Getting into my 1994 Subaru wagon (forest green) and heading to the Oregon National Primate Research Center, I had the feeling I’d embarked on what would be a prosperous career of monkey-knee stem-cell research. The center staff received my online order for monkey knees and were waiting for me to accept them. I brought my blue lunch cooler full of ice and picked up the goods. Then I drove back to my lab with these knees. My music was blasting. I was excited; this was 2011, and I felt that a future Nobel prize in medicine was inside that tissue, on ice in my front seat.
Monkey knees were hairy, but I wasn’t in it for the hair. I wanted cartilage, it contained the most potent regenerative material: the stem cell. Imagining my lab would prove to the world we could generate new knees from old ones. Helping fix every poor grandma, and championship-forfeiting draft decision by the Portland Trail Blazers.
These monkeys I was dealing with are contagious for a deadly form of Herpesvirus B that will kill you in 2 weeks flat after exposure. In 1997, a twenty-two-year-old research assistant died from an infection at a different primate colony. (A colony? As if the monkeys claimed any land). After our requisite monkey-use certification, I had my high-school intern do a lot of the scalpel work. If we wore multiple pairs of gloves, there was more protection against the bloody knife poking through, right? This was serious monkey business.
In the orthopedics research lab, the next poor creature I had to cut up was a New Zealand Flemish Giant Rabbit. To feel better about doing this, I would tell myself that these fluffy things were not cute because of their fat necks and their demineralized, bone-matrix-fused spines.
I trotted my cooler to a doctor’s office where a fresh human knee was awaiting me. Thankfully, they left the skin and hair on the human, who was alive and well. He was just trading his old knee for a ceramic one. I put his old one in the cooler and hopped on the university’s gondola. I was thinking: would someone, dreadfully, ask me, ‘What’s for lunch?’ When I got back, a co-worker asked me if I could help him with a rat-eye cutting procedure. After years of animal sacrifice, radioactivity, and inhaled formaldehyde, I started feeling that research wasn’t for me. I love animals, they’re the reason I became a biologist. How would my childhood hero, Steve Irwin, feel about this work?
One day I felt sick when a warm pile of freshly killed giant rabbits on a metal cart rolled into the operation room. I told a laboratory assistant I would do anything, all her assays, if she did my rabbits. Thank the heavens, she accepted my trade. She stayed down in the operating rooms with piles of bunnies and pigs splayed out. I was joyful to be doing her hydroxyproline tests in the chemical fume hood upstairs. Though I couldn’t stomach the gory work, I still believed in the research, and this was the experience I needed before graduate school, I told myself.
I kept doing lab work and enjoying the process of discovery. But it was very depressing when I couldn’t find the magical stem cell, called a chondroprogenitor. I scoured hundreds of slices of tissue in the microscope, waiting for one cell to shine bright green, illuminating to me that I found it. But the images always remained a dark landscape. This failed experiment annoys me to this day, as my banged up joints could now use some regeneration.
My research assistant salary of $27K was the same as my student loan balance. I made the minimum payments so I could make rent in Portland. I kept at it for three years because I knew this lab job would help me carry out my dream of getting a doctorate in biology. Becoming a scientist was core to my identity since age ten when my grandparents subscribed me to Ranger Rick, the kids magazine from the National Wildlife Federation.
While working, I applied to twelve PhD programs, and to my utter astonishment, every school rejected me. I was confused and hurt and I was broke from the application fees. The reason for the rejections was that one of my references had written me a negative letter of recommendation. It went in a sealed envelope to all twelve schools, telling them something unfavorable, I don’t know what, about my character or prospects as a researcher. I ended up finding this out from another reference, who wasn’t supposed to tell me. Why in the hell this former boss that I had naively trusted would write this instead of no letter, I still don’t know. I saw him once grocery shopping and just wanted to chuck an ear of corn at this face. Nagging rumors of his other employees hating him too were enough punishment I felt.
In a frenzy, I applied to Master’s programs, omitting the nasty letter. Every program accepted me. That felt nice, but it was still short of my dreams of a doctorate. An engineering school gave me a contingent acceptance; I had to finish a year’s worth of calculus that wasn’t on my transcript. I did the Master’s program, thinking it would look good should I reapply for a doctorate. I didn’t have the math requirements because I don’t like math and did the minimum needed as a biology undergrad. I took night classes at Portland State University after leaving my day job in the lab.
