The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

27 January 2010

Strange Customs

I've long known that scientists are more superstitious than sailors, but I had to share this tidbit, which had me laughing even in the midst of grant writing purgatory.

Cloning is a molecular biology term, which basically means taking a bit of DNA, a gene we're interested in studying, and pasting it into a handy dandy tool called a plasmid. A plasmid is another piece of DNA, but one that we know all about and can control. We then use the plasmid to put our gene of interest into a new situation and observe what happens. This is how we discover if a gene is cancer causing: We put it in normal cells donated from a piece of skin or wherever and see if too much of the gene causes the normal cells to start behaving like a cancer. That's the just of it anyway.

Cloning is one of the most fundamental techniques, but not the simplest. It was the first thing I learned when working in a lab during my last year of college, and it took me an entire year to get it to work. A year. Despite the fact that 20 years have passed since then and all manner of new methods have been developed, cloning is still a pain. It is as fickle and capricious as the ocean and no amount of scientific exactness and planning can guarantee all goes smoothly. Thus, the elusive and unnamed "Cloning Gods" are often invoked.

In Seattle, towards the end of my PhD, my supervisor gave us all seashell necklaces from Hawaii to aid our cloning efforts. There was always the smile and wink about "magic" and "luck", couching it with "it can't hurt"--we were all logical, educated persons after all--but beneath the joking mask was a touch of real belief. You laugh off the Cloning Gods openly but privately whisper, "I didn't mean it." One of my colleagues even wore an aluminium foil hat during sensitive procedures to cancel out "negative thought waves". All in fun. Yeah. Right.

Today, I witnessed a slightly disturbing never-before-seen ritual among members of the secretive Molecular Biology tribe. Not even National Geographic has previously described these customs, so feel privileged. In the throes of cloning woe, a student and two post-docs oversaw the ritual beheading of Barbie as a sacrifice. There was lots of laughter, but many of us said, "Isn't that going a bit far?" --"My cloning wasn't working," the student replied, as though that explained everything. Yes, my anthropologically-inclined readers, ritual sacrifice did not vanish when the blood-drenched steps of the Aztec pyramids were swallowed by jungle centuries ago; it is alive and well in the sterile halls of academia.

There must be some way of using this in my writing? Perhaps an ancient, Dan Brown-esque, cult operating in a pharmaceutical company? Possible. Possible. I'll make a note and stick it in a file somewhere for later. Oh well, back to work. Thank goodness I have no cloning to do.


  1. You have won an award from my blog:

  2. Thanks Emma! I've just been browsing all three of yours, and they're terrific!

  3. Lorel, I just wanted to make sure you stopped by my blog - I have an award for you! (I read your post on awards - this is a new one that I created, and you just HAD to have one!) >^..^<

  4. A new one? Sounds exciting! I'm heading over there right now, Crystal.

  5. I love this post so very much! I will forever be snickering at one of my writer friends as she works her way through a master's program in genomes.

  6. Thanks Kimberly! Hope your friend has the favor of the Cloning Gods :)