Message In A Bottle
It had been over a week since Ellie had submitted her research. More than two years of intensive study and theoretical science, packaged into a collection of documents, flow diagrams and chemical formulas that equated to one of the biggest discoveries in human history. Finally the weight had been lifted.
At first there was relief, overwhelmed by a sense of achievement. She marvelled, reflecting on what they’d accomplished and gave some thought to what it meant for her future at Oxford.
The feeling wore away quicker than she expected. Now Ellie played the waiting game, indulging in a futile attempt at returning to ‘normal’ everyday life.
As she expected this wasn’t coming easy for her. All of the team had stepped up their commitment to the project when they realised there was realistic chance it could succeed, but Ellie had immersed herself from the start.
The world and its distractions had faded into obscurity – nothing else had mattered. Her only frustration was that this unreserved devotion to the research was known only to a select few. To everyone else, outside of the team, her consistent apathy throughout the lectures of the past year was puzzling and uncharacteristic; a balancing act she had failed to maintain. She was fortunate that her coursework had been unaffected.
It had been long over a week since the team had last assembled and nearly three weeks since she received the phone call she had so desperately been waiting for. ‘Ellie, I think we’ve done it. I think we’ve found Hawking.’
The plan was simple. Everyone packaged up their notes into the agreed format, submitted their research to the professor and waited. The professor would present their findings to the Board of Science at the University and request the funds to take the project to the next level.
Everything had seemed clear and under control. She gave her work blindly and waited patiently. But time had now passed and with hindsight playing on her mind she became mindful that nothing had really been agreed at all.
She didn’t know when the professor would present their research or when they would hear the outcome. How would they find out? What kind of reaction should they expect?
During the first few days Ellie had expected to be pulled out mid-way through one of her lectures. She spent most of her time during seminars watching the entrance, expecting to see a face appear in the glass panel of the door, gesturing her to come outside.
By the end of the week Ellie began to expect a phone call from the professor or an email to the team with an update, some sort of indication on his progress. But there was still nothing, not a word. She was now becoming impatient, annoyed even.
If this had continued she would have considered approaching the professor directly herself, something the team were strictly forbidden to do, but she needed to know, she’d worked too hard to be left in the dark this way. Thankfully she wouldn’t have to. Today the professor would come to her.
Like many of the courses at St Anne’s the diverse subject matter was separated into modules, covered by various Professors on the basis of their expertise and experience.
Ellie was taking a Biology degree, en route to a Masters, and the modules for Molecular Genetics and Cell Membrane Structure were being run by Professor William Henry Daniels, a man Ellie had grown to know outside of the University more so than in and who the team affectionately called ‘The Professor’.
Today she was set for another seminar on Molecular Genetics. One way or another, today she would find out what was happening.
Ellie started the day as a coiled spring. The time to think had given her every version of the conversation she was going to have.
She awoke early, lying in bed and watching intently as the sun rose from behind her window. The cream roller blind provided her small studio room with a soft and gentle raise in light. Soon after came the morning chirps from the birds and the occasional car setting off early to beat the traffic. She stared at her alarm clock, counting down the minutes until 8.00AM. Today everything mattered.
Ellie climbed out of her bed, tied back her hair and headed for the shower. By 9.00AM she was wide awake, fully dressed and focused, ready for the day ahead.
Her class didn’t start for another hour and it took less than fifteen minutes to get to campus on foot. She paced back and forth. This would be the longest hour.
* * *
Ellie arrived at the seminar composed and with plenty of time to spare. The room was already a third full. The professor’s teaching assistant, Angelo Mosso, had let the usual suspects in early to get the best seats. Given the choice she would have been among them, but that would have stuck out as strange and today needed to appear like any other day.
Ellie looked around to see that the professor was yet to arrive. This wasn’t out of the ordinary.
She sat in her usual spot, greeted by Marie and Sally, two distant, we must catch up friends she’d come to know during the course.
‘Hey you,’ she said to Sally, unpacking her module book along with some notes from the previous lecture.
