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THE STAGIAIRE - Justen Russell


Illustration by Ciaran Murphy // http://ciaranmurphyillustration.com/

The Poster

The poster hangs on the wall of lecture hall C104, where Sarah McCallum is failing Organic Chemistry three times a week. She only looks at it to hide her tears from her as-of-two- minutes-ago ex-boyfriend.

Sarah thinks, “Everything is falling apart.” She thinks, “What am I even doing?”

The poster says, “Lost in Your Degree? Science Internships Abroad!”

#


An Opportunity

“It’s an opportunity,” Sarah McCallum tells her parents because that’s what they care about. They always say, “University is an opportunity,” and, “Don’t throw opportunities away,” also, “You can figure out what you want while getting a useful degree.”

Now her father says, “There will be more opportunities after you graduate. You are so close. Why add another year?”

Her mother says, “Maybe this will help her regain her focus,” which isn’t the sort of thing she usually says, but then her mother has seen the crumpled final exam in the kitchen garbage with nineteen red exes and only one checkmark.

In the end, Sarah’s parents agree. They even drive her to the airport.

“Eight months will go quick,” her mother says. “Take time to explore. You may never have another opportunity like this.”

“Eight months will go quick,” her father says. “Work hard. You will need a good reference.”

#


Mastering a Language

In French an intern is called a stagiaire. On the plane Sarah learns this and many new French words from a livre de poche called 100 French Phrases! Don’t sound like a Tourist!

She learns to say, “Une baguette tradition, s’il vous plaît,” which means, “Can I please have one of those long sticks of bread made in the traditional style.” Only later will she learn to say, “Une tradi,” like the Parisiens, which means the same thing.

She learns to say, “Est-ce qu’il y a un menu anglais?” which means, “I do not want to accidentally order a plate of snails.” Only later will she learn that snails taste okay if they are drowned in enough garlic butter.

“If only Organic Chemistry were as easy as French,” Sarah the Stagiaire says. “I’ll have this mastered before I land.”

#


Paris Syndrome

Paris is not a city of roses. Paris smells like cigarettes, unless you are near the Seine River or in the tunnels of the metro. Then it smells like cigarettes and urine. On the edge of a busy street, it smells of exhaust fumes from all the cars and motorcycles stuck in traffic, and of urine, but still mostly cigarettes. The Stagiaire hates that smell from the moment it hits her. She does not yet know that someday she will miss it and crave it and still hate it all at the same time; that thanks to that smell, she will never again be quite certain where home is.

She is still new to Paris, and she has much to learn.

#


The Fourth (???) Floor

The Stagiaire interns at a laboratory inside a fancy, glass building with elevators that say, “Quatrième étage,” out loud when the doors open on the fifth floor. She thinks quatrième étage means fourth floor, but the Stagiaire cannot argue with a machine. She will wonder, the entire time she is there, if the elevator is broken, or if she learned to count wrong in French.

#


Falling into Routine

Jeronimo the postdoc is the first into the laboratory every morning. No one knows the exact hour he arrives. The Stagiaire secretly wonders if he ever leaves. Jackie the master’s student says she often stays later than Jeronimo, but Jackie says a lot of things that aren’t true.

Remi the technician comes in second, if you don’t count the cleaning staff, and no one counts the cleaning staff except Mathieu the PhD candidate. Mathieu even knows the names of the cleaning staff and says, “Bonjour,” to them each morning.

The cleaning staff have many labs to clean each day and if they don’t finish in time the research institute might hire a robot that can—so they come in early, sweep the floor, empty the garbage bins, restock the paper towel dispensers, and then leave without saying, “Bonjour,” to anyone except Mathieu.

The other graduate students come in while the cleaning staff are still working. Xavier and Jackie. They arrive around ten, just in time to have coffee with Jeronimo and Remi. Lucas the bioinformatician walks past them all to sleep at his desk until noon.

The Stagiaire usually makes it in before the morning coffee break is done, but sometimes the trains on the metro stop for no reason, or for a reason that is only announced in garbled French. Sometimes the trains do not show up at the stations at all.

