Illustration by Angelika Manhart
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Perfect Storm

By Aditi Nadkarni

Disclaimer: The story, names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this account are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (tenured or untenured), places, buildings, and products is intended nor should be inferred. No animals or visiting postdocs were harmed in the making of this story.

It was finally spring in Toledo, Ohio. No more snow harvested from the great lakes of Michigan was being dumped on our heads. The medical students were on vacation, leaving us humble graduate students the luxury of better parking spaces and shorter cafeteria lines. Like the blooming foliage, our lab was expanding. Until that April, we had been a small group of four. Our mentor, the head of the lab, was the perennially jovial and geeky Dr. D who ended every lab meeting with a cheerful “May the force be with you!” no matter how terrible our data looked or how many experiments had been ruined that week by a fungal contamination. Ron, our awkward M.D.-Ph.D. student, was a pristine product of the conservative Nazarene Christian University. He chastised us with Bible verses if we left reagents out by accident because we were heathens as it is and leaving culture media out all night just made things worse for us in terms of the afterlife. John’s dry wit and hippie-like nonchalance made him seem more like the boss than the lab technician. And I, newbie and wide-eyed spectator, was the only woman in the group.

Dr. D announced one day that a new postdoctoral fellow, Vikram, was coming in for an interview. Vikram had an unfortunate yet amusing backstory which Dr. D recounted as soberly and briefly as he possibly could. Vikram had arrived from India a month ago to join the laboratory of a certain Dr. Vikram Faiz at our university. This fresh-off-the-boat postdoctoral fellow paid a hefty price for sharing his first name with his boss. About two weeks into his postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Faiz, Vikram was eating lunch in the coffee room when two tall police detectives walked in, confirmed that his name was Vikram, read him his Miranda rights and arrested the poor man before he had a chance to bite into his chicken tikka masala. At the police station, the officers figured out that this was not the Vikram they had been looking for. After all, to cops in Toledo, OH, Indians all looked the same. The police had wanted Dr. Vikram Faiz who, accused of molestation and sexual assault by one of his undergraduate researchers, was to be escorted off campus.

Vikram the postdoctoral fellow was now sitting in front of us inexplicably dressed for a snow day in the middle of spring, telling us about the unfortunate incident that led to his previous boss’s arrest and his own consequent unemployment. Immigrant postdoctoral researchers are at the mercy of the supervisor who brings them to America, so like a shipwrecked sailor on unfamiliar shores, Vikram was in search of a new captain and crew. Every now and then, when mentioning the allegations leveled against Dr. Faiz, Vikram lowered his voice to a whisper as if the man in question were hiding under the coffee table, listening in on our conversation. But Vikram did light up when he told us that he had fortuitously inherited his now infamous boss’s fancy new laptop computer. To get a free Apple product from the immunology department was no minor feat!

Vikram was ready to deliver his interview seminar and the projector was roaring to life as we all gathered in the meeting room with our post-lunch coffee. We put aside that one dangerous chair which had the reputation of toppling unsuspecting userson multiple occasions. With that hazard safely parked near the window, we helped the interviewee hook his laptop to the projector screen. His presentation popped up in an eye-catching royal blue and gold layout.

“Oh nice—UMich colors in Ohio!” John observed. Everyone had to be aware of the famous Ohio-Michigan football rivalry once they stepped foot in either state.

“No Mister John—I am not missing colors in Ohio at all. So many beautiful flowers in Ohio!” Vikram countered and John shot me a “What in the world is he talking about?!” look.

Vikram was going to talk about immunology to us–a group of pharmacologists who tried our best to stay away from immunology unless our allergies kicked in. Dr. D had warned us to appear well-informed and ask good questions to test this candidate, so we were prepared. But we were not prepared for what happened next.

Vikram was on his fifth slide describing how recombination played a role in immune responses when his computer and our projector simultaneously made whirring sounds and a small black box appeared on the screen. We wondered if Vikram was pulling up an animated movie to demonstrate the immune response but he too was frowning in confusion.

“The slide is not moving ahead Dr. D” he said, clicking the keyboard. Repeatedly hitting a key is by far the surest way to fix any computer problem. That’s when it happened. At first none of us recognized the ample shape that had appeared in the black box but very soon and in horror we recognized a woman’s bare posterior gyrating and thrusting on our screen. No sooner had we realized what our eyes were witnessing than loud moans and whimpers started to flood the room. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ron cross himself, but without taking his eyes off the screen. We were all transfixed for a few seconds not knowing how to react. Vikram looked like he was going to cry. He immediately rushed over to the computer and we all awkwardly looked away waiting for this minor disruption to be over when he closed the browser. These things happen. We’ll all laugh about it after the talk. But it got worse.

