I’m one of the lucky expats who has followed his spouse to Sweden and found gainfully employment. Jill works for a research lab, and in discussions with them, found they need a ‘business guy’ to handle a bunch of the non-science things – organizing and running conferences, negotiating supplier contracts, doing website and communications updates, etc. Right up my alley, given my past experience. So a couple of weeks ago I started work, and while still struggling to negotiate the internal systems and subsequent bureaucracy – e.g. no phone line, no email address, no computer, who to talk to about this, where do I go for this, etc – I’ve pretty much fallen into the role and am getting by. Tickety-boo, as some would say.
However, one thing the lab also needs some help with is PCR. Not knowing what PCR is, I consulted the supreme authority on all things unknown – Wikipedia. It says “polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique to amplify a single or few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. The method relies on thermal cycling, consisting of cycles of repeated heating and cooling of the reaction for DNA melting and enzymatic replication of the DNA. Primers (short DNA fragments) containing sequences complementary to the target region along with a DNA polymerase (after which the method is named) are key components to enable selective and repeated amplification. As PCR progresses, the DNA generated is itself used as a template for replication, setting in motion a chain reaction in which the DNA template is exponentially amplified.” This is, as I’ve learned, one of the more basic procedures in the lab, so much so that a relatively intelligent monkey (i.e. one that doesn’t eat it own poop) can be trained to do it. In the absence of a trained monkey, however, they thought it would be “fun” for me to take this on, and to ease the workload of the far more intelligent primates. Although completely outside my area of expertise – my last taste of science being high-school physics and the odd episode of Myth Busters – I readily agreed. Finally, I’d have a direct understanding – albeit a limited one – of some of the work my wife does every day. It would be an added connection we share, an overlap in our professional lives. As with most things, this is great in theory, but wholly problematic in practice.
Jill has just spent the last hour walking me through PCR. It starts with a protocol, a set of instructions, of what needs to be done, what needs to be added, what needs to be done after that stuff is added, etc. However, being a fairly basic procedure for science types, the ‘protocol’ is only a few lines long, mostly just a recipe of weird ingredients, and filled with notations that are completely foreign. (Me: What the hell is an ‘ul’? Her: Um, that’s the notation for ‘micro liter’.) For them, running a PCR is like riding a bike – someone says ride from Karlaplan to Gamlastan, you can do it without being told to place one foot on the pedals, hold the handlebars, push off, place other foot on other pedal, move feet in forward-rotating circles, etc. Me? I need to be told what a bike even is. So I took to writing everything down. Label the tubes. Put them in a box, in order. Take the yellow pipette. Put on a tip. Hold in right hand. Pick up tube. Remember to blink. This is hardly an exaggeration, either – one small mistake and I could screw up someone’s entire experiment. No pressure.
One would say that learning a new task – e.g. learning to replicate DNA, which still sounds awesome – is a noble pursuit and a way of stretching one’s abilities. I fully agree. But then the reality comes in – here’s Jill, with her Ph.D. in Immuno-Bio-Science-Type-Stuff, trying (patiently) to teach her hubby the most basic of all procedures, and him looking like a poop-nibbling monkey staring blankly from a tree branch.
I’ve always said that Jill is far smarter than I am, and although she’ll politely disagree, she simply is. She has a capacity for knowledge that is astounding, can pick up language at a freakish speed, has a Ph.D in a thoroughly confusing line of study, and can knit. (I don’t know how to knit, so that skill fits the ‘ways she is smarter than me’ criteria.) But before, there was always an inherent separation, like two areas of a Venn diagram that never overlap. She had her work, I had mine, and never the twain shall meet. Now, however, I’ve stepped into her world, donned the lab coat, and am attempting something she can do (and probably has done) in her sleep. It’s put an empirical measure on an ethereal supposition. It is proof to what I’ve been saying all along – she is smarter than me, and I can prove it.
I don’t feel threatened by this at all, mind you. Instead, I feel like a knuckle-dragger. I jot down these seemingly elementary terms (Polymerase? Annealing?) and scurry back to my office to look them up (again, thanks Wikipedia!). Why, because I want to understand what I’m doing and not just mechanically follow each of the 1,023 steps? Of course. But also so I don’t sound like a fecal-munching monkey. I want to show her that I can learn this stuff, and more importantly I can understand it. I want her to feel like I have an interest in her area of expertise, and can in some small way demonstrate that by running a simple PCR – ideally without the 4 pages of notes and an open Wikipedia window in front of me.
She’ll always be the smart one. And the pretty one. I’m the tall one she keeps around to reach things on the top shelf. It’s our dynamic, and it works. Maybe if I do well, she’ll teach me something else to add to my expanding repertoire of scientific expertise. Or what side of the plate the fork goes on (even this monkey has some degree of etiquette). She’s got her work cut out for her…