Chapter 12

Inside Scoop

Dr. Robert McGregor, Research Assistant Professor, plodded behind me as I walked to the elevator. He was a tall, heavy guy, with a high, oversized rear end and a pair of observant eyes. Someone said he was a Canadian of Scottish extraction. In his late thirties, he was old for an assistant professor. I pushed the button and quickly thought up some elevator small-talk.

     "Iím going to start bringing my lunch to the seminar. My stomach isnít used to waiting to one oíclock."

     "The seminar got my juices going, too," McGregor said, semi-relevantly. "Today, we saw what happens when you spend all your time chasing grant money and forget about solving scientific problems."

     "I havenít been around here long enough to understand what you mean," I half-lied. Sometimes itís smarter to act dumb.

     "You arenít all that green. Youíve been doing chemistry for the Medical Examinerís Office for a long time." He scrutinized me. "The word is that youíre a whiz at instrumental analysis. I was there when we considered your application, Candidi."

     I tried to not show surprise. "But all I did was some analytical chemistry. I never did anything with chimeric proteins, genetic engineering or anything," I said, stalling for time.

     "You worked with HPLC chromatography, didnít you? You know that your choice of column-packing material determines how long a molecule is held back, donít you?"


     "Well," he said, leading me out at the ground floor, "letís say you run your molecule X through a carobowax column and it gets held back for one minute. And, when you run it through a plasto-wax column which binds molecule X more tightly, it gets held back for two minutes. Now, you pack a new column thatís half carbowax and half plasto-wax? Now how long does it get held back?"

     "Itís common sense. Iíd split the difference. One and one-half minutes," I answered, hesitating near the front entrance.

     "Right on!" he said, leaning his big rear end against the guardís desk. "And why?" he demanded.

     The guard wasnít used to scientific discussions in front of his workstation. I took a couple of steps towards the door before answering, "It wouldnít be any use to make guesses with a complicated theory because the difference wasnít very large anyway."

     "And that, Candidi, is exactly the problem with Wongís seminar ó and Cooperís whole research program. They were chasing factors of two. A real effect has to make something five or ten times larger. Wongís molecular genetics and chimeras was just a bunch of hand-waving. We already know that one end of the molecule binds calcium and the other anchors the molecule. Cooper and Wongís work was a big waste of time ó and money ó which is getting pretty scarce nowadays. And that really gets my stomach acid churning. Candidi, are you going to the Sub Shop? Iíve seen you there before."

     McGregor stepped toward the door, and the guard looked relieved. On the walk to the Sub Shop, I learned about Dr. McGregorís research methods. He didnít need any molecular-genetic tricks like Drs. Wong, Strutz and Gunnison. He determined which molecules "talked" to each other inside a living cell by chemically trapping them while they were bound together. If molecules were people, it would be like seeing a man and a woman together every day at the Sub Shop and suspecting that "something was going on." McGregorís method would be to catch them in the act by handcuffing them together.

     I told him it was a clever method, and he invited me to do a rotation in his lab under the tutelage of Dr. Kozinski. As a "research assistant professor," McGregor couldnít have his own graduate students. That was a shame, because he seemed to be a good teacher.

     After the waitress took our orders, I tested my understanding of McGregorís methods. "If you were going to attack Wongís problem, you would probably add your cross-linker to his barnacle muscles and see what proteins get handcuffed to his Calbarn."

     "Chemically handcuffing! Hey, thatís a good expression, Candidi! Yes, Iíd handcuff them, put them on SDS gel electrophoresis plates, and turn on the electricity to spread them out. Then Iíd use identifying antibodies and molecular weights to figure out who got handcuffed to whom in the gemisch."

     Another Germanophile.

     Thereís nothing as exciting as a good scientific discussion. Could I channel McGregorís enthusiasm into help with my investigation? I popped a leading question. "The Department seems split on the value of this molecular genetic stuff."

     "Right. Until he died, Cooper had a lot of people nervous that molecular genetics might be the only type of research you can do here. But without him pushing it down our throats, molecular genetic research seems to be losing a lot of its momentum."

     "You seem to be on the other side."

     "Well you see, Candidi, Iím one of those researchers whoís blessed with a system which runs on brain power, and not on Chinese coolie labor. Look at me: Iím the whole McGregor laboratory! No technicians, post-docs or anything. Well, maybe an occasional high school student. I run my show for $25,000 a year. Now you look at Cooperís ex-empire. He was burning $400,000 a year. Easy! And the Department paid most of it. Like Wongís salary."

     Hanging on McGregorís words, I did my best to keep him primed.

     "Wong really got raked over the coals today."

     "Yeah," McGregor chuckled. "Johnson spotted him on that Ďonly a factor of twoí business and Taylor nailed him to the wall by the seat of his pants. And this time he didnít have Cooper to protect him."

