Tracy Wang is a recent graduate of McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts and Science, majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology and also gaining a double minor in English Literature and Economics. She will be starting a Masters of Public Policy at the University of Toronto in the fall where she intends to focus on health policy. She is passionate about using her writing to bridge the divide between arts and science and is currently working on several projects, including a short story collection.
A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?
As I gently load my sample into the transmission electron microscope, I am hoping that this will be the last time I ever have to use this frustrating machine. The vacuum hisses, signalling that the scope is ready to use, a fitting reminder of how soulless this room is. With the lights off, I am drowning in darkness until the scope recognises the sample and my monitors turn on. I used to love using the scope and the excitement of seeing subcellular components in such fine detail, but getting all the data to complete my thesis has been a taxing process. I just want it to be over.
I slip into scanning mode and look for a cell to image, but a voice interrupts my search.
I turn to see a stuffed toy penguin wearing a sombrero, pointing his flipper at my computer screen. “That, there, what is it?”
While I am reluctant to acknowledge the impossibility of a talking toy penguin, I decide that conversation might make my work less banal. “That’s a cell.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, cells are the basic unit of life. All living things are made of cells.”
“Wow. And that round thing there, what’s that?”
“That’s the nucleus.”
“Oh, a nucleus; what does that mean?”
“The nucleus controls everything inside the cell. It’s like the cell’s brain.”
“Why are you moving it around so much?”
“I’m trying to find a cell to take pictures of.”
“Why can’t you take pictures of the cell we were looking at before? That one looked pretty.”
I struggle to simplify the complex genetic terms into simple concepts that he can understand. “That one was healthy because I replaced the broken bit of the cell with a good bit. It’s a complicated process called ‘gene therapy’. I’m looking for a diseased cell to take pictures of.”
After a brief silence, the penguin’s voice is shy in his response. “Oh. You mean it’s sick?”
“How did it get sick?”
“These cells come from a boy who was born sick. His mum and dad are fine, but when they had a child, their child inherited a disease from them.”
His jovial and eager tone morphs into a choked whisper. “He has always been sick…” The penguin falls silent as he processes this information and I can feel that he is troubled. He tenderly places one flipper on the screen touches the rim of his sombrero with the other where someone has carefully stitched the name “Benjamin” in black thread.
After a pause, I break the stillness. “Who’s Benjamin?”
“Benjamin is my boy and I am his penguin. These cells… these sick cells… they come from him.” He sighs and continues, “he comes home after school and he holds me and he cries. His hands and feet, they always hurt. His parents call it purr-ih-fur-all new-rope-thee.”
“Yes, that. The kids at school bully him because he looks different. He’s so sad, and I try to make it better. I smile and I hug him back, and I hope and wish that he’ll get better, but it doesn’t change anything.”
And then I realise, my work means something. My findings might lead into clinical trials for gene therapy that will hopefully one day help people like Benjamin. And I’m complaining about having to come in on weekends to finish my work. Wow, well that’s a big slice of perspective.
The penguin turns to face me and holds my hand between his flippers. “Can I ask you for something?”
He pauses, reaches out a flipper and places it against the computer screen before turning back to me.
“This ‘gene therapy’ thing… Do your best, okay?”
I look at the screen where I have framed the cell that I will image for my thesis and turn to the earnest face of the penguin worried for the welfare of his boy. “I will. I promise.”