She walked across the stage as she had many times in the past, exuding confidence, professionalism, and poise. When she reached the podium, she took a moment to savour her success. Not many women had the opportunity to give a Nobel acceptance lecture. She had no notes and didn’t need them after explaining her research so many times in the past. She began as she had planned, with an abstract visual image of blue and tan. “If it was necessary to sum up my life in a single image, this would be it. False colour photography through an electron microscope of protein isolates in a saline solution. I have spent my life unravelling the complexities of protein structure and their associated receptors. This slide depicts the receptor clusters for Epinephrine, as viewed under ultraviolet light.” The scientific jargon flowed easily and naturally for her as it always did – a practiced lie that she could tell in her sleep.
She wished she could tell the audience the truth. Her childhood had been stolen by ambitious parents, pushing her into ballet, piano, and French classes. For Christmas she had received a microscope while her classmates had received Barbie dolls. Her best friend was the school librarian. Her bookcase was filled with the works of Darwin, Crick, Watson, Freud, and Wilson. For two years she was sure the family TV had been broken because it was stuck on the Discovery channel. At 17 she began her triple major in biology, chemistry, and physics.
In her second year of university, she had fallen in love with one of her teaching assistants. He was older, seemingly smarter, and had enough ego for the both of them. When she would stumble on an assignment, doubting her data, analysis, or conclusions, he would be there providing support. She learned after receiving her first ever B on an exam, that his distractions were jeopardous to her success. They broke up later that day after she vowed to never again let another person influence her work.
Graduate school came next. She had given up on relationships, and was much more fully focused on her studies. By the end of her Master’s degree, she had published her first paper on protein structure. But the countless hours at the computer and taken its toll on her eyes and she had come to need glasses. During her doctorate, she fell in love again, but this time she was more cautious. He was a local waiter, and she had come to know him when grabbing the occasional meal on the way home. She never seemed to have time to eat, do laundry, or any of those other mundane tasks that got in the way of her research. When he moved in and took over her domestic chores, she found she had more time to pursue her studies. They were married just as she produced her first seminal paper, “On the Patterns of neuroreceptor clusters.”
Her AMA “Paper of the Year Award” ensured she found a faculty position in a prestigious medical school. She knew that it was a publish or perish environment, and so she threw herself even harder at her research. On the week of her third anniversary she made a breakthrough that would eventually stun the medical community. Alone, at 3 in the morning, she saw the encoding of a single equational constant for a GABA receptor cluster pattern when comparing parallel folded DNA strands. She was the first to see the meaning underlying the complex wrapping of DNA. Three months later she had isolated a second constant, and then, after 9 intensive weeks that caused her to miss most of the summer, she found the third value. She had identified the complete encoding for a single neuroreceptor cluster. The paper won her an unprecedented second “Paper of the Year Award.”
In the make-up sex after several horrendous arguments with her husband over her priorities, she became pregnant. Thankfully, her career was assured and she had been given early tenure. Her husband could stay home to care for their son, causing her to barely miss a month of work when he was born. Now she knew what to look for, she spent the years developing new sequencing routines that worked on wrapped strands. Her deeper understanding improved her progress and within a decade, she had identified every receptor encoding for neurotransmitters. Sadly, her husband had left her somewhere during that time, though she wasn’t really sure of when or why.
She knew what the next step would be, to find a faulty encoding in ALS, or Parkinson’s patients. It would take another decade, but in the end, as the world’s foremost authority on receptor genetic coding, she met her goal. Her third foundational paper, “On the cause of Neural Failure” came as a bitter-sweet success. Upon arrival at the conference where it was to be presented, she was informed of the death, due to heroin overdose, of her son. It had caught her as a complete surprise. She had thought he was happy at the Military Academy in which she had enrolled him.
Now she knew the cause of ALS, she needed to find the catalyst that enabled the faulty sequences to occur. It took her another 8 years, but she succeeded when all before her had failed. Alone in life, she had sold her house and moved into a room on campus. It saved her commuting time, maintenance effort, and the cafeteria provided her with somewhat regular and sustaining meals. When she had finally cured ALS, she knew she had made a real contribution towards improving the human condition. Although her Nobel Laureate was for unravelling the mysteries behind gene wrapping, she knew it was really for her life-long achievements.
She looked up at the slide on the screen, and continued her presentation. As she explicated on the mysteries of protein encodings, her hand fingered the bottle in her pocket. As a medical researcher, it had been easy to obtain a few dozen prescription grade sleeping pills. Tonight, in the penthouse suite of the Stockholm Hilton, after a simple dinner, she would open a bottle of wine, listen to some music, and when it was time for bed, she would swallow the pills, and join her son. The years of loneliness, isolation, and solitude would finally be over. She had achieved success, but the price had been far too high.