Short fiction: What dreams may come

I can’t believe it.

The lab all around me is sparkling. Not just clean – sparkling. The floors are frighteningly free of those colourful stains, long-ingrained into the linoleum. The windows are virtually invisible and the view – oh my, the view! Beautiful green on one side, and a white sandy beach on the other. Oceanic caresses lapping onto the shore and the mellow sound wafting into the ambiance of the lab itself, tangible like a soothing balm.

And then the benches. Spotless. White. And – be still, my heart – fully-stocked. Brand-new pipettes covering the full spectrum of volumes are hanging off an actual commercial holder. Still holding onto that virgin, new pipette smell. And boxes of matching tips – full boxes, mind you, not some used, one-tip-inside affair – perfectly lined up before me, like little disciplined battalions awaiting my marching orders.

And so much more. My eyes can scarcely take it in. A selection of CDs – genuine titles, not disc images scrounged from don’t-ask-don’t-tell torrent sites. Posters on the walls – vivid, relevant, actually helpful signalling cascades, not some vintage SIGMA catalogue centrefold to cover the latest Bunsen burner incident. Regulated lights above – not too dark, not too bright. Anatomic stools. Knee space. Leg space. Space. Plugged-in appliances with electrical testing stickers on the cables. Properly maintained laminar hoods. Filled-in booking forms. Shelves with uniform SOP folders. Equipment from this century – from this year! And all of it, all of it, with my name firmly stencilled on.

My first PCR works. My first Western Blot works. Everything works. I forget what cell contamination looks like. My n’s equal a real three every time, not three out of thirty that “didn’t work”. Negative controls don’t do, while positives, well, they simply do. Test samples in between. My error bars are invisible even in poster-size graphs.

My tip boxes are mysteriously always filled and replaced. Waste and rubbish collected. Glassware is washed and put away. Orders arrive yesterday. Equipment is regularly maintained. My clean, properly labelled lab coat is always on the hanger assigned to me.

Even the PhD students know what they’re doing – wait! The undergrads?! When did they learn how to design an experiment? Properly?

I’m going to faint.

I’m sitting in my well-organised, spacious office, in front of my sparkling new 27-inch iMac. I could use my top-of-the-range PC, but at the moment it’s crunching data. And guess what? I’m writing a paper. Of course. So much good science, it’s got to go somewhere. But this isn’t just any paper – am I seeing right? – it’s a Nature paper. I’m not even 30. My inbox is full of key speaker invitations and collaboration requests, and I think I’ll pick that Bahamas conference – maybe just after that huge one in San Diego.

What’s this? Peer review? From Nature? Oh, it’s alright. All three peers just wanted to congratulate me on “outstanding research, and the cleanest, most innovative science this field has seen in years.” Thanks, guys, my pleasure – and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Of course, I miss spending time in my expanded lab now, but between six postdocs, ten PhDs and five technicians, the lab work’s sorted. I just sit back and watch the data roll in. Meanwhile, I have to decide how to best divide the new grant we just won. Or alternatively – I lean back on my comfy, anatomic chair- how best to begin that review that Science asked me to write for them. Or maybe I’ll leave that and prepare for the NewScientist interview… oh, I don’t know. A barefoot walk on the beach will help me decide. Watch the sunset and reflect on how fruitful, productive, and fulfilling my career in science has –

– whoa! I must ’ve leaned back way too far and my arms and legs flail about comically and then – hey! – I’m falling, and as I look down I see a semi-dark, kaleidoscopically stained floor come up fast and I hear my plastic stool fly off ahead of me and it knocks a quarter-full tip box off the overcrowded bench and it spills my last batch of yellow tips into the glassware that’s precariously balancing in the brim-full sink.

That’s when my elusive supervisor walks in – first time I’ve seen him in seven weeks – and looks at me, miserable, in my ragged lab coat, laying on the floor.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “Difficulties in research only make us better scientists. I have every confidence and faith that one day you will be an outstanding researcher and a great PI.”

I blink. “Prof?”

And then I woke up.

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