Chapter 7

First Class

Over the Labor Day holiday, Coconut Grovites drank a lot of beer. And I did my part. I felt like an enlistee having one last fling before going to boot camp, saying goodbye to the old gang and looking forward to new friendships with my fellow recruits. Tuesday rolled around quickly. Although Sergeant Major Gordon Taylor said the first event would be a luncheon, the bulletin board stated that Membrane Biophysics 669 would meet at nine oíclock that same morning. When in doubt, go by the duty roster. So I reported for duty in the classroom at oh-eight-hundred and forty-five hours, a respectful 15 minutes early.

     The otherwise empty room contained a pleasant surprise: a strikingly good-looking, slim blonde about my age. Not bad for a fellow recruit! Our conversational preliminaries revealed that Cindy Larson had just received a B.A. in biology from New College in Sarasota. Itís Floridaís answer to Antioch, with a high ratio of faculty to students, and no tests or grades.

     Unfortunately, Cindy wasnít interested in hearing about Swarthmore. And she quickly proved too rich for my blood. Her wealthy parents lived in Palm Beach. Her leisure time was spent water skiing, horseback riding and snow skiing. A few seasons ski bumming in Vail were the probable explanation why she graduated five years later than most students.

     Cindy said she did a senior thesis titled "An Assessment of Meta-Analysis Applied to the Biomedical Sciences." It was one of those "hot new topics."

     A Chinese student sat next to me. Then two Chinese students sat behind him. Some more students sat toward the back of the room. Then the lecturer hurried in.

     "Now listen up everyone, ícause we donít have a lot of time. And I donít like to repeat myself. Iím Dr. Grant Johnson, and Iíve been assigned to give you guys the dope on cell membrane structure. They make me give these lectures so that youíll be set up to learn that more complicated stuff from them ó about membrane potential and gated ion channels ó and all that nerve-firing stuff. Get the basics from me, and you can learn the complicated stuff later. Anyway, Iím going to give it to you straight. If you donít get this simple stuff that Iím telling you now, when they get around to doing their stuff, you are going to be screwed up. And I mean, really screwed up."

     Todayís "screwed up" sounded just like last Fridayís "fucked up." Perhaps he would have used the stronger term if part of the class hadnít been female. His foreboding message was delivered in an almost friendly manner, like an older brother who knew he could tutor you out of an "F" in algebra if youíd only pay attention.

     Dr. Johnson drew a large circle on the board, called it a cell membrane, and started telling us how the cell membrane is "damn thin" and how it "keeps the good stuff in and the bad stuff out." He said that if you tear off the cell membrane, the cell will be shot.

     "Shot . . . kaputt . . . fucked!"

     The Chinese students nodded in understanding and agreement. Cindy smiled like sheíd received new and useful knowledge ó on this prof. Dr. Johnson glanced from one student to the next, satisfying himself that they were still "listening up."

     He presented lots of scientific details, but his only enduring message was that the membrane is "damn thin" and that even the slightest pinhole prick would "screw it up royally."

     Yes, cell membranes are made from "phospholipids" that look like old-fashioned clothes pins and line up like slats in a picket fence to form a "hydrophobic" barrier that is only four nanometers thick. But to me, Dr. Johnsonís lecture sounded like my old Swarthmore friend Richard Bash expounding on the significance of a pinhole leak in a prophylactic.

     Dr. Johnson wrote "4 x 10**-6 mm" on the board and looked around, as if seeking out anyone who did not know that the "-6" made it 0.000,004 millimeters. His didactic technique vacillated between the Socratic Method and plain old browbeating. He asked Cindy a direct question and she got it backward. During the exchange, which lasted a couple minutes, they both became visibly upset. Dr. Johnsonís right hand made an involuntary gesture like he had a fly buzzing in his face.

     Dr. Johnson told us the membrane acts as a "hydrophobic barrier" that keeps the potassium from flowing out of cell and keeps the sodium from flowing in. That was easy enough: It keeps the cell from getting fucked. He told us that the certain protein molecules sit in nerve membranes and act as channels, letting the potassiums and sodiums flow across the membrane.

