The Result of Research
I’m not going to bore you with five more years’ worth of college stories…because it wasn’t until we were all in graduate school that things really started to get interesting. Because that was when we first heard about zipper theory. And, although we didn’t realize how important it would be at the time, a little thing called Project Chaney…
The college did end up shutting down for ‘reorganization’, so we all ended up at the university in the fall and then we all just sort of stayed there. We shared dorm rooms and eventually an apartment, which we ended up keeping all the way through graduate school. Pete headed for Silicon Valley after he got his Master’s, but Joey and Dave and I were sticking it out to get our PhDs – Joey in biology, Dave in biochemistry, me in genetics – and we’d all three agreed we were too cheap, too lazy and too comfortable to move anywhere else so we just turned Pete’s bedroom into an office/lab and stayed where we were at.
Zipper theory was still considered by a lot of people to be pretty much theoretical around that time, and a few of my professors had dismissed it outright as scientific wishful thinking. Which didn’t endear them to me, or me to them, since it was the topic I’d chosen for my dissertation – which I’d been working on as a joint project with Joey and Dave, since our three specialties and zipper theory go together like peanut butter and jelly. My advisor wasn’t part of that group, though, and he’d even suggested that ‘my team’ and I might want to attend a conference that was coming up, a conference where one of the speakers was going to present his own findings on the subject and possibly talk about a government-funded experiment in practical applications. So we went. The guy we were there to see, a stereotypical-looking middle-aged scientist, glasses and thinning hair and nervous mannerisms and all, didn’t make an appearance at the conference until he walked up to the podium when it was time for him to present his paper. He and his team had come at things from a slightly different angle than the one we were taking, so it was interesting to hear how they’d done things even though a lot of what they’d done on ‘Project Chaney’ wasn’t really applicable to the research we were doing. Especially since, even though he never came right out and said so, it became pretty obvious pretty quickly to anyone who knew anything about biology – or old horror movies – that their project’s final test subjects had been human. Their lab had applied zipper theory to human DNA to create a human/animal hybrid, and it had worked.
Sort of worked, anyway. He said they’d been forced to destroy all of their test subjects due to ‘behavioral adjustment issues’, and when people had pressed him about that during the Q&A session he’d refused to talk about it and had eventually just walked out when they wouldn’t let up. Everyone else had wandered out after that, at least half of them calling the guy a bad scientist or a liar, but I’d noticed that the guy had left his papers at the podium so I went up and got them. It was just his notes for the presentation, but he’d also left his flash drive behind so I tracked him down to the hotel bar to give it back. He thanked me and pocketed it. “Do yourself a favor, drop out of college and become a butcher or a plumber or an auto mechanic,” he said, looking at his drink and not at me. “Doing science for a living is a fool’s game. Your employers won’t listen to you and your peers won’t believe you, even when you offer proof.”
I shrugged. “That’s not just a problem in science. Some people are just too caught up in their own thing to pay attention to anyone else no matter what they’re talking about.”
“True.” He drained some more of his drink with the air of a man who already knows he can’t get drunk enough to make it all go away. “I can tell you have a question.”
“I do,” I admitted. “But I didn’t come in here for that, because I wasn’t sure it was a question you could answer. I’m curious about what animal you used as the modifier for that last group of test subjects.”
“The wrong one,” he said, glancing over at me. I think he expected me to be irritated by that answer, because when I wasn’t he shrugged and went back to staring into the amber depths of his drink. “The one they selected was G. gulo, it had…desired traits.”
I swallowed, hard – I mean, I live and research with a biology major and that particular animal is our university’s mascot, so I know what a Gulo gulo is. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I told him, and then I got out my wallet, fished out a bill and put it down on the bar. “I know you don’t want company, so your next round’s on me.” And then I turned around and left the bar without another word. I could feel him watching me, but I didn’t turn back around – not only could I tell he wanted to be alone, I really didn’t want to talk to him anymore anyway. I caught up with Dave and Joey and we went up to our hotel room, and the minute the door was closed and locked behind us I shook my head. “Holy crap, guys…they used a wolverine.”
Dave’s eyes went wide. “No, nobody would be that stupid…”
I shook my head again. “He said ‘they’ – as in not him – selected G. gulo because it had ‘desired traits’.”
“Nobody who knows a god-damned thing about animals – or humans – would say that,” Joey maintained. “Why the hell did he go along with it?!”
“No idea.” I shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t feel like he had a choice? Or maybe he really didn’t have a choice, I don’t know. This is a government project we’re talking about, and they’d already green-lighted human trials.”