“It is frozen! It is frozen!” Vikram screamed like he was sounding a verbal fire alarm and quite ominously in the background the moans grew louder. Dr. D’s expression of calm had disappeared and was now replaced with one of perplexed concern.

“Hmm,” he began, getting out of his chair not fast enough for the rest of us, “perhaps we should try switching off the computer.”

“Oh! The computer can only be switched off if the projector system to which it is remotely connected can be switched off,” John answered. “Where is the remote control for the projector?”

We all scrambled to our feet at once, frantic to be preoccupied during the embarrassing scene unfolding on the screen in front of us. Only Ron sat transfixed, a picture of awe and curiosity. We could not locate the remote control and Dr. D walked over to the laptop to see if he could switch off the power supply. But holding the button down did not seem to do much. The screen was frozen and a rainbow colored globe revolved on its uncooperative face mocking our panicked attempts to stop it.

“Hello there!” a friendly female voice said animatedly and we all turned to look at the door — but the door was closed. We realized that the flirtatious voice was coming from the speakers.

“Are you in Toledo? I am in Toledo too! Wanna have some fun?” asked a buxom blonde from the black box on the screen as she prepared to undress. Ron looked heavenwards as if in silent prayer.

“Oh no! How is this woman knowing where we are?” Vikram shrieked hysterically. He had already been accidentally arrested for molestation once and was now looking around in frenzy as if half-expecting police officers to jump out from behind the curtains to catch him red-handed with pornography.

“I am not doing this Dr. D!” he wailed, and for a second we all pondered the mystifying possibility of a postdoctoral interviewee sabotaging his own job interview with pornography. Dr. D patted the distraught man’s back reassuringly and got down on his knees to turn the speakers off. Only Dr. D could demonstrate such composure in the face of such provocative circumstances.

“Vikram! Don’t worry” John chimed in, “These sites just use your IP address and then the actress pretends to know where you are. It is all just a ploy to get your credit card information.”

“Oh I see, I see!” a relieved Vikram nodding furiously, as we all turned to look at John. He sure seemed to know a lot about the subject.

“You are so wise to be knowing all of this Mister John!” Vikram said with reverence and John turned bright pink since this was not an area in which he had wanted to be proclaimed an expert in lab meeting.

When Ramsey the technical support guy finally arrived, our level of desperation had peaked. We were deliriously cheering John who was standing on the meeting table with a broom in hand trying to manually switch off the projector system wedged in the ceiling. In what seemed like a mere seconds following his arrival, Ramsey restored sanity and managed to switch off the system, putting an end to Vikram’s ordeal and Ron’s hypnotic state. Ramsey suggested several ways in which we could have nipped this incident in the bud and we were disappointed that none of us had thought of those simple solutions. Vikram almost kissed the man in gratitude and apologized to all of us quite profusely as if it was him who in a moment of temporary insanity had performed obscene acts during the presentation. Ramsey ignored Vikram’s effusive praise and dryly informed us that the laptop’s hard drive had a lot of pornography on it. We assumed its colorful previous owner, Dr. Faiz, might have had a fondness for this type of entertainment.

We brought Vikram some water and he said he needed some air. We valiantly opened the windows for him (although having him remove two out of the three layers of clothing he was wearing would have worked just as well). Now in hindsight, I think that the universe had already planned a terrible conclusion to Vikram’s ill-fated interview. In our attempt to calm him down we ushered him to the open window and inadvertently sat him down in that one deadly chair we had so carefully isolated away from the discussion table. All I remember is that just as the poor man rested his relieved shoulders on that evil chair, it lifted him by the hips, and yanked up his trousers to reveal thin, hairy calves as his legs went flying through the air. For a brief moment, his scarf levitated pathetically above his head before smothering his face as he landed on his back on the floor. To this day I feel a surge of guilt when I remember the stunned look on his face.

Later that afternoon, as our lab glumly watched Vikram hobble away from the lab meeting with a bandage on his elbow, I heard Dr. D mutter “May the force be with you!”

[Inspired by Mary Karr]


Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer research scientist who currently works with John Wiley & Sons.