Story by Jonathan Flynn
In front of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, stands a six-foot-tall statue of a rat. She stands on her hind legs with a cloak draped around her back, spectacles sliding down her nose while she knits together the unmistakable double-helix structure of a deoxyribonucleic acid molecule, or as it is commonly known, DNA. Perhaps the most notable feature is her face, frozen in what I call the “lightbulb face”, an expression one makes when a discovery is made for the first time. In the words of her artist, Andrew Kharevich, “It combines the image of the laboratory mouse and a scientist because they are related to each other and serve as one case.”
She embodies an often-overlooked aspect of science, as she represents a large and rather uncomfortable pill that we students must figure out how to swallow. She is the unsung hero of science, representing the countless rodents, houseflies, and fish in their hurry to make a discovery or publish a paper stepped over and robbed of credit. It can also make one think of (but not equate) the human subjects who have been taken advantage of by science due to marginalized status.
Biology cannot exist without her. Many of us wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for her, and some claim it is undeniable that we will always need her.
I will never forget the first time I was given the responsibility of dissecting an animal. I’m not talking about dissecting a cow’s eye or a sheep’s brain in your seventh-grade science class, I am talking about having a fully grown, dead animal beneath your scalpel. I was 18 years old when I was given a cat to dissect for the month of May in my senior year of high school. At that time, I was set on becoming a doctor like my father, a man who has dissected countless animals (and even humans) for the sake of his knowledge. I was incredibly excited, and as the scent of formaldehyde and desiccating flesh filled my nostrils, I began my work.
Yet in the face of this excitement the class felt, there was always an atmosphere of introspection that fell upon us as we began to meticulously dissect and study our animals. Open up the abdominal cavity of a cat and you will see that the organ placement is nearly identical in humans. Prodding its four-chambered heart and feeling its larynx proved to us that humans aren’t so different from the rest of the animal kingdom. That could be me on the table. A deep reverence for our dead subjects came with that humbling realization, and we became protective of them. We handled them as if they were still alive, and we felt an intimacy with these animals, unlike anything we’d ever felt before. We understood their mortality and soon came to understand our own (in a very limited way). You cannot be a surgeon without practice, and the same logic goes for all of science: you have to get your hands dirty if you are to truly understand what you are doing.
Once, my father told me of the work he did when he was an undergraduate in a lab at the Evergreen State College. A part of his research required that he cut the hearts out of rats while they were still alive. As a result, the grotesque nature of the research, combined with the fact that he was attending quite a liberally-minded school, required that he give a cover story if asked about his research. Now, as horrible as that sounds, you have to understand that the greater goal of the study was to find a method to create a non-invasive way to get immediate results of information pertaining to the subject’s blood and its components. Results in science are rarely immediate, and as a result, my father simply had to tell himself that the work he was doing could save lives and that the dirty work, while horrible, was necessary.
Science is not without sacrifices; rather, it is built upon them. However, it falls to the mercy of the public, which is quick to judge a topic it knows nothing about. Scientists seem to cast as specialized professionals in an entirely separate career field, portrayed vastly different than a businessman or a teacher or even a doctor. Popular culture would have them illustrated as scholars of an amoral field, calculating and hypothesizing, caring more for their test tubes and discoveries than public advocacy. In the world’s eye, they are given little room for spirituality, and to a sensitive public, it cannot abide. When the Russians were able to successfully launch a dog, Laika, into orbit, the world was outraged that they couldn’t bring her back. The scientists and engineers who worked on the project were cast as heartless villains, rejoicing in cruelty. Yet were it not for Laika and the others who died before her, Yuri Gagarin would have met the same fate. Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury 7 never would have left the ground. There would be no moon landings, or space shuttles, or an international space station from which innumerable life-changing discoveries were born. No one denied the tragedy of the dog who rode the rocket, least of all the scientists who put her there.
If we appear to be cold and heartless towards these animals, it is because we are defending ourselves from the gruesome reality. We justify the deaths of these animals because we must. Every single researcher and lab assistant who has to kill a rat for observation is well aware of its mortality, and most certainly feels their stomach drop every time they enter that room. We all tell ourselves, we tell each other, that we must use these animals so that our journey towards understanding will continue, and that we might use that understanding to do some good in the world. And should it come to it, I will join the ranks of my scientific siblings in this somber duty.
As I enter my room after a three-hour lab period, smelling of formaldehyde and my appetite gone, I look over to my mouse. His name is Algernon. He isn’t a real mouse, but rather a stuffed animal that I keep on my dresser. He is my statue. He serves to remind me of every discovery and breakthrough that has been made in order to get us to where we are today, and that many such extraordinary discoveries came about from such extraordinary sacrifice. It is to him and all of his forebears who participated in this grim pursuit that we owe our success, and our failures.
“It is hard to understand,
But sometimes painful things like this happen.
It’s all a part of the process of exploration and discovery.
It’s all a part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted;
It belongs to the brave.”
-President Reagan, on the Challenger Disaster, 1986