Dr Carine O’Brian comes in when she wants. Sometimes she is the second person in, before even the cleaners or Remi. Sometimes she arrives with the graduate students. Sometimes she doesn’t come to the lab at all. No one knows what she does those days, but she is in charge, so they don’t ask.

#


North American

In Canada, the Stagiaire thought of herself as Canadian and of how different that was from being American. She would say things like, “Canadians are less competitive than Americans,” and, “We say sorry all the time.”

In France she says, “Canadians are nicer than Americans,” but that doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say. Compared to France, Canada and America no longer seem so different. The Stagiaire starts to think of herself as a North American and says, “North Americans are different from Europeans.” She wonders how she will think of herself if she ever moves to China.

#


Paris the Beautiful

Everyone smokes in Paris.

The Stagiaire holds her breath as she walks past a group of students who are all smoking, and a smoking police officer, and an old lady who smokes a long narrow cigarette while her dog poops in the middle of the sidewalk.

The Stagiaire breathes in deep in the short stretch without any people so she can hold her breath when passing the café, with its half dozen tables along the sidewalk and the many people smoking while they eat their meals.

She sits near the window at her first party in Paris. The room is full of Parisiens and their cigarettes and their wine. They talk loudly about music and cinema and sex, and she wants to join in but they speak so fast, interrupting each other without any pauses, and the fumes are nauseating, and the window has a nice breeze.

A boy named Antoine joins her, his hair matted from a motorcycle helmet. He says, “I do not know anyone at this party, I just deliver the food, and then I see you. Would you like to know me?”

He speaks broken English as she speaks broken French, and he does not seem to care that she struggles with the words. He talks about music and cinema and sex, and also the protests and the economy. She does not even notice when he lights up his cigarette. He smells like Paris, she thinks as she clings to him tightly on the back of his motorcycle. This is Paris, she thinks of his room and his bed.

#


The Business Model

Jeronimo says science is a pyramid scheme. He says most of the work is done by postdocs like him. People who bought into the system hoping that they could someday have labs of their own, with graduate students to work for them. But there aren’t any new labs. Grants are only given to scientists who already have grants, and he will be stuck working in Dr O’Brian’s lab forever.

#


Twelve Shots of Espresso

In North America Sarah McCallum had a large cup of coffee each morning, and she savoured the bitter liquid slowly as it went from scalding to lukewarm. When she presses a button on the espresso machines in the hallway outside the lab, the Stagiaire receives only a tiny drizzle of dark brown liquid in a ceramic, shot glass-sized cup. She thinks this is stupid and brings her own coffee cup the next day. She presses the button twelve times until the cup is filled up properly and sips it all morning as she reads articles. She thinks coffee is a silly thing to be stingy about. It is a small act of rebellion, but her heart races into the afternoon. A second cup in, her hands begin to shake.

That afternoon Jeronimo says, “Can you pipette?” which means, “Can you move tiny volumes of liquid from one small container to another?” He asks the Stagiaire to try, her hands still trembling. Jeronimo says, “Maybe you should work with someone else.”

#


Pipetting

Pipetting is the Stagiaire’s work. For eight months she will move tiny volumes of liquid from one small container to another so that the science can occur in those containers. Sometimes she thinks she understands why she moves the liquids, and sometimes she does not. It really doesn’t matter. Remi has an old journal where someone else scrawled instructions many years ago. The instructions tell her how much of which liquid to put where and when. He flips it to different pages and says, “Do this,” and she follows the instructions as closely as she can.

The Stagiaire works with Remi for three weeks before Jeronimo asks her to try moving tiny volumes of liquid for him again. He has a journal full of instructions that is not as old as Remi’s, but the instructions are twice as messy and written over four times. She wonders what the word vortex means, and sometimes considers asking Jeronimo, but he already stopped working with her once and the science seems better when she just ignores those steps.

“You are my lucky charm,” Jeronimo tells her after each experiment.

