Early experiences in science

April 27th is Tell-a-Story Day. It is also what would have been my Pop’s 71st birthday. Time for another story with him.

Pop did his PhD in the mid- to late-Seventies, on the topic of cocaine. Specifically, the study looked at the effects of coca leaf extracts on the physiology of rats, as a way to understand the metabolic effects of coca leaf chewing. I have no idea how this esoteric topic would or could have interested him or his supervisor, or anyone in mid-Seventies Winnipeg for that matter. But this topic became a topic of our household during his graduate studies, as he spent long days, nights and weekends at the lab, my mom spent long days typing and retyping his thesis and associated drafts and papers, and all of us heard about his work and university politics, topics which would eventually become commonplace (but never uninteresting) in my own work and career.

Pop’s research lab was in the Faculty of Pharmacy, a small building dwarfed by the surrounding science buildings on the University of Manitoba campus. We didn’t visit there often as kids, but I remember the long straight-through hallways and the strange state of abandonment of the building – there was never anyone there, but perhaps that’s because we were only ever there on weekends. From my current experience, academic labs haven’t changed much in 40 years. Back then, the stools and chairs were wooden or metal rather than the current plastic and vinyl, and the lab benches were marble or granite rather than formica, but the overall combined sense of clutter and emptiness are the same.

I remember going to the lab one Christmas Day (lesson: research doesn’t take holidays). It was after present-opening and breakfast, and before the extended family arrived for supper. Pop had to go collect some data and samples, so we bundled up into the yukon yellow VW Bug and trundled off to campus. That drive was and is so familiar to me, I could have walked there by the age of ten without getting lost and I know I can still find my way from that neighbourhood to campus without a second thought. Cruising past the bell tower at St. Paul’s College, we likely sang one of Pop’s odd driving songs. From his early university, a song about drinking in the cellars of good old St. Paul’s (“shout out your orders loud and clear: ‘MORE BEER’”). And this treasure from the movie “Cool Hand Luke“:

I don’t care if it rains or freezes 
Long as I got my Plastic Jesus 
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car 
Comes in colours pink and pleasant 
It glows in the dark ‘cause it’s iridescent 
Take one with you when you travel far 

Get yourself a sweet Madonna 
Dressed in rhinestones sittin’ on a
Pedestal of abalone shell 
Goin’ ninety I ain’t scared-y 
‘Cause I got the Virgin Mary 
Assuring me that I won’t go to hell 

Into the lab we went. Christmas Day so the place was more abandoned than usual. I recall heading upstairs to the lab, and from there into an interior room with no windows, a big sink…and cages with rats. I’d heard about this part of the work, but not ever seen it live. (Caveat: I know animal research labs today are much different in so many respects. This took place 40 years ago – times were different.) To my 9-year-old memory, there were maybe 10-15 animals in the room. It was not noisy or smelly or scary, just odd, like something I might have seen in the movies. I was free to wander around but admonished directly to NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. Pop was collecting blood samples from a few specimens and checking on the food, water, etc. He donned a pair of big, thick, rubber gloves and proceeded to open a cage drawer, reach in, and pick up the rat by its tail. I was fascinated by how big it was, how unappealing the long, pink, hairless tail was, and how docile the animal was (drugs…d’uh). He collected the sample from a spot near the tail, and then placed the animal back in the cage. He asked me if I want to touch one (likely a violation of even the laxest of animal control policies, even then) but I declined. He collected a few more samples, then we went back to his lab and desk, and he sat down to log his samples and make some notes.

I wandered around a bit more, looking at the lab coats draped haphazardly on the backs of high stools, the racks of test tubes, the strange stainless-steel sinks with weird taps, the high shelves with bottle of powders and pills and various liquids in dark glass, an entire wall of glassware in a glass-fronted case. Unlike the labs I see today, this one was totally devoid of equipment. In these pre-computer days, everything was paper-based and analog – lots of rulers, pads of graph-lined paper, pencils, little steel stirring sticks (I remember Pop used to have a half dozen of these in the pocket of his lab coat all the time, even years later in his own dispensary). The room was eerily quiet, but that must have made for peaceful reading, writing, and research.

Soon, Pop was done and we re-bundled and re-trundled home. I felt like I’d seen a secret, special part of his world. Now, whenever he was off at the lab, I could picture his desk and the lab and the animals. It felt like an extra Christmas present, that visit. A glimpse of a strange world where discoveries happened. Pop talked frequently about science and research and his work, not with a lot of detail but often with a lot of confidence and passion, and that visit gave me the sense that I might one day understand that.

Years later, as a student myself at that campus, I revisited the building a few times on my way to or from (or sometimes instead of) a class. I might have been seeking that sense of confidence and passion about science since my actual classes were not providing it, and was unsure what I would do beyond school. I could have been drifting down memory lane, seeking a familiar place (much as I did in my years at St. Paul’s College, still a location with beer in the cellars). Possibly, I was looking for that past and that man that I didn’t really know or understand any more. Once, I went into the small library in the building and found his thesis. It was too dense and technical to read much of, but the acknowledgements section included a bittersweet dedication that, at the time, I couldn’t read past.

I have since learned to understand the confidence and passion of scientific research, albeit a few steps removed from the lab and the bench. I’ve also learned better and safer lab and animal practices, which make me shudder when I consider the relatively primitive set-up I saw as a girl. My fascination and admiration for those toiling at the bench has not diminished, and I will always be grateful for Pop’s enthusiasm for the subject and for him sharing that world with me.

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