Walter by Helen Sedgwick

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He always sits at the head of the table. He sees everyone, and notices them. He smokes neat little roll-ups made with black Rizlas and free trade imported tobacco. He’s a tiny man, smaller than me; at 5ft 2″ I see the thinning hair on the top of his head and feel weighty and clumsy, and also fond.

Everyone knows he’s something of a genius. When things are slow or stalled, ideas scarce, cells misbehaving in their culture or dying in their isolation chambers the suggestion is always the same: we could ask Walter. I used to have weekly meetings with him, to show him my latest designs for the microfluidic chambers and get his ideas on which carcinoma cells to use. These days I try to stop myself relying on him too heavily. I spend more time on the biochemistry – always my weakest subject – aware that I should be better than I am, less dependant.

Walter tells me that he will not give up his roll-ups. He says that he has two a day, and that they are a pleasure. He’s European like that. Coffee and cigarettes. We meet outside to smoke, and I take out my extra-light, white-as-a-fume-hood cigarette with the perforated filter. I’ve started smoking a lot more than two a day. I’m not sure if I’d call it a pleasure.

Every cell is different. That’s fundamental. Until recently, research was carried out on millions of cells at the same time. Any result was an average result; details were smoothed out or lost and inhomogeneous responses were neglected. So now, we’re trying to isolate arrays of single cells. We can see how each one behaves individually. We can see if some are more aggressive than others (they are) and if some respond to drugs differently to others (they do). We are trying to determine if individual cells can be targeted to achieve a population level response.

When I get my device to work (which takes months) and my cells to survive, and my microfluidics steady, and I finally get a result that is interesting (which takes over a year) I decide to show it to Walter. I walk into his room and thank him for seeing me, then say sorry for disturbing him at a time like this. He smiles and tells me not to apologise; it is a pleasure. I find myself babbling on, not about my result so much as about the lack of other results. I tell him that it is too hard, too much, that there are too many variables. I tell him that my contribution is too small to be significant.

Walter smiles. He says that we are nearly there, that the ending is in sight. When he says “we” he means all scientists. Not just him and me. He is working on a paper himself, and in it he will write: “Our science is interdisciplinary. It must be. Combining our knowledge is how our field will progress. We will cure cancer. It is only a matter of time.”

Six months later, Walter’s paper will be published. I will print it out as soon as it’s available and put it in a transparent plastic folder. Sometimes I’ll take it out and re-read those lines, because it seems to me that the things worth writing are worth reading over and over again. Then I’ll smile and put it back in the folder and put the folder back on the shelf, and I’ll return to the lab and keep working.

Helen Sedgwick is a freelance writer and editor who moonlights as a research scientist; it used to be the other way around. She is co-editor of Fractured West, review editor of Gutter, and her website is www.helensedgwick.com.

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