     "I take it that you didnít think much of Cooper."

     "The guy really wasnít that smart. And he didnít have much imagination, either. To him, science was doing the same old crap over and over, occasionally with a new twist. And he played politics."

     "You mean local politics?"

     "He played politics with the Dean and played dictator with the rest of us. But he was good at acting pompous and getting underlings to do his dirty work. He spent a lot of energy keeping track of who would and wouldnít kiss his ass." A middle-aged woman at the next table cleared her throat in protest, but McGregor didnít notice. "Cooper also had this dominance thing."

     "How did it work?"

     "Heíd stare at you, without saying anything, and you were supposed to supply the conversation. He wasnít much of a conversationalist anyway. If you kowtowed to him, then he knew he controlled you. Then he might even be friendly. But if you acted independent, he didnít like you. Saddam Hussein uses the same technique."

     "How did Cooper keep control?"

     "He was always bringing in new assistant professors and mixing things up. And the Dean of the Medical School thinks that bigger is better. More grants generate more overhead payments from the NIH ó the National Institutes of Health."

     McGregor painted a grim picture of academic biomedical science. The faculty were forever chasing "soft money," writing grant proposals to finance their labs and pay their salaries. And they had to bring in soft money because the medical school hired five times as many faculty as could be paid from their normal "hard money" operating funds. A newly-hired assistant professor had five years to establish a track record getting grants and to earn the award of "tenure." And he couldnít get tenure without a favorable letter from his chairman. To complete his control, Cooper pitted his new assistant professors against the tenured associate professors and full professors. If a tenured professor wasnít earning half of his salary from grants, Cooper would threaten to reduce his salary, reinventing tenure policy as he went along.

     "Guys like me, who are not on the tenure track, we had to worry about Cooper all the time. Iím paid by soft money only. If I lose a grant, Iím washed up. Iíd be sacked, with one month grace period for every year Iíve been here. Once thatís used up, itís curtains. And they would never have to hire me back."

     He told me how the medical school profited from his federal grants by receiving inflated "fringe benefit" and "overhead" payments, using these profits to erect new buildings to be filled with more "soft money slave scientists." He compared the med school with a sugar plantation. Cooper was a brutal overseer, and the scientists were expendable slave labor.

     "You make it sound like I signed up for gladiator school. They keep throwing you into the ring, and only the survivors crawl out of the sand to fight again."

     McGregorís face clouded over. He didnít answer me right away.

     "Yeah, itís a tough career you signed up for, kid."

     The waitress brought our sandwiches. I let McGregor get in a few bites before restarting the conversation.

     "If the soft money system was so bad anyway, why was Cooper so disliked? You might say that the hardship just goes with the territory."

     "We hated him because he grabbed all the hard money for himself. He didnít have enough sympathy in his heart to toss even a crumb to the rest of us," he said with disgust.

     Maybe I could learn who disliked Cooper enough to kill him. "I guess that you Ďsoft money slavesí got the last laugh. You are walking the earth and heís six feet under."

     "Sudden death by arrhythmia, they say. He probably didnít know what he was harboring in himself."

     Walking back to the Department, we explored the origins of the expression "harboring the seeds of destruction within himself." That brought us to Saddam Hussein, which brought us to the nuclear threat, to its influence on the psychology of the 1950s through the 1980s, to the nature of the Russian soul, to Chekhov and Dostoevski ó which almost brought us back to Cooper.

     I first worried that Dr. McGregor would dry up like an oil well thatís pumped too hard. But I was to learn that he was a veritable artesian well. As we left the elevator, going our separate ways, he said, "Maybe Iíll see you for lunch after the next seminar."

     "That would be great, Dr. McGregor."

     "Call me Rob."

     What a contrast between his cumbersome walk and his dancing intellect. He took his time getting there, but he didnít miss a thing along the way. What a versatile conversationalist. In his inquisitive mode, he had trained all senses on me, making it impossible to keep secrets from him. In his briefing mode, he had transmitted valuable information from his deepest memory banks at high baud rate, hardly noticing me during the transfer.

     That evening on Diogenes I paced the deck, this time in elation. McGregor had explained it so nicely: Cooper the tyrant, Wong his flunkie, the Old Guardís attack on him, and the New Guardís loyalty to their dead master, revealed by their defense of Wong with their polite technical questions. Stampawicz, normally a stickler for logic, had tried to deflect Taylorís criticism of Wong, with his "getting out of the line of fire" comment.

     Yes, the Old Guard was the enemy camp and Ashton was its stealth warrior. And if Westley didnít give me strong signals of agreement, I would snatch off his veil of sacred choirboy innocence.

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