Somehow I’ve overlooked the procedure’s first step.
Will you be heat-fixing a slide today? I’ve prepared for this microbiology quiz by transcribing a full page of notes. Still, my allowed cheat sheet doesn’t help me answer the questions written on the chalkboard at the front of the room.
If you streak 250 cells onto a petri dish and let it incubate, how many colony forming units can you have?
After reading this question for a third time, I slowly write, One in the fourth quadrant. The answer is off by 249, my lab partner Long informs me once we’ve handed in our quizzes.
Things get worse. I can’t manipulate the striker to light the Bunsen burner. When asked to use a pipettor, I don’t feel the click and inject too much fluid onto the petri dish. One of my partners shares her slide with me. (My own was ruined when I failed to heat-fix it.) I look into the scope at a pink and purple blur. The instructor walks by and asks if I need help focusing.
He looks in the microscope, turns the knobs, then pulls the slide out and runs his finger over it: “Upside down.”
When I explain what I’m doing in this class, I avoid the phrase “starting over.” After ten years as a writing teacher, I prefer to think of myself as “branching out” or “exploring possibilities.” Quite a few of my classmates here at the community college are doing the same. One of my lab partners studied business as an undergraduate. One was a school social worker whose position was eliminated after budget cuts. A man at the bench across from ours recently earned a PhD in Near Eastern Studies. Behind us sits a paramedic. When a huge flame springs from my Bunsen burner, I’m glad to have him nearby.
Some species of bacteria can tumble. Others spin like corkscrews. Some are gooey, others slippery. The lucky ones have a sex pilus. “A sticky filament,” our instructor explains. One bacterial cell sends it out, making contact with another, drawing the other cell in, and then passing along a loop of DNA. “Which is kind of like sex . . . but not really.” The two cells don’t even have to be of the same species. Are you kidding me? I want to shout.
Our lab group is functioning less than the sum of its parts. Some of us find the team sloppy while others find the team slow. Last week we forgot to record our organism’s species, and today we don’t know what to call it. The instructor suggests a Gram stain. Needing practice, I volunteer to make the slide.
After class, I stay with a group of students to improve my microscope skills. I call Long over to see a mysterious black background with clear zigzags. “I’m pretty sure you’re looking at a pen mark,” Long says, turning the scope’s knobs, shifting the slide to the right. He steps back so that I can take another look: pink rods, the same shape and color we’ve been viewing the past three hours.
Soon, there are only two students left. “You are really determined to get this,” says the instructor. “I just don’t like not knowing how to do things,” I say. The statement is rather lame, and it’s also a lie. There’s plenty I’m perfectly fine not knowing how to do: change a tire, set up an Excel spreadsheet, knit. The truth is, I want to fit in here. So I don’t broadcast my fascination with these peculiar shapes and extravagant colors, with the notion that these creatures live inside of us. Am I off-task, thinking about Walt Whitman? We really are large. We do contain multitudes.
The red blood cells appear in clusters of pink. The slightly larger white cells have nuclei stained purple. One cell looks like it’s holding twin fetuses. Another looks like it contains a small brain. The instructor notes my progress, but then adds that blood is pretty big. “I want you to be able to find bacteria.”
In high school science labs, why did I hang back, letting my partner fiddle with the burners and make the slides? Twenty years later, I want to search for what thrives, however small, hidden in my gut.
I have been talking in my sleep. My husband doesn’t know what I’m saying, but I think once I said, “Thank you for saying nice things about my kids.” Yesterday, I came home feeling depressed after an information session about physician assistants, suddenly unable to see myself working in the sterility and unnatural light of a hospital.
“If you’re completely disoriented, dial back to 100x and look for the edge of the cover slip.” My husband works in a medical research lab and was initially uncomfortable when I signed up to take these science classes. Leaving my teaching job seemed risky, given our two kids and the bad economy. He has warmed to the idea, though, and offers advice on how to find the really small stuff on a lung tissue slide. “Once you find the edge, work slowly until you find the tissue. Then, change to 400x.” Add immersion oil, change to 1,000x, and there you have it: alveoli and capillaries.
Whenever I change magnifications, I lose it all.
We file in, put on lab coats, wash our hands, and pull on gloves. Afternoons begin with a quiz proceeding to experiments, each with its own protocol. It surprises me that I laugh a lot, joking more often than at home. Perhaps this draws attention away from my cluelessness. When I misplace my petri dish yet again, Long points to the back counter: “I saw you put it over there.”
I have been dreaming of Gram stains. It’s a simple process, a mainstay of introductory microbiology classes. It involves working with dyes with psychedelic-sounding names—crystal violet, safranin—to identify the basic structure of our organism’s cell wall. Gram-positive appear purple under a microscope. Gram-negative, pink.
The instructor draws our attention to the visual artist Laura Splan. She works with the shapes of microbes and the colors of dyes we use in labs to see them. One project presents latch-hooked yarn in the circular shape we see looking through a microscope. Each circle looks like a small rug with a fluffy beige background, as well as odd and colorful shapes: a blue kazoo and Easter egg? This could be in my son’s bedroom. Below this unusual pairing, I notice the title, Clostridium botulinum. I hadn’t recognized the botulism microbe. Some of her framed sculptures look like doilies. One sculpture, titled HIV, reminds me of a ship’s steering wheel: spokes, concentric rings—and in the very middle—something like the sun breaking through clouds.
I’ve stopped thinking, I should write about this. When a new concept is introduced, it becomes part of a long line of material to be memorized. In today’s lecture, we learned about the Sputnik virophage, a virus that infects a virus that infects ameobae that infect humans. Was that impulse to write a fundamental part of me, or a habit acquired over time?
An old note from my kindergarten teacher reads, Sara is very enthusiastic in her approach to math. She has successfully completed the entire manipulative sequence—beads, parquetry, color inch cubes. Quite an accomplishment! Reading this now, I feel pride and befuddlement. Parquetry?
My son is interested in limits. He wants to know the hottest place on earth. The deepest swimming pool. Infinity plus one. Today we are talking nanometers and microns. He goes to get the yardstick, and when he returns, my husband joins the discussion: “This is all just moving around zeros.” Soon they are talking ten to the negative six, ten to the negative nine.
In pregnancy, cells from the fetus pass through the placenta and into a woman’s tissues, where they permanently reside.
And some bacteria—I’ve learned—survive together as a bioluminescent orb below a flashlight fish’s eye.
We’ve completed our final lab, and I’m taking one last look at the slide with a cross section of lung tissue.
At 40x, it looks like pink fuzz.
At 100x, tie-dye.
At 1000x, I can see red blood cells, smooth muscle, a ring of air: the space between ourselves and everything else.
It’s amazingly thin.