I held three lab assistant positions. They fired me from the first one because I couldn’t clone DNA fast enough (this was grounds for termination?). The second one, orthopedics genetics research that I loved, laid me off after their grant ran out. Now I was on my third. A lab trying to make as many new virus variants as quick as possible. Here I learned about the Japanese work ethic, and I could not even come close to keeping up with their typical twelve-hour days. Yes they liked to show up a little late, like 10am, but nobody left until the boss, the Sensei had. From my apartment, when I went home I could see the lab’s lights still on later than any others, often until midnight.
Academia was a hectic place, and I felt like I couldn’t keep my head above water. Was I not cut out for science? Were the PhD programs right to reject me? Would I just keep lab hopping with no security enough to make a real discovery? On top of those confidence blows, I knew I could not become a scientist when I started sabotaging my own experiments. Ugh, science is hard. I wouldn’t completely sabotage the experiment, per se, but semi-unconsciously hold the Bunsen burner longer to my negative bacterial control (the one that should not work) than to my positive. This is science heresy, immoral, and I committed it under the psychological pressure academia incubates.
One day they evacuated the building because someone on a floor below me had spilled a neurotoxin and attempted to clean it up themselves and then didn’t tell anyone. Was this an academic-induced sheepishness? A researcher afraid to admit a mistake to the principal investigator (PI)? They went home feeling sick and later went to the emergency room where they reported what happened. Someone else in their lab also went home sick. She didn’t know why until authorities found her and told her also to go to the ER.
One day, instead of bench work, my boss had me do something in Microsoft Excel. Carry values from a spreadsheet to an online protein weight calculator, then put the results in a new column. It was an ordinary task. One part of a less ordinary job of engineering new virus variants. Which would then be injected into monkeys. Again, poor monkeys.
I had about a thousand Excel rows to do and something clicked inside my head where I thought, “Hey, isn’t this a thing people write code for?” So I sat, and sat, and sat and learned some Python basics.
I had no computer science training, and barely even knew how to use a spreadsheet. Outside of writing HTML for a memorial website when my childhood guinea pig died, I never put down a line of code. But I saw a path forward, and I’d made sure I did a fantastic job at a script to automate the work. Python is a programming language great for scientific tasks. An engineer I knew suggested I teach myself Python over the more commonly used at the time Matlab, or my boss’s language of choice Perl.
It blew my Sensei’s mind when I showed him a scripted solution to something he had been doing manually for years. He then let me take half of my time from bench work to write code instead because he saw that I was effective. This gave me the ability to tell my coworkers, Kei and Yasuhiru, to go to hell with their mouse torture, I had code to write.
This was an enormous boost of confidence. I was effective! I still didn’t have a Japanese work ethic, which they seemed to understand, but I had a skill they didn’t. This earned me a new title. Not just an assistant, but “Shane-san”, a student of the art. We could write programs to automate tasks and make everyone more efficient. I co-authored the postdoc’s papers because my programs helped their research. My skills progressed far beyond spreadsheet tasks; I built a bioinformatics simulator for the viruses we wanted to inject in monkeys. This helped the project, but not the monkeys, who had hundreds of distinct organ parts harvested from them. Meticulously dissected so we knew where in the monkey’s anatomy our viruses attached.
I always had an interest in biology and animals. When I was in middle school, I started a fund with spare change in an empty margarine tub labeled ‘Monkey-Moolah’. Somewhere around Google’s five-billionth search ever performed was when I typed “how to buy a monkey” and found a website willing to sell me a white-faced capuchin for $1,500. As time went by, my priority for that amount of cash became getting a car instead. It was bittersweet when I cashed in my Moolah for the Subaru wagon.
What attracted me to monkeys was their intelligence. Monkey-owning has its downsides, so I’ve developed a new passion. No, not monkey research. I feel bad about that, but I know they are an ideal model to make human disease breakthroughs. We need primates for advanced stages of research, so it would be harmful to break in and release them all, which is something anyone but PETA would probably agree with. Regardless, the future may look back in horror at our frequency of keeping conscious, emotional creatures in cages, aquariums and zoos. I certainly support the moratorium on great ape research, and I consider whale captivity as imprisonment.
For my purposes, I have different models. Now that I’ve learned how to code, in the comfort of my home, I can make the next best thing to monkeys: Artificial Intelligence (AI).