#


A Global Citizen

Dr O’Brian grew up in Michigan but says, “Michigan is no longer home.” She says, “I never feel less American than when I am in America.” She also says, “I never feel more American than when I am in France.” She says living abroad changes things. “I am a global citizen.” She attended graduate school in Norway, and worked in Kenya, Uganda, India, Thailand, Switzerland, and New Zealand.

She says she will stay in France. “I like the attitude here. I have become too socialist for America. I don’t need to be rich if I have everything I want.”

#


Tools for Moving Tiny Volumes of Liquid

The Stagiaire has three different tools that she can use to pipette. There is an expensive piece of plastic called a micropipette, which has a dial and little markings that she can set to exact volumes between one millilitre and one tenth of a millionth of a millilitre, which is a fancy way of saying one tiny droplet of liquid to one very, very, very tiny droplet of liquid.

There is also the pipette-aid, an expensive piece of plastic with two buttons and a motorized pump. It can measure anywhere from half a millilitre to 50 millilitres at a time, or one tiny droplet of liquid to enough liquid to ruin all the papers on Xavier’s bench.

Finally, there is the T-BOT, which has a real name but is known by the thick black letters written across the side. It sits in the corner of the lab and makes the Stagiaire nervous about the future. She tells Antoine about it, and he hates it too. “You and I are very much alike,” he says.

#


Food-by-App

Antoine works for an app on his phone. He stands in a group, with other men who work for an app on their phones, smoking cigarettes until his phone dings and tells him that someone is hungry and what it is that they want and where it is that they want it. He rides his motorbike through the city, darting between cars and busses, and sometimes onto the sidewalk around pedestrians and dogs. He picks up fast food, or restaurant food, or groceries, or fancy wine. He cuts to the front of the line at all these places and waves his phone with the app, and they give him a bag of food to deliver somewhere else in the city. Sometimes after he delivers the food he stays for the party.

“Our job, it is the same,” he tells the Stagiaire. She moves liquids from one container to another, he moves food. Both of them follow instructions written by someone else.

#


Job Posting

There is a job posting for someone to establish a new laboratory at a university in Italy. It is looking for postdocs with “a good track record of publication” and “their own funding.”

“Great, so they want me to pay myself to work there,” Jeronimo says.

#


The T-BOT

T-BOT is the name of a company in Israel that makes scientific robots. One robot they

make is called the Autoflow HF1700 with optional reservoir attachment. It looks like a large espresso machine and has T-BOT written across it in thick, black letters. Inside the Autoflow HF1700 with optional reservoir attachment are 104 tiny pipettes that transfer 104 tiny volumes of liquid from 104 small containers to 104 new small containers and big robot arms that swap the small containers around at lightning speed. It doesn’t just move liquids faster than the Stagiaire ever could, it also moves them better.

When it is told to do something, the T-BOT does it, and it never misses an instruction. It never accidentally moves the wrong amount of liquid, and it never loses track of which tiny volume of liquid it just moved or which it should move next. It never takes breaks to press “next song” on the playlist it is listening to because a dud came up, or to stop and take the headphones out of its ears to gossip with Xavier or Jackie. It never wonders if it should ask what vortexing is, because no one tells the T-BOT to vortex, they tell it to [V++] dur=15 seconds and it vortexes, because [V++] dur=15 seconds is Robotese for vortex.

Robotese is why the T-BOT hasn’t taken the Stagiaire’s job yet. Robotese is a language made up by the T-BOT corporation and the only way to tell the T-BOT to do something is to write it in Robotese on the T-BOT’s little screen. It cannot read the messy instructions scrawled in Remi or Jeronimo’s lab books. Remi says he is too old to learn Robotese, and that the little screen is too small for him to see anyway. Jeronimo is too busy looking for new jobs.

Sometimes the Stagiaire thinks she should learn Robotese so that instead of being replaced, her and the T-BOT can become a team. Then she thinks of what Lucas is doing on his computer and knows that learning to program a robot won’t help. Someday soon someone less busy than Jeronimo will put a camera on the T-BOT, and someone else will write a computer code that can translate the messy instructions scrawled in all the lab books into perfect Robotese. When that happens the Stagiaire will still be jobless whether she knows how to translate for the T-BOT or not. There is no riding on the T-BOT’s coattails. The T-BOT is not a team player. The T-BOT is designed to leave humans behind.