     Dr. Johnson turned to a Chinese student a couple of rows back and asked about the ion permeability of a "hypothetical cell membrane which didnít have any ion channels." The student didnít understand what was meant by "hypothetical" and gave the wrong answer. Dr. Johnson harangued him pretty badly. The student persisted, saying that was what his professor had taught him back in Shanghai.

     "One thing youíve got to learn right away, if youíre going to survive here. What they taught you back there doesnít necessarily mean shit. Now listen up. Youíve got to understand this stuff for pharmacology. Now Mister ó what is your name?"

     "Chen."

     Addressing Mr. Chen by name, Johnson slowly went through his argument, step by step, carefully applying the Socratic Method. The guy got it backward again, and Johnson rolled his eyes to the ceiling and muttered under his breath something that sounded like "Jesus-honkers."

     Next, Dr. Johnson launched into a mini-lecture on how uncharged "hydrophobic" molecules can easily cross membranes. He said thatís the way most simple drugs get absorbed in the gut. This seemed to calm him down. Then he changed topics. He wrote on the board an equation describing the relationship between the membraneís "electrical capacitance" and its thickness.

     "Now, someone tell me what this means," he demanded, looking around the room. There was no answer. "Well, didnít any of you guys have any physics when you were in high school? Candidi, tell me what this means."

     It wasnít an easy question. I straightened up and looked carefully at the equation. It was analogous to the equation of an electrical capacitor which I had learned in physics, so I ventured a guess which turned out to be right. Johnsonís frown turned into a smile.

     "Bulls-eye and no bull-shit! You know how to give right answers, Candidi. Now thatís the way the rest of you guys should be answering these questions. Now what happens when we make the membrane thicker?"

     "The capacitance decreases."

     "Do the rest of you agree ó ?"

     And so it went for the rest of the "lecture." Dr. Johnson was Don Quixote, and I was his Sancho. In fluid sentences, he described how the cell is like a battery that gets charged up by Dr. Fleischmanís discovery, a protein called the "sodium-potassium ATPase" that sits in the membrane, tossing sodium out of the cell and potassium in. And he got through the rest of the lecture without using any four-letter words. But it was also clear that the best way to handle the course was to know all the stuff already!

     Around 10:30, Johnsonís digital watch started beeping and he abruptly ended his lecture by saying, "Now you guys get busy with those references in the syllabus and get on top of this stuff. Iíve got only two more sessions to spoon feed you."

     Cindy tried to detain him, but he shrugged her off saying, "Iíve got to get back to my experiment."

     "What a jerk!" Cindy exclaimed, seconds after Johnson left the room. "And we donít even have any syllabus or references."

     An older student in the back said, "Itís not all that bad. Youíve just got to read Stryerís textbook."

     Chen, the guy who got harangued, and his friend Zhang looked unsettled. They began comparing notes in their native language. One played back a hand-held tape recorder. Cindy looked over for a minute as if she wanted to borrow it.

     We milled around, getting acquainted. The guy who knew about Stryerís textbook was named Grant Shipley. He had been a practicing pharmacist for the last seven years. That experience might explain his quiet manner and sad eyes. Drugstore pharmacy can be hectic. Grant Shipley told me he was rusty on biology, but it would all come back to him.

     I talked to an attractive girl with dark curly hair who sat in the back. Maria Mendez was freshly-graduated from Barry University in North Miami where she said, "The sisters taught us most of this but not so mathematical." She had a serene, pleasant manner and spoke openly and with only a trace of accent.

     The stubborn Mr. Chen and his friend huddled around the tape recorder like victims of a shipwreck trying to start a signal fire.

     The guy who sat next to me remained calmly seated, putting the finishing touches on his lecture notes. The better I got to know Dr. Sheng-Ping Chow the more I admired him. In halting, muddy but enthusiastic English, he told me about the Peoples Republic of China. Whether or not to call him "doctor" became a source of continuous confusion for many of us. In China you become a physician when you receive your Bachelor of Medicine Degree, usually at the age of 23. The younger the better in a country where physicians make house calls on bicycles!

     But Dr. Sheng-Ping Chow was much more advanced than a barefoot physician. He had attended Peking Medical College, graduating at the top of his class. He stayed on to earn a Master of Medicine degree, working with sophisticated equipment to determine the pharmacological effects of an herbal compound.

