January 30, 2015

Bio-geek science fiction

I wrote this for fun. Hope you enjoy this short piece of science fiction!

Rajiv gently scooped a tiny blob of bacteria from the tube. As he spread the cells into a petri dish, the toothpick point glided across the gelatinous, nutrient-laden agar. He tossed the bacteria-laden toothpick into bio-waste and gingerly placed his petri dishes in the incubator. He hoped the inserted plasmid stuck this time, but he wouldn't know until tomorrow. And even if it worked, he still had to induce them without causing a massive die-off, again. Petro-bugs were tricky: the colony needed to replicate enough before the hydrocarbon chains they produced overwhelmed the sample. According to his advisor, Rajiv was getting closer. He only hoped.

The sky cast grey shadows in his lab, the fourth floor of the Shell-Dannon building, though it was better known as "Bugs and Guts" for their objects of inquiry. Rajiv had come to Iowa State University to study wheat, but all of Iowa's plant breeders were scooped off to the West Coast by CalGreen. He could only find a spot with the microbiologists. They weren't too bad though, and he appreciated the ready-made gels and columns, lack of black-outs, and easily available reagents that their facilities offered. Not like during his masters in Varanasi—that was a different story. He spent half his time there waiting for a shipment of acetate to arrive from Kolkata.

After plating the last transformation, Rajiv grabbed the bus back to his apartment. Other bio-geeks nervously glanced around at each other, uncomfortably surrounded by the blond mops of hair stuffed into down jackets that dominated the campus. Rajiv didn't mind so much, and in fact had met his fiancé on a late night bus back from campus. She was a veterinary post-doc at the sprawling livestock research facilities south of campus.

Finally at his apartment, Rajiv plopped onto the futon as Kaju bunted his side and purred. He scratched her between the ears and she replied with a squinty, feline smile.

"Any luck today?" asked Sandy from their bedroom. She was typing away, probably finishing paperwork from the day's clients.

"Not sure, but I'll know by tomorrow. At least, I'll know if they survived."

"Darn it, I forgot that you bug people have to wait. At least we know right away whether we killed our subject. Text me as soon as you know tomorrow!"

Sandy was sweet, in a way he now recognized as Midwestern, for her interest in his research. She had another reason to love bacteria. Every week she used a wide-gauged syringe to inject a personalized cocktail of Lactobacillus and other bugs into her bio-port. Based on her gut profile, her doctor fine-tuned the cocktail with bugs known to make people happy, healthy, and thin. Sandy had a bio-port from birth, basically, but Rajiv's was just a year old and he hardly used it. It still stung a little around the edges when he laughed too hard, and he figured the various bugs he encountered as a child in the village were enough for a lifetime. That, plus copious amounts of dahi and lassi.

Rajiv peeked into the bedroom. "Beta-taters or rice tonight?" 

"Oh my god, just call them potatoes! Why do you have to be so weird?"

Rajiv smirked, but he loved beta-taters. To date, they were the only biotech crop India had actually developed from scratch. Unlike Golden Rice, which even the poorest villages in Bihar still eschewed, villagers loved the marigold-hued beta-taters, especially once French fries—fried at tea stalls in delicious mustard oil—caught on.

"Alright, rice it is!”

Rajiv wandered into the kitchen, set up the rice cooker, and pulled out their bag of vegetables for the week. He never cooked before coming to the US, but he had to learn when he moved to Iowa. He liked rice, potatoes, and their weekly bag of CalGreen vegetables, and learned to cook with them easily enough. He no longer had to worry about avoiding meat since the last climate agreement sent meat prices spiking out of reach. Meanwhile, Sandy’s colleagues worked on converting the remaining livestock into bio-digesters.

Most of all, Rajiv loved American wheat—though the texture wasn't the same. He hadn't had bread or roti since he was a child, before the godowns of Punjab and Haryana gradually spilled out and emptied over the Indo-Gangetic Plains. In fact he had come to Iowa to research rust resistance in winter wheats, but just missed the exodus of plant breeders. After the World Bank privatized all of India’s agricultural research, Rajiv didn’t want any part in that business. America was the last refuge of public research, so he thought.

January 26, 2015

Passed my dissertation defense!

This blog has been silent for quite some time because I've been working full time on my dissertation. Happily, a few days ago I passed my dissertation defense! I'm still working on my dissertation edits until April, but I hope to post a published article from my dissertation here soon.