Emmy the Entomologist

“Eleven”.

Emmy spat out the plastic tube attached to the glass needle. Still holding the tiny cold body of the mealworm between her thumb and forefinger, she scrabbled to locate the correct plastic cup.

If only she was better organised.

Selecting an unlabelled vessel in the sea of white containers on the bench in front of her, she plopped inside the larva, which had stirred from its refrigeration-induced sedation and begun wiggling. An ‘11’ was scribbled onto her open lab book to remind of how many injections she had completed, avoiding the unidentified moisture in the top right-hand corner of the page.

She slipped from her stool and un-popped her white coat, letting her lemon cotton sun dress see the light of day. The coat had cloaked it, making for a disconcerting attire comprising stiff lab coat, flip flops and apparently nothing else. The skirt swirled as she swivelled around the end of the bench and she smiled. Emmy had always valued academic qualifications with deep importance and here she was, studying for a PhD – the highest attainable level. In the present moment she was on her way to departmental coffee morning to see her bright, quirky peers; and wearing a pretty dress to boot. Life was good.

Her bench was at the far end of the lab by the window offering views of the waste collection area. This was the less desirable side; other labs overlooked the beautiful red-brick courtyard and fountain of the original University building. Instead, when Emmy gazed at the vista to summon inspiration she was often greeted by a reversing lorry and its insufferable beeps.

Bob Marley’s ‘Every Little Thing’ lulled from computer speakers, as it did every day; the lab’s definitive soundtrack.

As she walked down the room the door opened and Bill, who handled deliveries, repairs and generally everything useful, entered.

“Ah! Just who I was looking for.” He handed her a large, light post bag. “Fresh meat?!” he asked, eyes glinting.

Dammit.

A delivery of new mealworms to deal with, when she was already late to coffee.

“Oh – er, thanks, Bill” she grimaced.

His smile had altered from genuine to fixed and she realised that he’d clocked her footwear. Bill, amongst his many roles, was health and safety chief and she knew the rules about exposed feet. Especially in a lab like hers, dealing with live (often biting) test subjects and infectious microbes. She had broken the enclosed-shoe rule at the worst possible time, considering she had just been using sharp glass needles to inject bacteria into insects. But Bill didn’t need to know that.

She closed the door before he passed comment and hurried back to the bench. Upon opening the hessian bag the familiar earthy, sour scent that comes from a humid sack stuffed with live mealworms was released. She peeked through the dark at her new test subjects, crawling over crumpled newspaper in their sweaty temporary home.

They needed to be rehoused, which would require a cascade of time-consuming actions. The chance of there being a clean tank ready to go, on the shelf marked ‘tanks’ during a part-finished lab sort-out many moons ago, was next to nil. Therefore, after locating and washing one, she would need to line the bottom with rat chow, which was kept all the way downstairs in the insectary. In the probable scenario of the supply having run out without being replaced, it would take a trek up three flights of stairs to the cold room to fetch more. The final tasks would be to shake and peel the critters off the paper into their new kingdom, then sort provisions of chopped potato and test tubes of water stuffed with cotton wool.

Her nose wrinkled at the thought of all this mundane husbandry replacing a drink and natter with her friends.

Executive decision – do it later, she said to herself as she plonked the bag amidst the clutter on her bench and swanned off. Bob Marley sang his concurrence with her decision.

**

Thirty-five minutes later, Emmy sprung through the corridors of the department, revived by caffeine and a catch-up with her eclectic fellow students. The primary topic of conversation had been the latest exploit of a few of the girls, Emmy included: belly dancing. The previous afternoon’s class had been fun, but they declined the opportunity to showcase their new skills in the coffee room, as proposed by their male peers.

