I pace back and forth, down the length of my bench and back to my computer again. My fingers steepled under my chin in the sort of pleading prayer that surely even an anthropologist from Mars could recognize. I glance at the email inbox lighting my computer screen, spin on my heel and walk back down the bench. Past the rows of glass bottles filled with the unguents and potions that I have been applying in various proportions to tissue meticulously harvested from various sources for the past two years. I rake my fingers through my hair and fidget with the collar of my white lab coat, which feels like a garrote right now. The email I have been waiting for sits in my inbox, poised for me to hit one button and with a quantized blur of zeroes and ones, the fate of years of my scientific work and my esteem as a scientist will be revealed. The jury is in, not only on the meager experiments that have consumed my every waking thought for the past two years but on the ten years of groundwork, laid by everyone from Nobel laureates to those who came through this lab before me.
I truly stand on the shoulders of giants and the responsibility of what I have done with their hypothesis lies heavily on my shoulders. As the first author on the paper, I am the one responsible for many of the experiments and for the interpretation of the data, which at this moment, has been judged very harshly in a process termed “peer review” by three experts in the field.
Why can’t I do it? I am a woman of the Y generation, our motto being… Why wouldn’t/couldn’t /shouldn’t I? A woman my age can surely handle this just as deftly as we juggle work, family and social life. One other person knows the contents of this email, my advisor who has forwarded the missive to me. It is customary to first notify the last author on the list, who is termed the “corresponding author”. The corresponding author is usually the person who heads the lab and has procured the funds for the project. They will be there to account for you long after you have left to start your own lab. The other authors, the ones in the middle of the list, have contributed pieces of data, expertise on certain topics or valuable collaboration and will be the last to be notified. I take one more trip down the bench stripping away a tiny hangnail with my teeth, marveling at how I got to this point. The early stages of any project are fraught with excitement as one performs experiments all day in the hopes of resting easy on one piece of good news at night. Maybe you have finally calibrated that extraordinarily delicate instrument or maybe you have finally made the jump in the logical framework that leads you from your first piece of experimental data to the experiments that will build the bulk of your argument. When you return from work, weary at the end of a day that has been filled with squinting at the minutia of nature down the barrel of a microscope, you consume literature in vast quantities as if words themselves were enough to sustain your vital force. Making a comprehensive review of the work that has already been done can save you years of anguish simply by knowing what is not known.
The middle stages of a project are a vast flurry of data gathering. These are the nights that you simply cannot bring yourself to leave the lab and the couch in the break room starts to look appealing to you. The data is finally rolling in smoothly and you do not want to anger the PCR gods, so throw yourself on the altar of science as the sacrificial lamb and hope that it is good enough. With every fiber of your being dedicated to the data at this point you pray that your significant others can understand your fanatical devotion, and maybe even bring you a bite to eat once in awhile. Data can be a cruel mistress, seducing you into making fantastic claims. The thrill of knowing something that no one else does is heady and intoxicating. Emerging from the lab at the end of this stage leaves you in the confounding state of experiencing culture shock without having used your passport. Movies have come and gone through theatres, celebrities have gotten divorced or had babies, natural disasters have occurred in far flung lands and yes, the new president has been elected! What, you didn’t know? Enter the final stage, where the scientific imperative is on you to write so accurately about your work that anyone, anywhere, at any time can pick up your instructions and repeat your results. Luckily for me, the language of science, English, is my native tongue. The pressure to accurately transmit information across the communication gap is immense and it might occur to you that no one else in the family can make Great Aunt Sally’s apple brown betty quite like her. The normal gestation of a manuscript can be anywhere from two months to one year as you parse and prune each sentence into shape. Fish tales abound on this subject and every scientist knows a friend-of-a-friend who took either one day or fifteen years to write a manuscript.
Now you must also moonlight as an artist and as scientist-come-artist you have no formal training but you must paint your data into pictures pretty enough that they could tell the story of your work without the aid of words. The parlance of science is just as subjective as art and you are acutely aware that even DaVinci and Van Gogh have their critics. I sit down at my desk and take a deep breath to try to slow my irregular, pounding heartbeat. I am sitting in the exact spot where I have just spent the past several months incubating the document that I have sent to the people whose job it is to root out every logical flaw. To the scientist this is akin to sending your child on an errand on foot across the Autobahn. There is always someone who knows more than you do and the biggest fear is that one tiny initial flaw in reasoning has tumbled you down a steep slope into a logical wasteland, where everyone can see the forest but you, through the trees of your own data. Of course, you have aimed for a journal with an impact factor as high as you dare, hoping that this jury of your peers will find your work significant enough to accept for publication. Even if your work is deemed acceptable there will probably be suggestions of additional experiments you must do to satisfy all of the “what-ifs” before your work can be published. If your manuscript is rejected you will modify your impact factor expectations and submit to a “lower” journal to start the process of waiting and pacing again. I simply cannot wait any longer. I must know if my existence and scientific work has been validated. I steel my soul and click the button.