“Yeah, he may have been in too deep to get out,” Dave agreed. He sat down on the foot of one of the beds, running a hand through his hair. “Holy crap is right. So when he said the test subjects had to be destroyed…”
“…He meant they had to be destroyed.” Joey sat on the end of the other bed. “There’s no way they could have kept them, that’s for sure. I can’t believe the guy actually told you that, Danny.”
I shrugged again. “I think he probably needed to tell someone. I bought his next round, I’m sure he needs it. He was in the bar when I caught up with him to return his flash drive, he told me to give up science and become a plumber.”
“Ouch.” Dave’s hand went through his hair again. “Okay, well, I’m sort of glad we know, and I do kind of feel sorry for the guy…but we are never going to be that stupid.”
“Or that desperate, or that trapped,” Joey agreed. “Private lab or become plumbers?”
“Private lab or we’ll all go work for your uncle,” I corrected. After the fire in our dorm, I’d spent the summer – and a few other summers after that – with Joey and his family, working for his grandfather’s landscaping business. Grandpa Louis was gone now, though, and the business had been inherited by his mother’s younger brother. “Between the three of us we could probably engineer some custom plants for him.”
“He already asked,” was Joey’s answer. “I told him no to faster-growing grass, but I said we might think about mosquito-eating flowers.”
“I’d be willing to think about mosquito-eating flowers,” I agreed. “But until Pete gets the bugs worked out in the software, we’d be flying blind and possibly create a triffid.”
Oh yeah, you probably thought Pete had run off and left us in pursuit of some sweet, sweet Alphabet money, didn’t you? Nope, he just took off to pay his working-for-the-Man dues in his field, but we were all four working on this thing – Pete was designing the software that would let us more accurately predict how a genetic modification would work out before we tried it with an actual test subject. We were already using the third iteration of his prototype by that point, and I can honestly say that without Pete, the company we went on to form would probably never have become successful – because with Pete, we had a clear advantage over everyone else who was dipping their toes into practical applications of zipper theory.
We’d quite obviously had an advantage over the scientists assigned to Project Chaney. And we know that for a fact, because the first thing we did when we got back to our apartment after the conference was warm up the software and plug in H. sapiens and G. gulo, just so we could see what they’d done. This was before the software had imaging capabilities, but even just going off the raw data…it wasn’t pretty, believe me.
The next year flew by, because we were working our asses off. There was a sense of urgency for us; people already active in the field were looking at zipper theory, and we had a feeling it was going to be one of those things where whoever got there first was going to walk away with all the money. So we researched and tested and argued until we agreed and managed to hit all of the goals and deadlines our advisors demanded from us…and somewhat surprisingly, we started to get some pushback. Some of the genetics people weren’t sure they liked biology horning in on their territory, and vice-versa. Some people didn’t like our project because it involved animals. Some people were okay with our project involving animals, but didn’t like it not being about improving food production or curing disease. And when the time came to submit our approved joint dissertation, it turned out that some people had decided they didn’t like that idea either; they insisted that we could not present jointly, and that we could only present the parts of the dissertation we had individually worked on. Which would have been impossible and we were pretty sure they knew it and were demanding it for just that reason.
So, we hatched a plan to get around them that was equal parts brilliant and crazy. It took a little doing to schedule all three of our defenses at the same time, but we managed it by bribing the secretaries and assuring them they could have live viewing rights to the show we were about to put on – and that they could play with some of our test subjects. And then we locked ourselves up in the apartment for a week and perfected our delivery. Because if this was going to work, it had to be perfect.
And it was. I went in at my appointed time with a bag and a box, set up my laptop according to some very specific instructions from Pete and then started on my defense. They threw questions at me, I answered them, and then out it came. “I think your theory may have some merit, but it’s purely theoretical,” one of the examiners told me. “You don’t have any proof to back up this thesis, Mr. Darling, and your dissertation…where is the rest of it? This isn’t all, did you forget to check to see if it all printed out?”
“Yes, it’s impossible not to notice that it’s incomplete,” one of the others agreed. “What do you have to say to that?”
I just smiled. “I have to say that the version you have in your hands is incomplete, because what I gave you is only the research I did on my own; the rest of it is with my colleagues, they each have their incomplete portion of the work as well. And we do have proof.” I picked up the little box, pulled out the creature inside and carried it over to them. “This is Monty, he’s a Mickey Pig – a mouse modified with miniature pig by way of a practical application of zipper theory. He was designed to be a research animal, because pigs are more like humans than mice are, but mice are more prolific. So the Mickey Pig is a combination of both, which will allow researchers to test things intended for humans on a slightly more human-like animal, but without having to limit their trials due to space constraints and the scarcity of study-appropriate pigs.”
