Artifact

She did not want to disturb the rats. Breathing “Lullaby and Good Night,” trying to keep the wire cage in her arms steady, she walked down the dimly lit hall. The lab equipment was turned off for the weekend and there was no sound except for the soft, slapping noise of her slippers and her low song. Occasionally a rat lifted its head and sniffed the air.

Lottie worked in a pair of cutoff dungarees and a T-shirt her Gross Anatomy class had given her, which showed the muscles of the chest and back labeled in Latin. Her dark blonde hair was twisted and piled up on top of her head with a test-tube clamp.

The radio said it was the hottest August night since 1945. On the highways to Long Island and the Jersey shore the traffic had been bumper-to-bumper all day, the cars bulging with sun umbrellas, baby carriages, bicycles tied to roofs. After dinner when she had walked toward Central Park in search of a breeze, the close streets seemed to her vacant and forlorn. The charged life of the city dimmed in August. Most of her colleagues were on vacation; during the day a few technicians came in, the department secretary, occasionally a worried graduate student.

She liked being alone in her lab in the hushed city, undisturbed by the rhythms of others, a pleasure she didn’t experience often now that she had small children again. Davy was two and Simon was five and they were wild, bucking things. Her 18-year-old, Evelyn, usually had friends over who sat in Lottie’s study working on her home computer or making clothes for college on her sewing machine. Her husband, Jake, had private music students weekday afternoons and on Saturdays. And in August his 14-year-old daughter, Ruth, blew in from L.A. like a small low-pressure front that brings a storm. She danced for and cooked with her dad, pointedly ignored the boys, and took pokes and jabs at her stepmother. Lottie tried not to poke or jab back, and she certainly never said what she often thought: Fly away, little girl. Go home. Disappear. She tried to schedule a major experiment every August.

On the counter the caged rats shifted restlessly in the moonlight.

She switched on the tensor lamp at the dissecting table and the light above the sink, tied herself into a faded green surgical gown, drew on a workman’s glove, and ran the cold water. She slid open the lid of the cage, gripped the nearest quivering animal, and lifted it out. She raised the paper cutter blade and positioned the animal’s head on the platform, his squirming body just off the edge. His pink feet kicked the air. He began defecating black pellets, urinating in spasms on her glove. She brought the blade down crunching through the bottom of his neck. The head lay on the platform. Lottie held tight to the body, which continued to struggle, spraying blood through the open neck. Her cheek was suddenly wet. Thrusting the body under the cold water, she held on until it quieted and stopped. Then she dumped it into a plastic bag, and laid the head on the dissecting table. She shook the glove off and, taking up the scalpel and forceps, dissected out the sublingual and submandibular salivary glands, easing them into a beaker of fixative. She washed her face, barely seeing its wavy dim features in the tarnished paper-towel dispenser, and reached into the cage for the next rat.

She liked to set a rhythm, do what had to be done steadily and speedily.

The smell of blood was in the room now and the rats knew. They squawked in their cage even before she touched them and no matter how firmly she held on they wouldn’t lie still. In the air-conditioned room she was sweating.

Lottie had been intermittently irritable the last few months, ever since a microscopy journal that had solicited a paper from her had sent it back for extensive revisions. She had developed new techniques for spotlighting each organelle of a particular cell in the salivary gland, the function of which no one understood, although it was implicated in several diseases, one of them fatal.

She had been intermittently irritable the last few months, ever since a microscopy journal that had solicited a paper from her had sent it back for extensive revisions.

The journal’s referees had savaged her paper, from the typing to the heart of the work: she was not describing the actual cell at all, nor the real components of the mucus, but only the distortions created by the very techniques she was advocating. One critic finished up:

This paper is not acceptable for publication since it is replete with accidental and random findings. It is no more than a collection of artifacts.

She had read the lines twice, then crushed the critiques into a ball and stuffed it into the bottom drawer of her desk.

A month later a small grant proposal of hers was rejected; she’d heard from a colleague in Washington that if only she’d cited a few papers by committee members or invited one of them to give a seminar at her place . . .

The following week her chairman phoned. He had heard about the grant and thought it was unjust. She was one of the most productive people in the department with a bibliography second in length and quality only to his own. The graduate students stood on line for her seminars. She was innovative, she was creative. Unfortunately, he had bad news for her himself.

“No promotion,” Lottie said.

He was terribly sorry. She must be aware she was on a frozen budget line. Actually they were all small animals caught in a glacier, if he could speak for a moment from the paleontological point of view. The state was cutting back funding, NIH was tightening its belt, there was nothing he could do. Next year it would be a different ball game; she could rest assured he’d go to bat for her then.

It was the third year he’d handed her that wilted bunch of metaphors and her husband told her to sue. “It’s discrimination against women and you’re just sitting back and taking it.” He cited a microbiologist, a woman well known in her field, who’d said in a recent New York Times article: “Women scientists have two choices: bitterness or foolishness.”

Lottie said she wasn’t famous enough to make resounding judgments, and if she let herself get involved with lawyers, she wouldn’t get her work done.

