In her new book, author Megan Abbott explores the lives of postdocs in a prestigious university lab.

JEAN-PHILIPPE BALTEL/SIPA/AP IMAGES

A suspenseful (fictional) look at women in the lab

This column usually scrutinizes the situation of early-career scientists through the lens of the latest academic or policy research and commentary. This month, however, a new novel offers a view of academic research that we only occasionally get to see. In Give Me Your Hand, published in July and reportedly slated to become a TV show, suspense author Megan Abbott skillfully refracts the anxious, penurious lives of postdocs in a prestigious university lab through the prisms of morality and emotion, values and individual character. 

Abbott specializes in taut, claustrophobic psychological thrillers that explore the choices and missteps of high-achieving young women, and Give Me Your Hand demonstrates her command of the form. A literature Ph.D. with a scholarly interest in hard-boiled crime fiction and experience teaching at several universities, she understands academe and how to build suspense. She has also studied the workings of labs.

Scientists will likely find much to relate to as the protagonist, Kit Owens, and her colleagues make their way in the mercilessly competitive world of big-time research. Abbott’s tightly wound and ultimately bloody tale of friendship and rivalry turns on a few events that fall outside the normal, mundane routines of day-to-day research life. But those who understand the catastrophic possibilities of sloppy experimental technique or remember the highly publicized 2009 murder of Yale University pharmacology graduate student Annie Le know that labs can harbor unexpected dangers. (Spoiler alert: Those who recall the lurid details of that case have a head start on guessing the book’s denouement.) Abbott has also given her scientists a research interest that elides with a larger question that the book explores: whether character and resulting behavior are inborn or shaped by experience.

Friends and competitors

The story begins as Kit, a senior at a run-of-the-mill high school who works an afterschool fast food job to help her struggling single mother, becomes friends with a new girl. Diane Fleming arrives at Kit’s school radiating talent and ambition, plus the polish of family money. By pacing the newcomer both on the cross-country running team and in AP chemistry class, Kit gains a new sense of her own abilities and possibilities. The two also share some dark secrets. Kit ends the year—to her surprise—as winner of a competitive full scholarship to the state university, which will enable a science education far better than that possible at the local commuter college she had formerly considered the limit of her collegiate hopes.

Fast-forward a dozen years, and Kit has established an outstanding record as a gifted, committed, supremely hard-working scientist. She is a postdoc in the lab of professor Lena Severin, a stylish, charismatic, astute, and highly successful academic operator. Severin has just landed a large, prestigious grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which causes depression, anxiety, anger, and hostility severe enough to upend lives and relationships in as many as 5% of women. The new study offers everything that an ambitious young scientist aiming at a research career could ask for. It encapsulates a profound scientific mystery—the complex tie between physiology and emotion, cognition, and behavior—in a recurring health condition that regularly affects millions of lives. Studying PMDD affords researchers the chance to do great good and also to do very well both scientifically and financially, producing a bounty of journal articles and maybe even some lucrative patents. 

Two postdoc slots are available on the grant, and Kit—the only female postdoc in the lab—has high hopes of landing one. But before Kit and her male colleagues learn who gets the slots that all have been keenly angling for, a new postdoc joins the lab—none other than Diane, whom Kit has not seen since leaving for college. Diane comes trailing both the secrets from high school and a CV even more stellar than Kit’s, including honors degrees from an expensive, topflight private university and publications in major journals. Severin has in fact poached her from a leading competitor’s lab specifically for the new grant. Adding this new element to the already volatile mix in Severin’s lab leads to tightening tension and, ultimately, explosive results.

Women’s work

As Abbott unwinds the clockwork plot she has expertly constructed, her story focuses on women succeeding in the pressured world of research. She presents them not as victims of discrimination or harassment but as winners—fierce, driven, canny, relentless competitors willing to work harder and smarter than any of the men around them to achieve the results and recognition they desire and deserve. The men around them clearly harbor some negative attitudes about women in science, but the women strive to devise strategies that defeat ideas that could hold them back.

Severin, for example, uses a combination of elegance, shrewdness, impenetrable confidence, subtle sexuality, and dynamic research to defy all stereotypes of female scientists as dismissible, incapable, or unfundable. She has also deployed her prominence as a researcher to create women-centered networks that can nourish and support talent and ambition, both her own and those of younger women. Building her reputation through groundbreaking research that raises the visibility of long-ignored issues of pressing concern to many women, she has broadened her field’s theoretical concerns and increased its attractiveness to talented female scientists like Kit and Diane. Severin has also actively nurtured and mentored girls through initiatives such as sponsoring the scholarship that Kit won and giving talks about her work, career, and scientific vision to precollege girls. Kit, meanwhile, understands that her own success, powered by an unwavering focus on her work, rests on a foundation of female encouragement that began in high school with a sprinkling of sympathetic teachers, her study partnership with Diane, and Severin’s distant example. None of this denies that women such as Severin have faced some serious challenges, but we see how female solidarity can help overcome them.  

For all its detailed picture of lab life, though, this book is not at bottom about science, but about the origins of evil. The twisted cords that animate its characters belong not to the double helix but to the singular mystery of the human heart. Scientists are people first, and the issues of motivation, memory, anger, ambition, and resentment that Abbott explores resonate as strongly in her intricately imagined Severin lab as they do wherever people compete for scarce but fiercely coveted rewards.

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