Decontamination

Never leave the incubator unattended.

That’s the first lesson they teach you when you start at the lab. I wish I had listened.

Thankfully, the explosion was contained to the one room. The building has been evacuated as per safety protocol, and the cleanup crew is busy decontaminating the area while the head of the department has me fill out a statement for the report. I’ve never felt so guilty in my life. That’s saying something.

I have a bad history of putting living beings in danger. I squashed my sister’s hamster as a kid, ran over my neighbor’s cat as a teenager, and lost my friend’s dog on the street in my first year of college. And now I’ve endangered at least a dozen human beings by accidentally unleashing bacteria all over the laboratory. Unknown, unpredictable bacteria. There’s no telling what damage I could have caused if I hadn’t been alone when the incubator burst.

The cleanup crew has finished their work and is filing out of the lab. I’ve been told it’s safe to go back inside. While everyone else leaves, I throw on my cleanroom suit and head in to grab my notes. As I pass by the busted incubator, I feel a horrible sinking sensation in my stomach. Years’ worth of research has been lost tonight, and it’s all my fault.

I open my notebook and flip to the last filled pages. I want to figure out what went wrong. Could I have set the incubator temperature too high by mistake? Was there a malfunctioning piece in the machine? Or is this all just happening now because bad luck follows me wherever I go?

A tear splashes on the corner of the page. I wipe my eyes as I take a pen from the table and scribble a quick note about the explosion. After replacing the pen and skimming through my notes one last time, I close the notebook and glance up at the clock on the wall. It tells me I’ve been here over half an hour, much longer than I’d anticipated. Better start heading out.

Replacing the notebook on the table, I hurry back to the adjoining chamber to remove my suit before I head out, but I stop just inside the doorway when I hear voices in the hall. They must think everyone has already left. Standing still, just out of sight, I listen to them talk about the incident. I recognize two voices: the head of the department and the director of the lab. The director is saying it was lucky no one was injured by the explosion, otherwise the consequences could be catastrophic. The results from the last lab mice test came back this morning; they’ve just discovered that the bacteria we’ve been studying induce a lethal reaction in the subject.

My heart starts to race and I break into a sweat, but I dare not make a sound. The department head asks if we should quarantine everyone in the building, but the director reassures him that the bacteria are not airborne; infection only occurs from direct contact with the subject’s blood. Even if anyone had been contaminated, they wouldn’t last long enough to spread the disease beyond this isolated research facility, as the infection is fatal within hours. The head of the department mutters a curse against “that damn clumsy student”. He wishes I had never set foot in the lab in the first place.

I’ve heard enough. Moving away from the door, I turn and hurry back into the lab. This time I don’t bother with the suit, heading straight through the door toward the notebook and pen on the table before making a beeline for the room on the other side of the floor. Tears return to my eyes as I rush past the broken incubator.

All your faultAll your fault

I’m no stranger to being cursed. Most people who know me end up wishing they’d never met me, usually after my bad luck causes them some sort of injury. Nobody likes me. Nobody ever wants me around. I don’t blame them. I’m a jinx, a curse, a disease.

You’re the real infection

I rush into the freezer and slam the door behind me. I lean back against the wall, open the notebook, and start scribbling words on the blank pages in the back, important notes to all the people I’ve loved and wronged. By now the tears have blurred my vision so much that I can barely see the letters anymore. Tremblingly, I rip the last page from the notebook and clutch it close to my chest. Now all that’s left to do is wait.

A strange calm overtakes me as I flip through my notebook for the last time. This is best for everyone, I tell myself. Everything happens for a reason, right? Yes, they’ll all be better off this way. Shivering, I get to the last of my notes, the secret of how some loose shards of shattered glass and metal struck me in the explosion.

My strength begins to leave me and I stifle a cough. I close the notebook as well as my eyes and pull my sleeve down, covering the gash in my hand where the glass tore right through my glove. This is how they’ll find me in the morning, tears frozen on my cheeks and a piece of paper clutched tightly in my hand, containing a single word that says everything…

Contaminated.

Beautiful World

Have you ever stopped to marvel
At the beautiful world you live in?
Pay attention to the life around you, and
Please take care to treat it with respect, for
Years from now, it may all be gone!

Environmental wonders can be found
All across the globe, from
Rainforests to deserts to oceans.
Today we celebrate them all, and
How beautiful our natural world is!

Don’t let this beauty be destroyed.
Always cherish the splendor of nature.
You have the power, so make a change today!

What If? Writing Prompts: Nature IV

It’s Earth Day this week, so let’s mark the occasion with some new “What If?” Writing Prompts! To spark your “natural” creativity, here’s a new set of prompts set to the theme of nature and environmentalism! What sorts of stories can you create from these ideas? Have fun!

What If - Parchment and QuillWhat if… all wildlife rose up in a revolution against humankind?

What if… one tree were planted for every person in the world?

What if… a global effort were made to end all pollution?

What if… the entire world population could be fed on sustainable food sources?

What if… only you had the power to save the natural world from total destruction?

Good luck writing more tales about nature and the environment!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

Surprising Science

Science never ceases to surprise me.

I’d have sworn my project was like any other of its kind: collect samples in the field, run DNA tests, analyze and discuss the data, write the paper. Simple as that. Ironically, evolutionary studies don’t usually qualify as groundbreaking, just substantiating at best. We’re all trying to support the same idea: that life is constantly changing.

I studied reef fish biogeography and evolution for half my years at college, so by the time I got into grad school, I knew their patterns pretty well. I didn’t expect anything different when I took on a project about yet another reef fish species. Evaluate its genetic connectivity along the coast, that’s all there was to it. My project was a simple matter of collecting specimens from different locations and comparing their DNA to get a picture of how it was evolving in a given biogeographic province.