Jake said, “At least go to the grievance committee. There must be a grievance committee. What do they call it—human resources. We need the money.”

“I’m not licking ass.”

“Who asked you to lick ass? Go in and yell. You’re not yelling. You only yell at me.”

Her paper was never far from her mind. The editor had heard her deliver it at the cell biology meetings in Cincinnati six months before. The referees were independent of him; still there shouldn’t be such a disparity in their opinions. Could her oral presentation have been so much better than her written one?

Her papers were almost always published, but they were invariably sent back for rewriting. Meticulous in conceptualizing problems and running experiments, she was impatient when it came to presenting results, as if to linger over the final draft made her a cosmetician or an interior decorator. In her diagrams she rarely labeled everything that needed labeling; she expected her typists to correct her misspellings and not add any of their own; and she wrote up her conclusions in a matter-of-fact way. Colleagues would take some obvious point and polish it up, surround it with five or six true but tried ideas, in the public domain, then pass off this rearrangement as dazzling new stuff. She came with the real thing in a crumpled brown wrapper. And she did it emphatically, as if there were virtue in such a presentation.

There are quite a number of typing errors, etc., which I have marked in pencil . . . A significant problem with this paper is that the description of the author’s methodologies is far too skimpy. We are not told the source of the glutaraldehyde; the osmolality of the individual fixatives; the length of time these were applied . . .

Many of the objections to her paper were of this order, but there was also at least one major substantive disagreement. Her point had been that different fixatives and buffers preserved different aspects of the cell, just as various epochs in history brought out various aspects of human beings. One should choose a fixative and buffer according to those aspects one hoped to illuminate. The referee wanted her to use other fixatives and buffers, claiming that hers damaged the cell contents while the ones he suggested would preserve them “correctly.” She knew they would just do different damage.

Another referee objected to her manner of sacrificing rats. She had killed them first and then dissected out the salivary glands and placed them in fixative. This referee thought that in the few minutes between death and the fixative, the glands underwent permanent distorting changes and hence what she had reported was “mere artifact.” He wanted her to inject the fixative into the living animals. Early on, before deciding on her current method, she had in fact killed a few rats by fixing them alive. The results were no more “natural,” and the technique took more time and was more unpleasant.

To get the paper published, at least in this journal, she would have to run the whole experiment through again, probably several times, killing rats in a variety of ways, using a number of unnecessary fixatives. It would be tedious. She was working on another project. Rats didn’t grow on trees, nor technician time. Her chest tightened as she thought of going to the department business manager, that cheery bureaucrat, justifying the cost of each rat to him, putting her crumpled referees’ reports in his hands. She felt like punching someone.

In the end she phoned her chair and cajoled and shamed him into giving her the money out of the department slush fund.

Then she typed each of the referees’ objections on a separate sheet of paper and taped them to her lab walls. As the results came in, she posted them on the sheets, in black ballpoint if the referees were right, in red magic marker if she was right. Her handwriting was large and flowery, full of bold swirls and curlicues, and she often had to add several pages to the original one in order to fit everything in. By the end of that hot July the walls were festooned with poinsettias and bright clusters of holly berries; the place looked like Christmas. She had two colleagues check her work, although she intended to run it through once more in August. Lottie cheered up.

Running a bath for her sons (she was wearing shorts, had her foot in the tub water, testing it), she imagined bits of letters to that editor who had twice urged her to revise and resubmit.

I regret not answering earlier but I have been immersed in an important experiment.

The boys, covered with washable finger paints and standing by with gunboats and water pistols, jumped in and sent the water level over the top.

I have not answered sooner because I have been flooded with requests for this particular paper and am considering sending it to the International Journal of Cell Research instead.

As she bathed her boisterous blue and yellow sons, she refuted each objection the anonymous referees had made. She scrubbed and rubbed and rinsed them back to flesh color. She toweled them dry, handed them off to Jake, then sat down at the computer and typed out a letter to that editor:

Beyond all the verification and justification of my techniques are two issues that are fundamental. The first is the whole point of the paper, which the reviewers seem to have missed: namely, that there is no “correct” morphology of the granules in this gland, but rather that the fixative, buffer, and additive combination will determine which constituents will be preserved, which destroyed.

The other issue is philosophical and has to do with the concept of artifact. It should be clear to anyone with experience in this business that all one ever deals with is artifact, and that one’s skills in creating and interpreting artifact are largely the measure of one’s abilities as a morphologist/scientist. From my perspective the issue is not, is a given structure artifact? But rather, can the conditions under which a given artifact is produced provide information about the actual nature of a particular organelle that cannot be analyzed in its natural form? We are dealing with a biological equivalent of the uncertainty principle, and all fine-structural morphologists and cytochemists should be aware of that.

Jake brought her a cold glass of seltzer with a piece of lime.

“Everyone asleep?” she said.

“You kidding?” He kissed his wife’s damp forehead. “Tell me when you’re done,” he said. “All the stars are out.”

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Excerpted from Artifact by Arlene Heyman. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.