      "It be diuretic," he explained. "It interfere with the sodium ion pump in kidney and make urine. It also have tissue-specific cyclic nucleotide effect. Be interesting for Western Biomedical Science."

     Studying this ancient Chinese nostrum using modern techniques was a part of his argument for getting permission to come to America. The other part of his argument was half of his life savings placed in the hands of the appropriate functionaries.

     "I bring ten grams of purified compound to use for dissertation," he said seriously.

     Considering that Western influence had been actively suppressed for most of Sheng-Pingís lifetime, he spoke English quite well.

     "We have English Club in University for better translating English science for use in our country."

     He punctuated the words "use in our country" with a twinkling of the eye, followed by a nervous laugh. I laughed too, and we hit it off very well. Sheng-Ping had a flat forehead, rough peasant-looking features but a great deal of physical dignity. And he was quite muscular.

     "Did you participate in a sports program?" I asked on a hunch.

     "Oh, I be captain of Peking Medical College Volleyball Team."

     "That sounds pretty demanding."

     "It rough. I have to throw self on floor harder than other team member," he said with a demonstrative gesture and a laugh.

     "I understand, Sheng-Ping," I said with a smile. "Good Communist leaders have to be ready to throw themselves down." This cracked him up and he slapped me on the shoulder.

     "You understand Peoples Republic good!"

     "Were you in Peking during the June 5, 1989 Tieneman Square Uprising?"

     Sheng-Ping glanced to both sides and his face clouded over. "Yes. But I not be in it. I work in first aid station for students," he told me with a steady gaze.

     "I understand. It was very good of you to set up that station. It was heroic of the students to try to change the government."

     "It very bad government run by old men," Sheng-Ping said solemnly.

     Sheng-Ping had adapted himself quite well in the past two weeks. He had moved into a two-bedroom apartment already occupied for a year by two Chinese grad students from Biochemistry. He paid one-third of the rent and had the use of the kitchen. After 11:30 in the evening he could sleep on the couch. He said that when one of the Biochemistry students graduates next year, he would get his bedroom. This is how the Chinese underground worked.

     "But if my wife get permission to come visit, maybe I get own apartment," Sheng-Ping said with a twinkle of the eye ó this time without a laugh.

     A graduate student "lounge" was located several doors down the hall. After buying a soda from a machine outside, I went in. It was furnished with a beat-up couch, a computer and printer, a lettering machine for making graphs and a telephone on the wall. In the center of the room was a large table surrounded by four straight-backed chairs with chromed legs. A student in green hospital scrubs and white rubber-soled shoes was leaning back in one of the chairs, with his feet propped on the table. He held a copy of the New England Journal of Medicine.

     "Hi. Iím Ben Candidi. First-year grad student."

     "Glad to meet you. Iím Dave Franklin," he said, pointing to his shirt where "Franklin" had been crudely lettered. "Iím in the combined M.D., Ph.D. program."

     "It looks like youíre doing the M.D. part of it now," I said, looking at his scrubs. Under the name was printed indelibly:

     "Property of Dade County General Hospital. Unauthorized use constitutes theft by conversion."

     "Ah, the scrubs," Franklin said. "Nah, I just got off of a summer job as an orderly down in the Emergency Room. Itís the best way to learn medicine, Dad always says. Heís Chief of Nephrology at the Veteranís Administration Hospital. Kidney specialist in plain language. No, Iím just wearing the scrubs ícause theyíre comfortable and so the Honeys donít get mixed up about who I am."

     He delivered his boast in a country club drawl and ended it with an ear-to-ear grin. His bare arms were well tanned, suggesting that heíd spent a good portion of the summer poolside. He was blonde, short, about my size, but better looking. Needless to say, he irked me.

     "Youíre right," I said. "Everyone will know your name when you write it on your shirt with a felt-tip pen. Say, if youíre doing the Ph.D. part now, then what year are you in?"

     "First year, like you."

     "Then you missed the first lecture in Membrane Biophysics."

     "Was that today? Taylor told me the first thing was this luncheon spread thatís coming up in half an hour."

     "The course schedule was announced on the bulletin board," I said, neutrally.

