Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Short Bus

In graduate school, I shared a hood with a fellow research group member. Hood space comes at a premium in graduate school since space is limited in the labs at graduate school and our reactions, the center of our research, is carried out only in the hoods. The hoods we used were about six feet wide. I used the left hand side of the hood while the person I shared the hood with used the right. A bit of trivia about this hood is the fact that an event happened there that made it on the local news one weekend. A THF still (tetrahydrofuran, a volatile and explosive clear and colorless liquid) exploded in that hood (about a month before I started using it) resulting in considerable damage, injuring a post-doc, causing 3rd degree burns on him and a stay for him at the UNC burn center in Chapel Hill. I jokingly referred to that hood as the 'chimney'. The post doc made a full recovery and came back to chemistry. Sometimes an event like this can spook a person making him too nervous and scared to come back into the lab. However, he did have a few scars on his face. It didn’t matter much in his case since he was ugly to begin with.

The person I shared a hood with, Cheryl, was from upstate NY in a town outside of Rochester called Greece. If you are not from either NC or NY, one thing you should know is that there are a whole lot of New Yorkers now living in NC. Even my own great-grandfather was from upstate NY. Cheryl is about five years younger than me, has brown hair, brown eyes, stood around five feet eight, had a medium build and like me, used to be a swimmer, but unlike me, she looks like she used to swim. I, on the other hand, had morphed into my ‘full-back body’ by then.

In a way, the duties of an organic chemistry graduate student are a lot like work. Once one gets past the first year, an overwhelming amount of time is spent in the lab and very little time in the classroom. Many hours are spent in the lab, most of which involves standing at the hood, often side-by-side with the person you shared the hood with (if you had to share a hood with someone). Some students were quiet; some listened to music while others were like me who chattered mindlessly. Often I would forget what I had said but readily absorbed what someone else had mentioned.

Cheryl and her husband had a mixed-breed dog that they had adopted from a local animal shelter. The dog, Symba (named after some Disney character) looked like he had some border collie in him by the look of his size, structure and coat. I met him once when Cheryl,leaving Symba in the car in car, stopped by the lab briefly one weekend. He was mean as hell to me and growled and barked at me the whole time.

Cheryl and I would often talk about our dogs. One day she was telling me about a test to measure a dog’s intelligence. It was a simple test. A towel or small blanket is placed over the dog’s head, and the time needed for the dog to remove the towel from its head gives an idea of how smart the dog is, the smarter the dog, the faster the towel is removed.

Later that week, I gave this test to Abby then Father. Abby flicked the blanket off her head in just a few seconds. I knew my baby girl was smart, and I was proud of her. Now came Father’s turn. Not only did Father not flick the towel off but he started walking around the room—blanket overhead—bumping in to the walls and furniture. After a couple of minutes of this, Father gave up and sat down. It was so pitiful, and like humans, I hoped intelligence for dogs isn’t solely determined by genetics alone. We had a lot of work to do with poor Father. Father was sweet, but by no means could he be considered an ‘Einstein’ among canines. A couple of days later, I told Cheryl the results of the test. I went on to say that if Father were a kid, he would have taken the short bus to school. Even though everyone who heard that comment laughed, I felt bad having fun at poor Father’s expense.

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