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Techsploits

Pipette Bitch Blues

By Annalee Newitz

ON BAD days, Toby described his job as "pipette bitch." For various reasons that he preferred not to think about, he'd dropped out of an experimental graduate program in computational biology at a prestigious Northern California university. With no interests other than computers, a few select hormones and science fiction novels, Toby was perfectly poised to work as a low-level researcher in yet another lab where the muckety-mucks studied genetic tagging. And so that's where he found himself most days, holding his trusty pipette over a box of clear gel attached to some electrodes.

Sometimes, he would obsess over whether his hand was trembling too much to squirt the pipette's contents into the precise, tiny cleft he'd opened in the gel. Or he'd become intensely worried that he'd let the gel to run too long. But usually, he thought about nothing at all. He didn't achieve a Zen-like state of pipette-mediated calm. There was no enlightenment. He simply immersed his entire consciousness in the tiny movements of his body, the precise measurements and procedures.

During breaks, Toby would peel off his latex gloves and head for a hidden spot between the pebbly outer walls of the lab and a giant shrub. Once comfortably invisible, he would light a joint and stare at his fingers: slightly dusty, slightly pruny from sweat and perfumed with a sharp rubber smell. Pot was the perfect drug for a pipette bitch, he mused. It kept you focused and calm; it stilled the caffeine trembles in your hands. After almost a year of unbroken routine--pipette, pot, pipette, pot--Toby realized that he could spend an entire 24-hour period without ever having a single, extended thought. Of course he was directing his own actions, and phrases would drift across his mind like "It's time to eat now" or "I really should take a piss." But he didn't have the kinds of multilayered or complex ideas that he used to have back when he was hacking hormone pathways in graduate school.

The situation would have been sad if it hadn't been so funny. Here he was, a hypereducated twentysomething, his whole life before him, and his supposedly professional middle-class job had turned his brain into nothing more than a basal ganglia.

So Toby decided to use his neocortex. He started reading newspapers again. Instead of using his breaks to take a hit off whatever half-finished joint he could find in his wallet, he would surf the net on his laptop. The most absurd thing he discovered--aside from a social networking tool called Orkut--was that according to all the usual news sources, his job was HOT. Supposedly Toby was at the center of an economic revolution in biotech. The most wanted jobs of the new millennium were in genomics; Bay Area cities were developing vast office parks full of wet lab-ready spaces and special cold rooms for all the code-crunching clusters. Journalists who had once written clueless stories about sticky websites during the dotcom boom were penning enthusiastic odes to proteomics and bioinformatics. Apparently, a cure for cancer was around the corner. Also, limb regeneration would be easy in a few years, just like gene therapy for liver disease. Toby started to long for the days when he stood, utterly stoned, with his pipette in his hand and nothing in his brain. He started to get angry. How could these morons say that working in biotech was so terrific when it had turned him into a zombie? And what kind of scientists would tell journalists that they were on the cusp of regenerating the brains of Alzheimer's patients?

It made Toby feel like he worked at McDonald's: the plastic gloves were practically the same. But more important, there was a practically unbridgeable gulf between what he actually did for a living and the hype about it. Reading the papers was like looking at one of those glossy ads suggesting that women kicked off welfare would have great futures if they just took jobs at fast-food restaurants. Look at our shiny kitchens! Full of happy people in hair nets and gloves making toasty burgers and crispy fries! Fast food is at the center of the restaurant economy! Just like biotech.

Gritting his teeth in an agony of cynicism, Toby lost control. His pipette pierced the gel, releasing a tiny squirt of DNA spooge into the wrong spot. He'd have to pour another gel. Sighing, he realized he couldn't cook another fucking french fry. It was time for another job.


Annalee Newitz (cynic@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who says to hell with the lab.


Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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