Most people imagine a research laboratory as a blank, antiseptic place. But my mother’s lab was full of noise and sensation – the clicking of glass slides, the dank sharp stench of the autoclave down the hall. Ideas floated around, jotted on napkins or scraps of paper, pulled out of pockets and deposited onto my mother’s desk, awaiting transfer into her lab notebooks.
My mother worked for 30-plus years as a pathologist at an inner-city hospital and medical school. She spent roughly half her time as a surgical pathologist (reading slides, making diagnoses on biopsies) and the rest running a laboratory where she researched links between cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. She was a meticulous scientist, but methodical thinking was second to intuition. Mornings, she’d share an idea she’d had in the middle of the night with the enthusiasm of a gossiping teenager – if teenagers gossiped about peptides and western blots. Rules, too, required a creative response, and could be skirted where necessary. Food wasn’t allowed in the lab, but even scientists and lab techs get hungry. I remember my mother yanking open the door of the lab refrigerator and serving orange juice from a beaker with a huge, bright "CAUTION - RADIOACTIVITY" sticker on the side, which guaranteed that any visiting inspectors would steer clear of it.
I grew up seeing that the responsibility of good science was in fact a surprisingly messy thing. Science, like life, meant getting mixed up in complex systems: making thoughtful guesses fully aware that even slight tinkering could produce unexpected results.
The hospital where she worked was in a part of the city with high rates of drug abuse and venereal diseases. One day in the early 1980s my mother came home and sat us kids down. There was a new virus, she said, so new it didn’t yet have a proper name, but it was sexually transmitted and it was fatal – and as young as we were, she thought we should know about it. It would be years before my peers heard about AIDS, but where she worked my mother was already seeing people die.
My mother had originally wanted to be an OB/GYN, but in the end she’d chosen a specialty with a more family-friendly schedule and more basic science. Still, she wasn’t content to have patients reduced to cell samples. My mother liked to talk to the people whose biopsies she read. When possible, she would go into the clinic and offer to counsel patients – many of whom had little education and uneven access to medical care. After reading one particular girl’s slides, my mother asked the clinic nurse when the girl’s next appointment was, and went to meet her. The girl was poor, overweight, 15 years old and raised by a single mother. My mother spoke to her, first about her medical situation and ways to safeguard her health in the future, and then about her life. The girl had no interest in school; she planned to drop out as soon as possible.
It could have ended there – my mother could have retreated, pitying the girl, and returned to her lab. But she didn’t. She was born in Mexico, to Polish Jewish refugees who had fled Poland shortly after Hitler’s invasion. By the time her parents entered the United States, they’d been on the run for four years; largely because they were educated, they were able to rebuild their lives. Suffice to say, my mother grew up with tremendous faith in the value of education.
The girl was obviously bright; she asked thoughtful questions about her own medical situation. So my mother invited her to visit her lab. Whether out of curiosity or boredom, the girl took my mother up on her offer. Once there, the girl asked more questions. It doesn’t take much provocation for my mother to start an impromptu science lecture, and she soon taught the girl how to pipette, how to work at the bench, how to spin down blood. Along the way, my mother set to talking to her about education – and the importance of advanced education. That meeting led to others. Eventually, my mother hired her to work one summer in the lab. When the lab got its new computer, my mother donated the old one to the girl’s family.
It may be that the girl would have taken to science at some other juncture of her life—or that she could have wandered into anyone’s laboratory and felt at home. But I’ve always imagined it was the personal touch that made an inner-city teenager feel welcome to stretch her wings in the world of science. I like to think it might have been as simple as that beaker of orange juice that said Humanity is welcome here. I like to think, too, that the freedom my mother felt to make a little mischief in the austere confines of the lab owed something to growing up knowing she was alive because her own parents had lived by their wits – out-maneuvered sentries and officials, sneaked from one country to another under cover of dark. Rules had their place, but they shouldn’t be worshipped. Basic decency said people deserved the chance to leap borders.
When the girl was near graduating high school (she had abandoned her plan to drop out), she came into the lab and informed my mother that she had decided to go to graduate school one day. And she did. She went through high school and college, and earned a Ph.D. in biology. For years she sent my mother updates about her career, before finally losing touch.
Although my mother excelled as a scientist, her lab was not as productive as it might have been. Her research was impeded by the usual issues of funding and politics, and by the challenges of being both a doctor and a mother – a combination that was still novel. Her lab also was made less efficient by her tendency to invest time and energy in unlikely candidates. To give a faltering lab technician a second, third, fourth chance. I remember hearing my father urge her to fire an employee who was creating trouble. He was right: She eventually had to fire the man. But – my mother protested, until even she couldn’t ignore the evidence – he was an immigrant, new in this country and culture. Didn’t he deserve one more try?
Generosity might have slowed my mother’s research. But generosity is also a kind of experimentation. As my mother understood, it shares the same imperatives as basic science: Stay curious. Identify promising substrate. Intervene thoughtfully, and then stand back to see what happens.
Rachel Kadish is the author of novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. She lives outside Boston with her family.