     "Well I donít go around reading bulletin boards. Iíve got other ĎBoardsí to worry about," he said with a condescending smile.

     I didnít give him a reaction. He wouldnít be ready to take Medical Board Examinations for a few years. Why acknowledge second-rate puns from the likes of him?

     "So what class did I miss?" he asked.

     "Dr. Grant Johnson on the cell membrane," I gambited.

     "No sweat on that one. That guyís an easy psych-out. Iíve got a friend in the Junior Class who told me all about him."

     "Dr. Johnson got some of the students worried."

     "Who?"

     "Cindy Larson, Maria Mendez and . . . a couple of guys named Chen and Zhang."

     "Well you can forget about your Chens, Chows and Chews. Those guys shit rice balls every time you show them something new."

     "You might be right about Chen and Zhang, but youíre wrong about Chow. He didnít even fart."

     Franklin gave me no reaction. "Ben, whatís this Larson like? Is she cool?"

     "Youíll see her in half an hour. Donít let my opinion prejudice you."

     "Interested in her yourself, huh? Well, as Dad always says, let the best man win. Especially if heís a doctor." Once again, The Grin.

     "You didnít ask me about Mendez."

     "Nah, I got to see a lot of them around Dade General this summer. Iím sort of Cubed out."

     "Thatís right. The chances are that theyíve got some scuzzy Cuban boyfriend in the background," I said, in mock agreement.

     "Yeah! A scuzzy boyfriend who picks her up in a hot-rod Trans Am after work and wants to fight you when he finds youíve been messing around. A guy could get himself killed. Say, Ben, youíre all right. We should think about getting together on a two-man note service, you and me."

     "Sure, Dave. Iíll keep it in mind. But you might be disappointed. Iím not very good at psyching out profs." Franklinís grin slowly vanished as he began to understand.

     "Sorry, Ben. I thought you were a fun type of guy. Where did you go to school? Miami-Dade Junior College and Florida International with a part-time job?"

     "Swarthmore, 1986," I said, heading for the door.

     "Oh! That explains it. See you around, Ben."

     I waved at him, not looking back.

     The luncheon was more surreal than the first class. Everyone stood around self-consciously in the conference room waiting for the luncheon to begin. Grant Shipley and I made some small talk. Chen and Zhang hovered on the periphery. Dr. Gordon Taylor, designated master of ceremonies, chatted with Maria, occasionally saying a word in Spanish, but looking all the time at Cindy Larson who stood near the buffet, aloof and petulant. Then Dr. Gary Stampawicz stepped in, stroked his beard and headed straight for the buffet. He rubbed his hands and looked at Dr. Taylor, as if waiting for a signal to start eating. As if on cue, Dr. Taylor bellowed out:

     "Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasant duty to welcome you to your first and last Ďfree lunchí at the Pharmacology Department." It came to me as no surprise when Taylor punctuated this comment with a loud predatory laugh. "Before the feast begins, it is my equally pleasant duty to give you a few words of encouragement and advice."

     Stampawicz put the bun back on his plate and feigned attention to Taylorís words. Dave Franklin appeared in the doorway, then blended smoothly into the crowd.

     "It was once said that the process of becoming a Ph.D. is like the metamorphosis between caterpillar and butterfly. In the first stage you voraciously devour everything in your path . . . (that is the first two years) . . . then you sequester yourself and undergo an intellectual metamorphosis . . . (that is your third and fourth years) . . . bursting forth into a butterfly!"

     Few of us saw the humor in his analogy, but most of us laughed politely, anyway. Stampawicz nodded in approval while nibbling a piece of carrot. Dr. Robert Sturtz came in, sporting his insouciant smile and a polo shirt. Dr. Robert Gunnison followed, wearing a distracted frown and a Hawaiian shirt.

     "The metamorphosis is aided by the able assistance of the dissertation mentor whom you choose, under the watchful eye of the graduate committee."

     Once again, his witticism evoked nervous laughter. Sturtz and Gunnison smiled, and Taylor gestured to them, indicating that they were the graduate committee.

     "And in absence of other words of advice, let the feast begin!"

