Illustration by Angelika Manhart
The sincerest form of flattery

A Scientific Family Portrait

By Anasuya Das

The conference is for vision scientists, by vision scientists, but it is held in a sprawling hotel that is disguised to look like a cheap 1960s motel resort, complete with fake palms, tropical cocktail vending tepee huts and captive swans. Giant blue sea creatures are painted onto whitewashed halls, while friendly staff in flowery shirts try and look busy. A towering, engorged water slide, made out of inflated rubber, sits like a creature from the Cretaceous, guarding the entrance to the beach, which has pure white sands and water like crystal blue.

I am seated in a white plastic chair, surrounded by a cloudless blue sky. This is a lawn in the back of the conference hotel, studded with picnic tables, shaded by a sand pine, protected from the beach sounds by a hedge. A breeze cuts through the heat. Stay too long in any one place and your skin starts to sizzle, like a steak landing on a hot grill. Gulls scream like tortured infants in the sky, begging for scraps of food. Beyond the hedge the heat shimmers like an oily fire on the sand, further obscuring the distant pudginess of the humans wobbling on the beach.

Three white tablecloth covered tables have resolved into place, under tall white umbrellas. Still pale figures in flowing beach clothes chatter excitedly, under a merciless Florida sun.

The lab head, whose quick eyes and charming laughter have the energy of a much younger woman, is a female head honcho type that I have only recently come to appreciate, the type that is warmly interpersonal yet secretly manipulative.

I sit at the kids’ table, surrounded by the younger graduate students and post-docs1, listlessly pushing food around my plate. The monochrome potato salad and grey turkey sandwich is strangely at odds with the vivid blue sky and pungent beach odors. I laugh uneasily. The youngest in the lab says something about splitting a brownie. The slowly melting sticky brownies, I have to admit, are delicious.

I look over to the middle table, middle only because of the people sitting at it, as the tables are strewn in no order. They are the freshly minted faculty and older post-docs2, trying hard to find their own footing on a slippery slope. They laugh easily, but the shadows on their faces belie the stress of their lives. There is an air of slight resentment about that table, as if they want to break free of their scientific mother, but are still engulfed by her smothering. But what do I know, I am just a young post-doc.

The last table is also the loudest. I have to crane my neck to catch a glimpse of all their faces. She clearly does all the talking, drawing them in, in an easy camaraderie. I think, she isn’t really their scientific mother. They are the ones who have graduated to being something akin to an equal. Is it because she was barely older than them, or is it because they knew her before she had her children?

A gull screeches. It is picture time.

We cluster under the pine tree. I stand in the back, hoping tall guy whose name I don’t know will shield me from the searching eye of the camera. I can smell the salt and the sweat of everyone around me. And before I know it, someone realizes and doesn’t want me to be invisible anymore, and I get elbowed right to the front, right next to her. I grimace, and the picture gets taken. But the funniest face isn’t mine. That belongs to one of the middling post-docs, still trying to break free. He stands slightly apart from the cluster that we are, just far enough that he is still in the nearest orbit. His bald head is perfectly complimented by the large giant O formed by his mouth, as if to show he was taken by utter and complete surprise, but his eyes, large black twinkling eyes, are derisive and sardonic.


1. We were basically three graduate students and three post-docs, too shy to mix with the older lab alumnae and too green behind the ears to know we should.

2. Except for the two young post-docs who were her favorites and were socially adept enough.

[2014, after David Foster Wallace]

Anasuya Das used to be a Psych/CNS post doc at NYU and is currently a senior data scientist for the Dataproducts team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.