimes, it’s as if crossing over goes wrong more oten than it doesn’t,’ Lazarus said.

Samantha didn’t know what to say. Objectively speaking, he was wrong, but after reading dozens of papers that all dealt with diseases caused by wrong crossing over and the lines of what was just a speculation in the conclusion and what was scientific consensus.

’None of us works on replication or cell division, Lazarus,’ Ramus said. ’You have to cheer up my friend.’

The more sympathetic he was trying to sound, the stronger his accent grew. It made Samantha smile a little every time it happened.

’It’s still just lit review time. We’ll come up with something we can do, don’t worry.’ Samantha wasn’t too sure whether she was trying to assure Lazarus or herself.

He took another bite from his sandwich and looked such as stressed and miserable as she felt. Their projects were kind of co-dependent. If they wanted any of their research to get published, they both had to succeed. One project on its own wasn’t enough to get into any journal that even had a barely acceptable impact factor. Samantha had already lost her hunger and she could see Rasmus eye the second half of her sandwich. She put it on his plate and mumbled something about having to go back to her simulation. When she walked back into the little office, she considered just making herself a coffee and play some Sudoku while her simulation ran. She didn’t want to think about what experiments she would run. They wouldn’t be approved either way. Lazarus had finished his designs before her and had suggested to Dorothy that he could get started on the experiments, but she had just given him some lame excuse for why his setup couldn’t possibly work. What if her criticism on Samantha’s ideas would be even harsher?

Author’s note

Ethics is the first instalment of Level 3. The Story is still a work in progress. Add it to you reading list and be the first to hear about new chapters. If you want to read about more women in stem, check out The Hyperspace Hypothesis and Precambrian Accidents.

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