     Gunnison looked like he wanted to say something, but Stampawicz had already turned his back and was creating a sandwich at the buffet. There was some cautious applause, followed by an equally cautious general movement toward the buffet.

     After loading my plate, I talked to Maria. Then Cindy came over and said, "I think we should all get together and complain to Dr. Taylor. Dr. Johnson told us thereís a reading list, but there really wasnít any."

     I said, "Cindy, that professor with the beard standing by the buffet is Dr. Stampawicz. Heís the course coordinator."

     Dave Franklin came up, slapped me on the shoulder, and said, "Ben, old boy! Why donít you introduce me to your two charming friends."

     Before I could open my mouth, Franklin had already turned to Cindy and launched into a spiel about how he was a combined-degree student. Cindy was quite taken with him. She started telling him about New College and in-depth education. After a couple of minutes, it became embarrassing that Maria had not been introduced.

     "Cindy and Dave, may I introduce Maria Mendez."

     "Como frijoles?" Franklin said to her. Neither Maria nor I understood what he meant.

     "What did you say?" Maria asked.

     "Como frijoles?" repeated Franklin. "How you bean? Itís a joke." Cindy laughed and Maria looked distracted. "Itís a joke we had going around General last summer. How beans? How you bean? How you been? You translate it and then transmute it, and then it makes sense."

     "Yes," Cindy chimed in. "Itís nonlinear thinking." Maria looked perplexed.

     "Say, Dave," I said, "Cindy was just telling me about a big foul-up with a reference list for the class. Why donít you both go over to Dr. Stampawicz and get to the bottom of it." This got rid of them.

     "Am I missing something or what?" shrugged Maria.

     "No . . . nada. El muchacho se piensa que es muy listo, pero en realidad es stupido. La muchacha tambien," I answered.

     We continued in Spanish for a while until Sheng-Ping Chow drifted over, followed by Mr. Chen. I learned that Chen was also from the Peopleís Republic of China, but from the less prestigious medical school at Shanghai.

     Towards the end of the luncheon, Dr. Taylor announced that we should check our pigeonholes for the reading list for the Membranes Course, which was "hot off the press." Then he handed out interdepartmental requisitions and sent us to the Security Department to get our photo I.D.s.

     If the entrance to the Med School was like a police station, the I.D. operation was like a driverís license office. Cindy complained because she was allowed only one pose. I didnít care about my picture, which was just as well, since the finished product showed as much of my chest and polo shirt as it did my face. Attached to my I.D. was a magnetic card which I could press against a sensor at the door to let me in and out of the buildings after hours.

     With this formality out of the way, I found my pigeon hole and picked up the reading list. Across the street at the library, I made copies of the articles and even managed to check out Stryerís Biochemistry. I used the rest of the afternoon to interview some more profs.

     The brochure said that Dr. Penningtonís lab worked on sea urchin eggs. There was no doubt of my having walked into the right lab. It was dominated by several aquarium tanks with sea urchins hanging all over the bottoms and sides. Dr. Pennington sat next to a bubbling tank, staring intently into a microscope. She looked up, and I introduced myself and started asking "intelligent questions."

     She described the major events in sea urchin egg fertilization.

     "Contact with the sperm sets off a cascade of ion permeability changes in the egg membranes. This leads to chemical signalling by phosphate esters of inositol sugars."

     She looked every bit as attractive as her picture in the brochure. The shot, taken through a lab shelf, revealed a smiling face, framed between two large reagent bottles. I was pleased to see that the cute smile, reminiscent of the young Shirley MacLaine of The Apartment, was not just a chance event captured by a lucky photographer.

     I reached deeply into my bag of questions, and she responded by telling me everything I wanted to know about the cellular mysteries of the prickly creatures.

     Dr. Pennington herself wasnít the least bit prickly. She was intelligent but not needlessly critical, attractive but not vain. She was also New Guard, and the last person I would suspect of Cooperís murder. I could check one more prof off the list that would end with Ashton.

     Acting Chairman Peter Moore was very prickly. Yes, he had time to speak to me, but, no, he didnít really have time to speak to me. Earlier that day I saw this burly guy with a large head, heavy-framed glasses and flat-top haircut running down the hallway with an administrative assistant, looking like a fire chief responding to a three-alarm fire.