#


Cartoon Cats

Dr O’Brian says, “The system is broken when you measure the success of an economy by how many jobs it creates. We should be measuring success in how few wants we have; not how many make work projects we can think of. If we, as a society, can afford to live in luxury while half our members have nothing to do but draw silly cat comics online, I think that shows us that we are doing something right, not something wrong. Of course, people don’t just have nothing to do, they find exciting outlets for their time and creativity. Have you seen this cute app that someone made? It lets you collect cartoon cats on your phone!”

#


The Bioinformatician

All the science from moving tiny volumes of liquids between small containers produces a lot of something called data. That data is sent to Lucas the bioinformatician.

He doesn’t really know what the data means, or how it was gathered, nor does he care. He just teaches his computer how to teach itself how to make the data beautiful. He calls it “machine learning.”

He says, “Good mathematicians don’t work with numbers; good computer coders don’t work with code.” Rather than tell his computer what to do, he tells his computer how to know if it is doing the right thing, then he sets it free. At the end he looks at the picture that represents data he doesn’t understand, describing the science he doesn’t know, and decides if he should make the computer do it again, or if he should give the picture to a scientist.

When he does, the scientists look at the picture and say, “Interesting,” when what they really mean is, “Can I publish this?” and if the answer is no they ask Lucas if he is sure about his model, which really means, “Can your computer make this picture prettier with the data I gave you or do I need to make new data to get the pretty picture that I want?”

#


Competitive Advantage

A micropipette costs €326.42. There are six on the Stagiaire’s bench, each to move a different tiny volume of liquid. A pipette-aid costs €490.61. Each small container costs only €0.31. The liquids that the Stagiaire moves between the small containers cost €0.10/litre, €5 280/litre, and €3 500 000/litre, which is why she moves only very small volumes of each of them. Moving liquids for one of Jeronimo’s experiments costs €1578.12. The Stagiaire only costs €1200 a month. A graduate student costs €2000. A postdoc costs €3500. Dr O’Brian costs €9150.

Cost is the Stagiaire’s competitive advantage. Each T-BOT costs €700 000 to buy, and a further €15 000 each year for a technician to fly from Israel to make sure it still works. But the lab already has a T-BOT and a contract with a technician. To run the T-BOT, the electricity costs only €0.49 a day. And the T-BOT never adds too much liquid. And the T-BOT always vortexes.

#


Graduate School

“I hope you aren’t thinking of going to grad school,” Jeronimo says. He tells the Stagiaire that there are no good jobs left. “After years of pain and misery in grad school I am stuck as an underpaid postdoc.”

He tells the Stagiaire that she should consider becoming an actuary.

He says, “My last intern wanted to be an actuary. If you become an actuary, you will make a lot of money.”

“My father wants me to become a dentist,” the Stagiaire says. He thinks that dentists retire early and spend most of their time playing golf.

“Dentists have the highest suicide rate,” Jeronimo says. She doesn’t know if that’s true, but the Stagiaire does not want to be a dentist anyway, and she doesn’t know what an actuary is.

#


Pain au chocolat

In Paris the Stagiaire asks for a “Pain au chocolat,” and a fancy baker called a boulanger puts a fresh pastry with bars of chocolate running through it in her hand. They look at her funny if she asks for a “Chocolatine,” but they still give her the pastry, and Antoine laughs and calls her a “Bouseuse” because Parisiens love to make fun of the people from other parts of France who call a pain au chocolat a chocolatine. She likes the way he does this, so she asks for a chocolatine every time.

