Illustration by Angelika Manhart
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The Gaping Hole

By Emily Atlas

… and when I say “presenting at a lab meeting,” I hope you know that I mean a coming together, well not quite a coming together, but an opening, no opening isn’t quite right either, but you get my gist, it’s a coming together, an opening, a culmination of sorts but also a beginning.

How should I describe it? Okay we’ll start here. The morning of a lab meeting, you wake up wondering why you fretted so much the previous night, what it is about presenting your work to a room full of friends that engages the figure so readily with so much adrenaline, so much perfectionism. But thinking this, you panic again and open your slides, checking them for typos, thinking about the reactions people will have to each slide, to each figure, to each word, to the font, to the color, to the organization, you begin wondering why is there a shadow and reflection on this text box, what will people think of such a juvenile feature?

I am you and you are me and we all have lab meeting, but somehow the week I have lab meeting is different from the week you have lab meeting and it seems everything is different but the same, different because I am me and you are you and I don’t know how you felt preparing your presentation, did you too make yourself a Lady Grey tea at 9:24 pm, hoping to finish the presentation within the next hour or did you wait until 9:56 and was it even Lady Grey? It doesn’t matter, but somehow it does. Am I being clear about the absurd mundaneness of the lab meeting but the way it grips us all differently, the way that there is nothing to say but everything to go on about?

We’re in a room with dim lights, not romantically dim but dismally dim, there are no windows, but it is very clearly morning, because the bagels are steaming, the people are chugging coffee and their voices are gruff, not gruff but gravelly with a hint of boredom and angst and a general sense of ennui. Am I being clear about the atmosphere? Maybe I should be more specific and firm, because it is important you see the room, feel it, feel the rough puffy chairs that seem comfortable for the first half hour but will make your back ache as the meeting drags along, progressing, but also digressing. It is important that you see that the bagels are the centerpiece of the room, the steaming pot of coffee, the entrance of the lab mates and their habitual seating arrangements, always being sure to leave the seat open where they know he will sit.

But it is in these moments of trial that the scientist grows, for without discussing the broader point, the detail can overtake and the lab meeting focuses on the detail, but also the broader point, the broader point of the detail but also the details of the broader point and it is in these details of the broader point that the scientist can find joy, find the explanations she seeks and the satisfaction of having completed a painting, outlining it and filling it in with a rainbow of chartreuse, forest green, dark khaki.

Lab business proceeds first, let’s discuss the plan for this repair or that, let’s discuss all the details that let us do experiments, write papers, make presentations, collect and interpret data, be scientists. Let us discuss and then we can discuss the science that results from these discussions, and administration may seem boring, but let me assure you that a lab without organization and planning is a lab without bagels at lab meeting. And I hope I have fully impressed upon you the importance of the lab meeting bagel. The bagel, in its Platonic form, is a torus, a form of beauty that my lab meeting or your lab meeting could only hope to replicate. It sets the bar high for the content of the lab meeting, no chart or plot could ever really, truly, faithfully compare to the beauty of the everything bagel, gracefully smeared with a jalapeño cream cheese.

And now come to think of it, it is with the bagel I can best describe the lab meeting, the full doughy form with a gaping hole, the hole that everyone sees, even me, even you but is fun to point out, the hole that makes science fulfilling but also so incredibly frustrating, the hole that could be filled with more bagel dough, but maybe not quite the same form, the same consistency. The holes in the data, I mean the bagel, but the data too if I am being honest, that is where I want, no need your advice, your experience, your intuition. That is what the lab meeting is for, though maybe the lab meeting is just for the bagel, and if it is for the bagel, that would be okay, but the bagel had better have everything.


Emily Atlas is a graduate of Columbia University and is currently a PhD candidate at The Rockefeller University.