     Dr. Moore politely but impatiently asked me if there was anything special about his work I wanted to know. The brochure said he worked on "pharmacokinetics," the study of what happens to the drug in the body, how the liver chops it up and the kidneys piss it out. I told him pharmacokinetics was an important part of pharmacology that I hoped to learn more about.

     "What are you really interested in, Mr. Candidi?"

     I echoed the language in the brochure, saying something about "biological control at the cellular level."

     He slowly shook his head.

     "Well, Candidi, thatís probably broad enough to cover everything from here to the Missouri River."

     "Dr. Moore, to be truthful, my interests are still sort of undifferentiated," I said, with some shame.

     "If you want to learn some more practical pharmacology, you are welcome to come back. Iíve got a good technician in the lab, and Iíve got some grants from industry and from the PMA." He made a point of telling me that PMA stands for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and not Phorbol Myristate Acetate. I laughed, like this was a good joke. He volunteered some advice.

     "Work hard on your courses. Especially the Membrane Biophysics course and the Biochemistry course. Sometimes the Young Turks on the faculty get overambitious and flunk out some guys that could have made it. Youíre about six years older than most of our graduate students, which can be both bad and good. Just donít watch too much Monday Night Football." He gave me a knowing wink which made me uncomfortable. "Work hard, and Iíll see you around the farm."

     With these words, Dr. Moore ushered me out the door and closed it before I could even thank him. A gruff, no-nonsense type. I sure wouldnít want to have him catch me in his watermelon patch after midnight. Yes, he was Old Guard all right. The brochure said he received his Ph.D. from Iowa State in 1962, which made him the second oldest member of the Department and much senior to the deceased Cooper. But somehow I couldnít imagine him as the murderer, although I could imagine him punching Cooper in the mouth. So I checked one more prof off the list that would end with Ashton.

     Time to call it a day. The bike ride home gave me a chance to reflect on what a strange day it had been. Back on the Diogenes with a good homemade meal under my belt, I sat down in the open cockpit, leaned against the cabin, and reflected further. Feelings began to well up. No wonder the Department accepted my application so readily: They were hard up for students! Otherwise, they wouldnít have gone all the way to China to get them.

     Yes, they needed graduate students to get their research done. Cheap labor, thatís what I was. Or "Cannon Fodder" as Dr. Taylor had half-jokingly said during our first interview. Well, at least he was honest. Except for Dr. Pennington and Dr. Johnson, all the profs, old and young, seemed inhospitable. Sure, I would survive in this program. But I was disappointed that they didnít make even a pretense of scholarly idealism. Trying to put my finger on the problem, I found myself pacing back and forth in the cockpit, eventually breaking into a monologue.

     "And the whole program is carried out haphazardly, with two Young Turks who are jockeying for leadership . . . which is held by an expatriate Englishman . . . who carries on more like a sergeant in the Foreign Legion than like a college prof. And there is this acting chairman who SEEMS MORE LIKE A FOOTBALL COACH THAN A COLLEGE PROFESSOR!"

     An echo of "College Professor" bounced back from the old Pan Am seaplane hanger.

     "Hey! You all right, Ben?" called a voice from a few yards away. It wasnít me. It was "Frenchie," my friend and neighbor, rowing by with a load of groceries and giving me a funny look.

     "No, Frenchie. Itís okay. Just blowing off a little steam." Frenchie waved in dismissal and rowed on to his Mon Roi, Montreal.

     Yes, Old Candidi was going nuts, holding loud conversations with himself. I went below searching for the proper remedy. Coming topside with glass and bottle of wine in hand and finding Frenchie out of hailing distance, I blew off the rest of my steam, shouting to the wispy tops of the tall Australian pines.

     "And you are on this secret mission, masterminded by another expatriate Englishman, who is just as nutty as the English prof except that he has better manners. And you canít even talk to your mastermind/controller except in a twenty-questions guessing game. Ben, itís time to haul anchor!"

     But I didnít. As the wine rose in my head, I pulled out my reading light and sat down with the articles and biochemistry textbook. I would have to master this stuff quick if I was going to nail Ashton. Tomorrow, I would check all the other profs off the list, and then get a rotation in Ashtonís lab.




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