There is a small boulangerie near Georges-Brassens park in the 15th district of Paris run by an old couple from Toulouse who do not look at the Stagiaire strangely when she says, “Une chocolatine, s’il te plaît,” because they understand that it means “I would like one of those delicious pastries with the bar of chocolate running through it, pretty please,” and it reminds them of how people talk where they are from. When Antoine asks for “Un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît,” which means, “I’m from Paris unlike this bouseuse,” they say, “Un quoi? Ce n’existe pas!” which means, “Stop being an asshole.”

Antoine says they are not very Parisien and will not want to go to that boulangerie anymore, but the Stagiaire thinks it is a very funny joke and will visit the couple from Toulouse frequently. When her parents come to Paris, she will take them there for a chocolatine and her father will say, “I can’t tell the difference. This seems the same as the pan-oh-chocolate.”

“Take another bite,” the Stagiaire will say. “They are very different. This is much better than a pain au chocolat.”

#

Internet Comics

The internet is full of web comics written by people who used to be scientists. Xavier checks three comics before he can do any work in the morning, and Jackie has a wall where she has taped up all her favourites. Even Dr O’Brian has a cartoon with a scientist cat on the front of her door.

“It is a good time to be a cartoonist,” the Stagiaire tells her parents.

Her dad says, “Being an artist is hard. Most make no money. You will have a good degree, and with it you can get a good job.”

Her mother says, “The grass is always greener on the other side. If you were an internet cartoonist you would probably wish you could be a scientist.”

It doesn’t matter because the Stagiaire can’t draw.

#


Peer Review

Jeronimo brings fresh pastries and wine to the lab. Dr O’Brian brings champagne.

Jeronimo says, “My paper passed peer review.” That means he is going to be able to pay a company to publish his science on their website so that everyone else who also pays the same company can read it.

“They only want minor revisions, one small control.”

He gives the Stagiaire a new sheet of paper with chicken scratch instructions written on it only once and says, “Can you do this?”

#


The Eiffel Tower

The Stagiaire and Antoine take the stairs up the Eiffel tower, not because it is cheaper but because it is something different. Antoine says, “You are seeing la tour Eiffel in a way most tourists do not.” There are a thousand million pictures of Paris from the lookout of the Eiffel tower, but none from the stairs.

She tells him that it is like being up there for the first time, and he asks when she went up the Eiffel tower before.

“Last week, when my parents visited,” she says.

“Your parents visited last week?” he says. He does not talk to her the rest of the way up the stairs.

When she asks, he says, “I will explain you why I am angry! Why you did not tell me that your parents were in town?”

“I told you I was busy,” says the Stagiaire.

“I was not busy! If you are my girl, I would introduce you to my parents when they come to town. I am not embarrassed of you.”

“I am not embarrassed of you,” she says.

“We do the same job,” he says.

“I am not embarrassed of you!” she repeats.

“But you told me you were busy when your parents were in town.” He takes the elevator down alone.

#


Job Posting

There is a job posting for someone to establish a new laboratory at a university in Germany. It is looking for postdocs with “a strong track record of publication” and mentions that the university is working to correct its “historic gender imbalance in leadership positions” so the advertisement “is particularly targeted to female applicants.”

“That’s not fair!” says Jeronimo. “It’s sexist! There aren’t enough positions to be limiting them by gender!”

“You mean it’s not fair that any jobs are given to women?” Jackie objects.

“They can give them to women if they are the best candidate. This is just as disrespectful to you! The last three hires here were for women to start laboratories.”

“And the fifty before that were for men!”

“There are more male postdocs than there are female postdocs. Since no sex is superior, we can expect the same proportion of either of them to be good, so it makes sense that more men get hired to start new labs. Now I will have to compete with women who are only half as qualified!”

“Everything was targeted to men when I found my job,” says Dr O’Brian from the next room. “With your new paper, I think you will do fine.”

Jeronimo turns red. He didn’t know she was listening.

#


The Control Experiment

The Stagiaire is no longer Jeronimo’s lucky charm. She follows his new instructions five times, and each time he is unhappy with the results.

He says, “It doesn’t make any sense.”

He cleans the dust off his lab bench and moves his own tiny volumes of liquid from one tiny container to another, but the results don’t make him any happier.

