A veteran of both the laboratory and the hospital wards, Helena said nothing, just closed her eyes briefly. She’d lost a lot of her patients back in her home country. She opened her eyes again and breathed deeply, keeping her expression calm.
“Wow, Mary,” she said quietly. “A Nature paper in one summer. Not bad.”
Well, yes, that would be the immediate goal. But what if it meant more than even a paper in a top-tier journal? What if this was about a lot more than my career?
Right then, we didn’t even dare say anything on that subject. Right then, looking at the first confirmation, saying it was just too much.
Sitting around at lunch, I’d asked the other students, “Hey, did anybody else here have to sign an IP contract?”
Nobody else knew what IP stood for.
“You know, intellectual property?” I clarified. “Like, if you discover something, they have the rights?”
Everybody else just looked around at each other as if to say, “I didn’t. Did you?”
It seemed I was the only one.
I knew Isaac was interested in me, but I had my reservations: he was much older, thirty-six when I was still a few weeks from my twenty-first birthday, and tall, handsome, and personable enough that his nickname in the Planck lab was “The Babe Magnet.” …Needless to say, though, I wasn’t exactly sure how serious his intentions might be or what people would think if I dated him. Unfortunately, the latter factor had to be considered even if he meant well, since it wouldn’t take much for people to cast aspersions on me (though not on him) as one of the few women around, and certainly the youngest… I could not afford to be mischaracterized as the blonde girl who was “working on her MRS degree” or sleeping around. People would tend to assume one or the other.
However long I live—which, for some recent years, I didn’t expect to be long but which might now possibly encompass a normal lifespan—I will never forget the day I first presented my results in lab meeting. I had been up all night, frantically processing my experiments and preparing my slides, revising my conclusions with each new result…
Now that I finally had Rh2, I prepared cultures of breast cancer cells for treatment in the range of doses I had seen researchers using in the published papers I’d read. The cells I was working with, called MDA-231, constituted something of an “eight-foot hurdle” for any new cancer drug, as B37 had…
I was having to contain my excitement at what I had just found after two years of laboring with a weak demethylating agent: now we had a nontoxic agent whose potency, in these preliminary findings, rivaled that of the toxic gold standard drug…
All four grad students, and a few of the postdocs, literally sat staring at me, open-mouthed, as I presented the results. Dr. Cromm was grinning like the cat that ate the canary.
I had to call home a lot, and when I told my father about the man in the parking lot, he gave that “latest news” to his business partner, who said – so my father told me – “Good God, get her out of there! They’re going to kill her!”
So my father told me to flee Greenville and stay with him and my mother in Desmond briefly before going to med school at Whitehead. I packed everything into my car that would fit, donated the rest, and, bizarrely, happened to see Dr. Cromm in his convertible with the top down as I was leaving town. We exchanged one last look I’ll never forget…
I mean, ye gods, I knew life was going to be bizarre because a) Cleary, b) female sex at Cleary, and c) major discovery in youth. You really don’t want to deal with d) all of the above. I’d had no idea initially how dangerous it would prove; still, it was unthinkable to stop until all possible options had been exhausted.
I concluded my story, or at least the thirty-minute version of it. Dr. Taylor immediately stood up, went to his phone, and started asking the operator for his top scientists, several of whom were not in town. Finally, he said, “Get me Edward Kirchner!” This was the head of the cancer center.
I sat on the sofa, stunned with joy and marveling once again at the great man’s shining integrity; he had not hesitated a second to do the right thing no matter what the drug companies might do in response. I was so overwhelmed that I was trying not to cry, and I couldn’t sit still. I started pacing around the room, lost in wonder that there was one unimpeachably good man in power, one to whom you could always and forever tell the truth and expect the truth and right action in return, one who cared so deeply for those under his wing that he had made time for a second-year resident on no notice and despite having one of the most packed schedules in the medical center.
That elation would last for a week; then I would learn that this was a man who had made time for a second-year resident on no notice, and despite having one of the most packed schedules in the medical center, one day after learning he had a terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis.