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Experimental Error: Fetus Don't Fail Me Now

Photo by Dan Koestler

I'm staring down the eyepiece of a microscope at a tangled but orderly mass of cells, moving the stage past the mucoid connective tissue to examine the concentric circles of a placental vein. All in all, it's a fairly normal activity for a biologist except that the sample I'm examining is a cross-section of my own umbilicus.

Not "my own" as in "I purchased it from a biological supply company," but as in "these are actually the freaking cells that connected me to my mother 32 years ago."

Despite having taken graduate-level developmental biology, I still found myself staring at Maya in complete awe and wonder, amazed at her blue eyes and the tininess of her toenails, convinced of the sheer impossibility of her existence.

At the time I was born, my mother worked in an anatomy lab at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The control of biological material must have been a bit more lax in the late 1970s (maybe cautiousness inversely correlates with lapel width), because she was somehow able to sneak a piece of my (our) umbilical cord to her lab microtome, where she carved two thin sections and mounted them on glass slides, just for fun.

Perhaps it was Bring an Unsanitary Piece of Your Child to Work Day.

Five presidential administrations later, in a different biology lab in a different city, I'm photographing the cells -- because it might be neat to put the pictures on Facebook -- and expecting my own first child.

The obvious question (besides "How would you tag your umbilicus on Facebook?") is, “What sort of parent would prepare such a specimen, much less save it for 3 decades?” And the answer is, a scientist.

* * *

I don't know how other prospective fathers treat their wives' pregnancies, but I saw it as a science project. It had a protocol, parameters, a timeline, and even the one item that makes funding agencies happy: a deliverable. I found myself poking at my wife's abdomen, asking, "Who's Daddy's little gestating blastocyst? Who's recapitulating phylogeny?" If I had published the results in a peer-reviewed journal, the article would have looked like this:

It's important to start kids on a career path early, which is why I already anticipate lobbying my daughter to become a scientist. "See the pretty flowers!" I'll tell her. "Don't they make you want to submit an R01 proposal to study an obscure transmembrane protein in their plasmodesmata?"

Scientists speak to their children differently than most people, and I'll probably find myself saying one or more of the following:

- "I'll pick you up from school at 3:30 ± 10 minutes."

- "Oh, I see. And if all of your friends rejected the Copernican principle, does that mean you would, too?"

- "I know you like peanut butter, but I don't know if you like peanut butter and jelly, so I packed you one sandwich of each. The peanut-butter-only sandwich is the control group."

- "Don't waste food! There are starving grad students in the world!"

- "If you kids don't quiet down back there, I swear I'll turn this car π radians."

- "Sorry, I'd love to buy you that video game system, but the funding didn't come through."

- "I brought you into this world, and global climate change brought about by excess carbon emissions can take you out."

- "If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll never grow up to be big and strong, which is probably okay because then you won't be able to beat me up."

- "Because I said so, that's why. And in this family, I have tenure."

They say it's narcissistic to push your kids to follow in your footsteps, but when they say that, they must be talking about other people. After all, my footsteps, often covered with disposable clean-room booties, lead to science, which is a responsibly nerdy career choice. Or is it?

Nerdy, yes -- but how responsible is it to encourage a child to study arduously for decades to compete for a slot in an inadequate job market? The same parents who beam at their child's repertoire of AP science courses eventually stop bragging when the child's Ph.D. program enters its fifth, sixth, or eighth year. They become curiously quiet when their child, flush with advanced degrees, moves back into their basement and takes a job at Chili's. Success in science is hardly guaranteed -- a feature that makes science all the more intriguing to us but scarier as a choice for our children.

Then again, her whole upbringing will be an experiment. I'll form hypotheses about how to stop her from crying, interpolate the correct amount to feed her, and draw conclusions using a specialized vocabulary (e.g., "Two Ba-bas before night-night results in big poo-poo.")

And while I experiment on her, though she may not glean a love of science, she may subconsciously learn the tenets of the scientific method. She may even use them on me, testing and probing to find which sad face results in my buying her a puppy.

* * *

My daughter Maya was born on a Wednesday night in April, an event I will fondly remember as the last time I slept more than two consecutive hours.

I've known for a long time where babies come from. (True story: At age 9, I was in line with my parents at Kmart, and I saw a tabloid headline that read, "Boy, 12, Makes Teacher and Six Classmates Pregnant," and I said loudly to my parents, "That's ridiculous! How can you make someone pregnant?" Then we had a little talk.) But as with all things in science, knowing the theory is very different from watching the results evolve in practice. This is why, despite having taken graduate-level developmental biology, I still found myself staring at Maya in complete awe and wonder, amazed at her blue eyes and the tininess of her toenails, convinced of the sheer impossibility of her existence.

How will she perceive the world? What aspects of the universe will she help elucidate? What problems will she solve?

I gazed at this miniature thing as it squirmed in its plastic hospital tray.

It's bald. It babbles incoherently. It has difficulty expressing itself, and it never seems to sleep enough.

Congratulations, I thought. It's a scientist.