‘Els, Marie was just saying, it’s been ages since we’ve seen you out. Where have you been?’
‘Oh I’ve been busy, this and that, you know.’
‘What’s his name?’ Marie asked, leaning in for some gossip.
Ellie smiled, shaking her head. As if! It had been years since Ellie had even thought about getting to know someone intimately – just another sacrifice that she’d given gladly to the project.
As students drifted into class, the room volume grew until it was awash with noise – a strange collection of characters allowing for an odd mixture of conversations. Idle chat that kept them preoccupied and oblivious to the professor’s absence.
Ellie tried not to clock-watch as the final minutes of the hour gave out.
She did her best not to appear relieved when the professor came through the door a handful of seconds past 10.00AM, the rest of the room remaining ignorant to his lateness.
Mid-sentence she stuttered whilst glancing over. He seemed distant, preoccupied. Unpacking his things without acknowledging the class or even thanking his teaching assistant. It was confusing. The professor’s manners were usually impeccable.
After several minutes he gave a thankful nod to Angelo before turning to face everyone. Standing in front of the class and leaning back against his desk, he quietly looked out at his students.
Ellie was now facing forward, noting with intrigue the subtle differences in his composure. As always his frame carried the comfort of middle age spread and his short brown hair was seasoned with the occasional grey. But she could see that he’d not shaven. There was at least three days’ worth of stubble growing on his face and his shirt, always immaculately ironed, was showing creases on the arms and shoulders.
One by one the groups began to quieten. They were accustomed to the professor telling them to settle down and take control but today seemed different and a gradual hush fell over in response to it. After a brief pause he headed for the white board.
‘Good morning marines.’
‘Good morning sir.’ The class responded as one; it was a running joke.
‘Before we get started today I wanted to touch on an important subject. Something that defines not science, but scientists; who we are and what we do.’ He then picked up a red marker pen and wrote on the board a single word. He turned, for a moment studying the puzzlement on his students’ faces. He had everyone’s attention.
‘Now, who can tell me the history of the first full-body MRI scan?’ he asked. ‘And lets stay away from the Nobel Peace Prize controversy if we can, please.’ He began pacing back and forth in front of the class.
‘An MRI is a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan,’ a student called out. ‘It uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take pictures of the brain.’
‘Along with the rest of the body,’ the professor added. ‘Yes, thank you Steven, but we hopefully all knew this.’ He gestured to the room.
‘Let’s talk about her history.’
The professor picked out another student.
‘It was invented in America,’ a Spanish student offered. ‘In the seventies, I think.’
‘That’s right, but can anyone tell me about the first full-body MRI?’
The class fell silent. A history lesson on the tools and instruments used in pathology examinations wasn’t normally part of their seminars.
Ellie kept quiet. Where is he going with this?
The professor waited through several seconds of silence before starting.
‘Cancer tissue cells have an abnormal amount of potassium and sodium. Dr Raymond Damadian knew this. Collaborating with a team of graduate students he spent years developing a device that he hoped would one day help to diagnose cancer and other serious medical conditions without cutting the body open.’
He rested against his desk.
‘By 1977 they had constructed a superconducting magnet that could be used to detect the abnormal cells. It was impressive stuff for the time I can tell you.’
The professor paused, seemingly for effect.
‘So it was finally ready, everything was in place. But there was just one problem… Can anyone tell me what the problem was?’
The room was still but for a few mumbles. He looked out at his students, appearing expectant.
It was rare for the class to be so regularly silenced. Often at least a few vocal students would have an opinion to offer, but everyone seemed caught looking to someone else for the answer.
‘No one wanted to go first,’ Ellie replied, her eye line fixed to the floor.
‘That’s right Elizabeth,’ the professor said, pushing away from his desk. He still insisted on calling her Elizabeth as opposed to Ellie in front of the other students. ‘No one wanted to be the first. No one wanted to be scanned. After all it wasn’t safe, why be first? Why take the risk?’