Emmy loved walking through the back corridors. The unseen bowels of the building. It still felt a privilege to be there, in the true heart of research; the parts of the University that had been largely out-of-bounds to her as an undergraduate. She passed the offices of revered professors. A mere two years previous, these people had popped up at the front of lecture lectures, offloaded a wealth of fascinating information, then disappeared again to await her best efforts in an exam paper. Doors each bearing a name of these wise, diverse individuals invoked a mixture of awe and imposter syndrome.

She reached the lab door, in good spirits and with renewed energy to give her practice talk in the impending lab meeting. Swiping her key fob to grant access, she hopped inside.

The hive of activity initially surprised her, until her brain caught up. Her research group would be assembling the essential ingredients for lab meeting, which officially started five minutes ago but rarely began on time. Preparations often included warming a coffee pot on the hot plate usually reserved for chemical reactions, given that the Nespresso machine in the boss’ office was temperamental. There was also the task of sourcing an appropriate implement to cut the cake, supplied by whoever was on the rota managed by Emmy.

Upon closer observation, however, it appeared the chaos was not of the usual variety. Postdocs and students were crawling around the lab, mumbling “here’s another” and “they’re everywhere”. Innocent and intrigued, Emmy rounded the bench.

“Emmy! Haha, the culprit.” It was the exact moment that Hans, a senior postdoc, spoke those words that the penny dropped. Emmy suddenly knew exactly what was going on.

“You opened a can of worms!” As Hans chuckled at his own joke, Emmy groaned into her hands.

“Gahhh! I’m so sorry!” She risked a glance at the bag of mealworms she had abandoned in her haste. The top was now firmly tied shut, thanks to a fellow scientist with more common sense than she.

Dom, whose workspace was adjacent to hers and who was the most laid-back person she had ever met, gave a jolly snort.

“No worries”. Nothing was ever a worry for Dom.

Over the coming days, both Emmy’s group and the more earnest entomology team sharing the lab would continue to chortle and tut, respectively, about the escapee worms – crawling over Petri dishes, hiding under dissecting kits and emerging from behind reagent tubs.

On the present day they repatriated as many of Emmy’s charges as possible and trudged en masse to the head of group’s office. Therein began the task of contorting five postdocs, four PhD candidates, an editorial assistant and three undergraduate project students into the room, in a layout conducive to sipping strong coffee, chewing messy cake and discussing latest breakthroughs and ongoing experimental challenges.

The Prof kept a mattress on the floor of his office for those assays that required through-the-night interventions and data collection points. The undergrads and Emmy usually plumped for the mattress, all wedged in and trying their best to ignore social conventions regarding physical proximity. A few others begged, borrowed and stole chairs of varying heights to cluster around the table and any remaining people perched on the wrap-around desk. Cosy and unconventional, yet functional.

Once everyone had folded themselves in, a postdoc produced a biscuit tin. A murmur of anticipation passed. However, as she shared out petite, neat fairy cakes, passionate controversy exploded. Homemade was the norm; shop-bought were chastised. These cakes were clearly of the latter origin.

When the fuss had given way to mastication, the Prof spoke.

“Right, Ezza, you’re up.”

Thankfully, Emmy was not called Ezza by anyone but him.

A jovial forty minutes commenced, during which her practice talk was delivered and dissected. She wrote furiously in her lab book to capture the advice offered. Voices competed for centre stage and disagreements broke out regarding whether her figures showed the most important data and whether her introduction was too boring. The group had a distinctive critiquing style, owing to them all having responded well the Prof’s ‘tough love’ approach and subsequently progressing to work with him. A standout piece of feedback from Emmy’s undergraduate days had been his red writing stating ‘I am losing the will to live’ alongside a particularly rambling paragraph. This no-bull method clicked; the more constructive criticism the better. It was the most effective and rapid way to improve.

She took the barrage of comments with gratitude – these busy, brainy people were taking the time to develop her as a scientist. At that time in her life, this was her dream and she could scarcely believe her luck that it was all happening.

Thus far, Emmy’s morning had consisted of coffee, cake, insect mayhem and intelligent conversation – and she couldn’t think of a better career to be entering.