#


The Vortex

A vortex is a machine that mixes all the liquids in a small container. It is like a very small blender. Vortexing is very important to making science happen. If the tiny volumes of liquids are not mixed, the science does not happen the way it is supposed to.

#


The Restaurant

The Stagiaire meets Antoine at a restaurant that serves snails.

Antoine asks, “Why you did not tell me that your parents were here?” which really means, “What am I to you?”

The Stagiaire tells him, “I didn’t think you would want to meet them,” which means, “I would be nervous to meet your parents,” and Antoine hears, “I am not that interested in you.”

He says she does not respect him. He says he wanted to be more than a fling. Then he says adieu, which means, “I do not think we should see each other again.”

#


The Postdoc

“What have you even been doing this whole time?” Jeronimo is angry. “Were you trying to sabotage my work or are you just stupid?” He says a lot of time and money have been wasted because of the Stagiaire’s mistake.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t vortex the tubes. It’s right there in the instructions I gave you!”

#


Peer Review

Dr O’Brian says, “Science is not just moving tiny volumes of liquid between small containers. We have machines that can do that. If you want to be a scientist, you need to think about what you are doing and why.”

Jeronimo’s paper is unpublishable, and it is the Stagiaire’s fault. She says, “I should have asked what a vortex is.” She tries not to cry.

Dr O’Brian says Jeronimo should have supervised her better. “You are a stagiaire. You are here to learn. He should have been teaching you why you were doing things,” but Dr O’Brian is not happy. She asks, “Did you learn anything while you were here?”

#


Goodbyes

There are different ways to say goodbye in French. Au revoir means until we see each other again. One can also say à demain, until tomorrow, à plus, until later, or salut, which like aloha means both hello and goodbye.

Then there is adieu: until God. Adieu means goodbye forever. Adieu is heavy. Adieu is meaningful. Adieu is sad.

Dr O’Brian says au revoir at the end of the summer. She says she is sorry that things didn’t work out and the Stagiaire couldn’t have her name on a paper, but she also says, “There aren’t enough women in science,” and, “I wouldn’t want your career to end like this.” She says that after the Stagiaire has finished her degree she can come back as a graduate student, “if you want.” She also says she is sorry for not watching what was going on more closely, but “it’s a learning experience for us both.” The Stagiaire wonders what she has learned.

#


Home

Sarah McCallum, no longer the Stagiaire, buys a book at the airport for her eight-hour flight to Toronto, and the four-hour flight from there to her hometown. She thinks, “I will have plenty of time to read.”

She opens the book, and flips through the pages, but she doesn’t read it. Nor does she watch any of the many movies available on the small screen attached to the back of the airplane seat in front of her. Mostly, she stares out the windows and thinks.

“I am going home,” she says to the person sitting beside her, but that doesn’t seem right, not completely. Something has changed, and Sarah wonders if that something was her and she missed it.

Her time in France has left a bitter taste in her mouth, but like coffee in the morning. Sarah McCallum has never felt more awake. She doesn’t know what comes after her degree any more than when she left, but this doesn’t scare her like it used to. She still has time to work hard and become The Scientist, if that was ever what she wanted, and live all over the world like Dr O’Brian did. There is also still time to learn how to draw cats.

Eventually she closes her book and puts it away. “I’ll read it on my next flight,” she tells herself, because there will be a next flight. She will start looking for another opportunity the moment her feet touch the ground. Of that, alone, she is certain.


 

As a scientist, Justen Russell has worked in many fancy, glass buildings moving small volumes of liquid from one container to another. Living in Paris, France with his wife and infant daughter, he still somehow finds the time to write. You can find links to all his published stories at www.justenrussell.com.

2 Comments


Waters Charlie
Waters Charlie
Jun 10

We expect you to take notes. But Dr. O'Brian isn't pleased about it; he should have been explaining to you why you were doing things. What did you take away from your time here, she inquires? coreball

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Fauly Matrix
Fauly Matrix
May 28

Now her father says, “There will be more opportunities after you graduate. You are so close. Why add another year?”

snow rider 3d

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