Nothing out of the ordinary came up during the sampling and amplification periods. The surprise came when I analyzed the data.

I remember that moment distinctly. Exhausted from weeks of amplifying DNA, reading papers, and writing and rewriting the first parts of my thesis, I was finally sitting down at my computer to compare the sequences. I took a sip of coffee just as the program finally finished running the data… and almost spit it out at the sight of the phylogenetic tree that appeared on the screen. Where I had expected to see a single branch containing all my sequences, there were two separate clades dividing the samples collected from the northern and southern coastal regions. Two geographically close populations that should have been almost identical somehow had a 10% genetic divergence between them. Was that even possible?

An excitement like I hadn’t felt in years overcame me, but I still had to be sure. I ran the data again using three different parameters. All three trees produced the same result: North here, South there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yet there it was on my screen, plain as the nose on my face. The results were clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: I was dealing with…

“A new species?!”

I jumped up from my chair and ran next door to my professor’s office. Within the minute, I was showing him the trees on my computer and watching his expression change from puzzled to amazed. I knew exactly why we should be so excited by this result; it meant there were other evolutionary processes at play that we hadn’t expected. In anticipation of the stimulating discussions ahead, I knew the grin on my face wouldn’t disappear for at least a week. My project had just gotten way more interesting.

Science never ceases to surprise me. And I hope it never will.

Off The Bookshelf: A Fish Caught in Time – The Search for the Coelacanth

How about a new book recommendation for this year’s reading list? This one’s a little different from my other Off The Bookshelf entries as it’s actually a nonfiction tale, and a marine biology-themed one at that! I read this book last year for school, and I was so enraptured by this incredible true “scientific epic” that I had to share it on my blog.

So if you’ve never heard of the coelacanth, or you have but want to learn the details of its history, you’re in for a treat! I hope you’ll enjoy my review of this must-read book: A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg.

A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, by Samantha Weinberg

Summary

A Fish Caught in Time tells the true story of the coelacanth (SEE-luh-kanth), one of the most mysterious and fascinating fishes (yes, “fishes) in scientific history, as written by English journalist Samantha Weinberg. Originally published in 1999 by HarperCollins, the book recounts the events surrounding this prehistoric fish, from the shocking discovery of a living specimen (Latimeria chalumnae) in 1938 to the discovery and study of a second species (Latimeria menadoensis) 60 years later. The narrative relates these events from the perspective of the researchers who dedicated much of their time and resources to studying this fish, all of whom played an important role in the amazing story of the elusive “King of the Sea”.

Review

I read this book last year in preparation for a Vertebrate Zoology class I had to help teach as part of my Master’s program. My lesson was about the Sarcopterygii class of fishes, so my professor lent me his copy of A Fish Caught in Time as supplementary material for telling the story of the coelacanth. By the time I was done, I was ready to teach an entire semester on this one fish. I never thought I would feel so strongly about any one fish, but then again, the coelacanth is no ordinary fish.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the first modern coelacanth discovered (Latimeria chalumnae), 1938

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the modern coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) she discovered in 1938

To summarize, the coelacanth was long thought lost to history by the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out three quarters of the plant and animal species living on Earth (most famously the dinosaurs). It was known only by its fossil record for (almost exactly) 100 years, until, to the world’s surprise and excitement, a living specimen was fished off the South African coast in 1938. Over the next six decades, the coelacanth would be the focus of global headlines, political plays, and scientific rivalries, all the while remaining an enigma to the world that it continues to captivate to this day.

A rare example of a nonfiction story told in a highly narrative form, A Fish Caught in Time does an excellent job of capturing the majesty and mystery of the coelacanth while staying true to the history of its discovery and study. Ms. Weinberg paints such a vivid picture of this 60-year-long story that I couldn’t help but be completely drawn in, as if I were living the story along with the real-life characters: the excitement of discovering the coelacanth wasn’t extinct after all, the rush to find out where it had been hiding for the past 65 million years, the desperation to not only capture a living specimen but keep it alive at the surface, the awe that only a lucky few in history have ever known of watching this deep-sea fish swim in its natural habitat. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s impossible to read this book and not fall in love with the coelacanth!

Arnaz Erdmann swimming with the Indonesian coelacanth

Arnaz Erdmann swimming with the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis)

A fair note of warning: oftentimes the story focuses more on the researchers who dedicated their lives to studying the coelacanth than on the coelacanth itself. Readers who hope to gain an insight exclusively into the life of the fish may find this a bit off-putting, but then again, it hardly makes sense to attempt to recount the history around the animal without offering even a glimpse into the lives of the people who shaped that history. It’s much more than a story about a fish; it’s a lesson about what it means to be a researcher. It takes intelligence, curiosity, patience, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and an unrelenting passion for science, all of which shine through the pages of this brilliant narration of scientific truth.

Overall, A Fish Caught in Time is a captivating read that any science enthusiast will enjoy. I owe much of my appreciation for the coelacanth to this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a world of marine biology without being overwhelmed by the technicalities of it all. As quickly becomes evident from the first chapter, science doesn’t have to be fictional to blend well with creative writing!

Inspiration

I love science and I love a good story, but it’s rare that I get to enjoy both at the same time, or at least in the same book. A Fish Caught in Time offers an opportunity to glimpse the joy and passion that goes into conducting good science by presenting it in an enjoyable narrative format. Though much research has gone into understanding the coelacanth, A Fish Caught in Time never conveys that research in a manner too difficult for the layman to comprehend or appreciate, making it an unusual kind of literary gem: a scientific subject made accessible to the general public, that is, a community of non-scientific readers.

So if you appreciate science and a good story based on true events, A Fish Caught in Time may be just the inspiration you need for your creative writing! It certainly has been for me; in my opinion, there’s never too much writing inspiration to be found in science!

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