The professor continued pacing.
‘So who went first?’ Sally asked, appearing drawn in by the story.
‘Dr Damadian,’ the professor answered. ‘But it doesn’t end there. When they tested it on him nothing happened. Damadian and his team were looking at years of research and funding wasted.’
The professor came to a stop.
‘Moments of trial are often weighed by the ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Damadian was too big for the machine? Perhaps it would work for someone lighter? Someone thinner? Possibly someone younger? But who could know for sure? Not Damadian and not anyone in his team.’
The professor began pacing again.
‘Someone had to believe… Someone had to see past their fear of the uncertain… It was July 3rd 1977. A graduate student volunteered. And this is known as the date the first full body MRI examination was performed on a human.’
He paused next to Ellie. Close and yet seemingly going out of his way not to give her any eye contact.
‘You all want to be great scientists. I see it in your eyes. The hopes that you’ll discover a cure to a disease, that you’ll save lives. I was the same. And on a good day, I too will have that same glint in my eye. But what you need to remember is that with every inspiration there is always at first belief.’
He stared up at the word he’d written on the board: Faith.
‘The very definition of an experiment is a test for the purpose of discovering something unknown. As scientists some of what we do is blind journey, an adventure even, and the amount of faith you put behind your science, the amount of belief you invest, will reflect what you get out of it. If we forget this, if we stick to what can only be proofed and formulated, we lose something. And perhaps it’s not something we can put into words but it’s something important, it’s something that defines us.’
The class sat quietly, smiling and acknowledging his advice. Historical metaphors always seemed to pack a punch.
‘You’re the new breed, the next hope for the future of science. Believe in what you can offer and you’ll make a difference, I promise.’
He rubbed the board clean and opened the module literature.
‘OK, let’s pick it up from our last session. Can you all turn to chapter seven for me please.’
* * *
Ellie sat muted and still, blankly gazing forward as the session passed her by in a two hour blur. She couldn’t move on from what the professor had opened with.
She had covered the rise of the Fonar Corporation and its multiple patents in MRI technology as an essay during her A-levels. The company was founded by Dr Raymond Damadian himself.
Ellie had given it as long as she could before answering his question. She hated standing out, but she couldn’t help feeling as if the question he had put to the class was for her.
Language was an incredible tool. The ability to say multiple things with a single statement. The same words sending entirely different signals depending on the tone and context.
The professor had delivered a message, in a way only he could. Subtle, delicate and allowing time for Ellie to digest it.
The clock above the white board bore down on midday as the professor began summarising the points that had been covered. The class recognised this as the round up and promptly folded up their notes.
‘Your take home assignment is on my desk. I want you all to take a copy of this.’ He held up an assignment sheet. The students began rising from their seats.
‘Also spend some time studying up on Protein Interaction Networks and Signal Transduction ready for Tuesday’s lecture. If you have any questions please take these up with Angelo.’ The professor gestured to his teaching assistant.
The lecture room emptied quickly. The students bustled out of the door, their noise gradually filtering away.
Ellie sat, pretending to write, as if she were making her final notes. She said her goodbyes to Marie and Sally, and offered a series of plastic smiles and we must catch up promises she’d never keep. She packed her bag as slowly as she could, anxiously waiting for them all to leave. Poised at the edge of her seat, doing her best not to lose composure.
Professor Daniels wished the last of his students well before turning to pack up his things. ‘I’ll meet you in the Main Hall,’ he said to Angelo, filling his leather bag with books and the remaining assignment sheets. Angelo nodded with a smile and left the room.
Ellie took a deep breath to gather herself. The professor offered a brief glance before walking over to the main door to close it. He pulled down the window blind, concealing them from the human traffic in the hallway.
She stood up, her face filled with a mixture of emotions. They stared at each other, sharing silence for a few moments before the professor began walking towards her. He didn’t need to say anything. She couldn’t believe it.
‘They said no, didn’t they?’
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David P. Philip