The lead examiner examined Monty quite closely, frowning – I was amazed she was able to keep the frown in place, honestly, because Monty is freaking adorable. It’s the ears. Then she handed him back to me. “His genetic profile?”
“Is consistent, no anomalies.” I handed her a sheet that had his genome sequence on it. “He’s actually a new species.”
One of the others snorted. “You can’t claim that until you try to breed him and see what comes out – which of course you can’t do, since there’s only one.”
I smiled back, sweetly. “Monty is actually second generation – and so are his siblings Marty and Mary, who are with my colleagues right now, respectively, while they defend their own parts of this dissertation.” I put Monty back in his box and gave him a treat – he has a thing for animal crackers because Dave can’t be trusted not to share his snacks – and then passed out bound copies of the full study. And triggered the switch from projector to video feed. All defenses are recorded from a live feed now, for posterity as well as to protect everyone involved from allegations of discrimination or bias, so making use of the already-active feed had been child’s play for Pete. I checked my watch, straightened my tie. “Hello everyone,” I told the camera. “Welcome to our joint dissertation defense – the three of us did the research together, our work as a whole is completely dependent upon the work each of us contributed, but our petition to have a joint defense was rejected.” A slide flashed up on the screen of the letter Joey had gotten with pertinent phrase highlighted. “Because it’s ‘never been done’,” next slide, Dave’s, “because research ‘doesn’t work that way’,” and finally mine, “and because it’s ‘a cheap gimmick’ conceived to ‘confuse the examiners’. Because our research – oh sorry, this one was about me personally – my research is ‘terminally flawed and unethical’ and I don’t deserve to be part of this department. Apparently the admissions standards are slipping.” I switched back to video. “We’ll address the first two: The whole purpose of this exercise is to do things which have ‘never been done’, and yes, real research does come from collaboration with one’s peers, even in different disciplines.”
On the split view, Dave held up his own copy of the complete dissertation. “This is our entire report. When separated into individual contributions as it was demanded we do in order to submit at all, it leaves gaps which would rightfully be used to reject our thesis and deny our results. Which is inherently unfair to us as students of this institution, especially as we all three had this project approved by our advisors and they all knew we were collaborating.” A slide with three notarized letters popped up. “We got it in writing.”
Now it was Joey’s turn. “As to the accusation that our thesis and results aren’t valid, or are some kind of trick, here is the summary from the convention we all attended last year in Newark – as students, of course.” It popped up. “Please note the date, and that the dates of our approvals for this project and on the timelines in our dissertation mostly predate this conference. At which a government scientist presented findings from a similar project his own lab had undertaken. Also using a practical application of zipper theory, also with the intent of merging two disparate species to create a viable new species…and also, according to him, successful.” The slide went back down. “It isn’t unusual for different researchers to come up with the same solution to a problem, ladies and gentlemen. It has happened with almost every major breakthrough across multiple fields over the course of history. Our team,” he indicated Dave and I, “came at the issue from a slightly different angle than the government researchers did…”
“…our methodology is somewhat different…”
“…and our results were more successful. The subjects of the government’s live-specimen tests had to be destroyed. Ours,” we all held up the Mickey pig we had with us, “are healthy, genetically stable, and breeding true. They’re also appropriate for the purpose they were created for, which is laboratory use. Appendix G of our dissertation has reports from the three labs we asked to test this new species in comparison to pigs and mice. The success of those tests in addition to our own proved the efficacy of our process.” I nodded to the lead investigator. “We scheduled all three of our defenses at the same time in order to not inconvenience any of you,” I told her. “I’m ready to continue if you are.”
She didn’t like it – most of them didn’t, but we’d invited the dean to watch too and he let them all know that he was in favor of it continuing. They absolutely savaged us as a result, but that was fine – we’d practiced this, we all knew the contents of that dissertation backwards and forwards and we knew how to direct an inappropriately directed question to the correct person without being rude or sounding like we were passing the buck. Four hours later, they let us go and we took the second-gen Mickey pigs home, played with them for a little while, and then got out the beer and played Cards Against Humanity until three in the morning.
Joey received notice that he’d passed his review the next day; Dave, two days later.
It took more than a week for mine. I found out later that the dean had intervened after finding out the lead examiner was staunchly anti animal research and should have recused herself the minute she knew what our thesis was about – or the second she was introduced to Monty. Her I don’t send a Christmas card to, but I never really held it against her, either. She wasn’t able to kill our research or keep me from getting those three sweet letters after my name, after all, and I’m sure the fact that we went on to be successful and none of the credit came back to her department made a lot more of an impact on her than me holding a grudge would have.