Illustration by Angelika Manhart
The sincerest form of flattery

Grit and Grantsmanship

By Daniela Schiller

Dr. Langley had long ago settled in at Pumpley University. The exorbitant space of his laboratories expanded over the majority of the sixteenth floor of the Greenwood building. This was more than enough to host his many generations of students. The experimentation rooms were at the center of this great hall where, for many years, diligent and indolent students alike conducted research in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding colleagues, and a reputation which travelled well and far beyond the great scientific community of all the sprawling Cavendish metropolis.

By a former affiliation, Dr. Langley was in the possession of not one but two large grants, a generous endowment from the esteemed McDuffit Foundation. The principal investigator of these grants was once a certain Dr. Bakersfield, Dr. Langley’s graduate mentor, who, for the many years of his scientific vocation, luxuriated in a constant flow of research grants. The retirement of his wife, however, two years before his own, produced a great alteration in his domestic situation: observing her abundance of serene leisure time, he decided, rather hastily, to retire himself, the better to enjoy her amiable, quick-witted company.

Indeed, the transition of a grant from a well-respected professor to a young inexperienced researcher as was Dr. Langley at the time, was utterly intolerable to the McDuffit Foundation, and had occurred not even once in all of its illustrious history. But Dr. Bakersfield, being amiable and quick-witted himself, a mannish variant of his lovely wife, persuasively presented his case to the Board, along with a fierce attestation to Dr. Langley’s impeccable aptitude certain to make excellent use of the grants for dissecting the semi-humanoid vestibules valve, a mysterious harbinger of death to the heart.

All manner of steady, sensible postdoctoral fellows and sagacious but afflicted graduate students were amply provided for by the fortune of their mentor. In their society were Dr. Langley’s days contentedly spent. “If I can but see one of my manuscripts published in Nature a year,” said Dr. Langley one day to Mrs. Bassett, his administrator of laboratory affairs, “and all the others equally well published, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

The Langley Laboratory’s lavish good fortune lingered twelve years and a half. During this time Dr. Langley cared for each of his students with an even heart, just as he applied an even hand to each of his many manuscripts. Only with the mildest inequity had he come to reserve an enhanced affection for one novice researcher, a Dr. Rosie Davenport. Had he known his luck would reverse itself so suddenly, not a year after her arrival, he would not have drawn her so readily into his cohort with the prospect of generous stipend of thirty five thousand a year.

Rosie, the youngest postdoc, had a wit both sharp and swift, with the rare skill of lacerating scientific ideas with a swordsman’s shrewdness. Thus did she often counter, for the benefit of all, the increasingly imprudent mind of Dr. Langley. An unusual invention formulated by a venerable rival, a long-held scholar of the semi-humanoid valve, had begun to thwart Dr. Langley’s success in grantsmanship. No sooner was his long streak of generous funding over and done with, when it was understood that all government funding had been drawn to the fugacious valve contraption, whose intricacy exceeded Dr. Langley’s arduous form of a valve.

Dr. Langley’s displeasure was, at first, severe; but in his resourcefulness he set about to reassess their situation with the capable Mrs. Bassett. On her way into the office, limping slightly due to the uneven allotment of assorted papers, bills and books piled upon her sturdy hands, Mrs. Bassett assured Dr. Langley that on the basis of her meticulous study of the laboratory’s accounting, all postdoctoral fellows were to leave no later than one year hence, and their remaining income was to be evenly distributed among the graduate apprentices, who themselves would be distributed among Dr. Langley’s charitable colleagues.

“And the three elder postdocs are taken care of,” Dr. Langley said to Mrs. Bassett, “by two papers apiece, to be published this year.”

It was the thought of Rosie that made his forehead wrinkle tightly, as if to guard a fugitive resolution within the precincts of his feverish mind. Had he given up the development of the valve, the resettlement of Rosie may have been a small matter. Of all the accomplished alumni of the Langley Laboratory, it had become apparent that Rosie was the sole counterpart capable of reshaping the valve, for it was within her bold ability to sculpt Langley’s raw ideas. But how was she to stay without a stipend of thirty five thousand a year? Finally, Dr. Langley dictated a letter to Mrs. Bassett, to be immediately delivered to Dr. Stevenson of Burton College, his dear friend, with whom he would enjoy a summer morning’s cup of tea and ardent conversation to a very advanced age.

An invitation for Rosie to visit Burton and its environs was soon afterward dispatched, and Rosie commenced planning her presentation of the meager data that, of no fault of her own, her short time with Dr. Langley had barely furnished her the opportunity to obtain. On the morning of departure, a wheezing Mrs. Bassett interrupted Rosie’s embarkation. “A letter for you, Dr. Davenport,” muttered Mrs. Bassett, carefully placing it in her hands.

One final thought, a fleeting idea, hand-delivered from Dr. Langley’s still struggling mind to Rosie Davenport’s indomitable one: a seed of a clue to be read and dissected. In the decade to come it will be carefully drowned, shredded and reborn: a glorious invention that will secure many lives — the Langley-Davenport fully humanoid valve.


Daniela Schiller is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the lavish Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Prior to that, she was a postdoctoral fellow at NYU’s esteemed Psychology Department and Center for Neural Science.