Epiphany in a Labcoat
by Harry Itagaki, professor of biologyI was standing in front of the open lab freezer, ankle-deep in frozen, brainless mouse carcasses, each individually wrapped in plastic, when I had what felt to me like an epiphany. I must have stood there at least a minute, staring into the suddenly empty freezer late on a Friday afternoon, when the simple realization dawned on me: I didn't want to work on mice any more.
Let me recount how I'd come to be in that position. After getting my Ph.D., I'd taken a postdoctoral research fellowship at a medical school in Alabama. The project was figuring out the effects of anesthetics on brain function by studying a synapse in the mouse hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the processing and storage of memories. Over months in the lab, I'd worked out a routine. For each experiment, I'd get a mouse from the lab colony, do a quick cervical dislocation to kill it, remove the brain, then dissect out the hippocampus to do the physiology. I performed several of these experiments each morning and afternoon.
I had the option of bringing the mouse carcasses each day to the animal disposal facility across campus where they would be cremated. Alternatively, I could store the bodies in the lab freezer and just bring them all at once, a much simpler solution. By that Friday, the freezer was packed. I'd killed another half dozen mice that day, and none of the experiments had worked: the dissection was sloppy; the equipment had developed hiccups; the electrodes weren't working well—it was just a bad day. Full of guilt about all the mice I had killed, I was stuffing the last mouse carcass into the already brimming lab freezer when the avalanche of frozen mice fell around my feet.
I've always loved the process of doing science, especially when doing something technically difficult to find out things that people didn't know before, and there was much in the Alabama lab job that appealed to me. I enjoyed the physicality of the work: the execution of a fine dissection; the proper placement of the hippocampus into the tissue slicer to cut clean, even slices one-millimeter in thickness; the delicate act of moving the slices into the perfusion chamber. And I liked the technical challenge of placing electrodes into specific parts of the hippocampus where I could stimulate one set of neurons and record the post-synaptic responses of a second set of neurons, seeing how anesthesia affected the responses. In many ways, this was the most practical project I've ever worked on, as it related to real-life medical problems concerning the effects of anesthesia on the brain. But there were elements of the work I'd grown to dislike. I disliked the strict hierarchy of the medical school, I disliked having to dress up to go to work, even having to wear ties on occasion, and I particularly hated having to kill the mice, especially as I'd worked only on invertebrates before. In the mice, despite their small size, I just saw too much that hit too close to home.
I know that much important work is done on mice, work that has improved the health of many people here and elsewhere. But I came to the conclusion that I don't need to be the person doing this work. The ethical qualms don't entirely go away when I work on invertebrates, but the lack of bright eyes and fur and a distinct intelligence, along with the fact that I've often worked on pest insects, makes my recent work a better fit for my thinking and sensibilities.
Interestingly, this self-awareness eventually led me, in a roundabout way, to Gambier, since it prompted my decision to return to working on insects for my second postdoc. Projects involving higher vertebrates are challenging at small schools due to the costs and headaches of animal care. My research on invertebrates proved to be a good match for teaching at a college like Kenyon. Looking back, the ethical and moral issues that crystallized in my mind that Friday afternoon in Alabama led me not only to research that I enjoy more, but to work at a place that I've come to love.
And it all began with an avalanche of frozen, brainless mice!