I scanned my mind for what this could be about. Had I left a supply closet or fridge unlocked? Had I open centrifuged one of the specimens she’d asked me to look at when it was supposed to be closed centrifuged? Had she glanced over my should erat my class notes and seen the list of embarrassing questions only I seemed to have and which I’d scribbled under the heading Things to Look Up Later? I’d been so careful around her so far, hoping to make up for all the times I raised my hand and revealed how little I knew, all the times she caught me pretty much fondling the equipment —the elegant pipettes, the test tube racks that kept everything snug and in place, the magical autoclave incinerating all evidence of use and making everything perfect over and over again. It could’ve been any or all of these things: she was so smart that I was certain she’d put these observations together and conclude, long before I figured it out, that though I was eager and good at keeping contamination at bay, I wasn’t cut out for the hard sciences. I wrote her back, composing my e-mail in a word processing program first to make sure the green squiggly line of grammar impropriety didn’t show up under every clause, and confirmed I could meet with her Monday at noon, right after class. She wrote back a cryptic, That will be more than fine.
The three hours of that week’s lab class felt like a goodbye. I stacked each petridish as if it were the last time I’d be allowed to handle those delicate circles of glass. I swished saline solution for longer than was needed, looked at the agar coating the bottom of plates as if its nutrients were intended for me and were about to be withheld. When a question popped into my head, I kept my hand down and didn’t even bother to write it in my notebook.
I watched Professor Kaufmann for clues all class but saw nothing, though she’d already proven herself good at masking frustration with kindness. You could drop an
entire tray of beakers, and she would smile and in a too-high voice say, That’s OK! I sometimes thought I was the only one in the class who saw through her, could tell how very upset she was at all that shattered glass on the floor: I knew it from the way she’d say Hmmm as she accosted the student culprit with a broom and stood over them, pointing out a missed shard here, a tiny speck there. She’d wait until they put the broom away before noticing another piece, then instruct them to go back to the closet and bring the broom again.
I approached her lab bench once everyone had left. She was scribbling something on some graph paper, and I glanced at what she wrote once I was closer. Whatever it was, it was in German—probably not a good sign—and it was underneath a series of equations that meant nothing to me and which were in no way related to our class.
—Liz! she said. Oh, super! Come here, please!
She stood and let me have her seat. I sat there for a good minute, watched her keep working as if she hadn’t just asked me to sit down. Her pen dug into the paper and I wondered if she had two brains—wondered if there were a way I could split my own mind like that, be in one place but let my mind hang out wherever it wanted. She slapped the pen down on her notebook, and without even apologizing for the awkward three or so minutes we’d been right next to each other but not speaking, she said, Thank you for staying after class. I see you’re eager to know what this is about.
—Yes, I said. I tried to keep my back straight; I found trying to maintain good posture more painful than just slouching. Even seated on her high stool, I was still looking up at her. I said, Is everything okay?
—Yes, of course. Thank you for asking.
I figured then that I should stop talking lest I incriminate myself, but she smiled at me and nodded as if I’d kept speaking, as if I was saying something at that very moment.
—Yes, so, sh—Yes, so, she said. You are enjoying the lab so far?
—I love it, I blurted out. It’s my favorite class this semester.
—Super! she said. That’s super.
She nodded some more. After a few additional seconds of painful silence and sustained eye contact she asked, Are you interested in becoming a research scientist?
I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but that didn’t seem like the right answer.
—Yes, I said. I am.
—Good, super. Because there is something you should do then, a program.
She slipped a hand beneath her pad of graph paper and slid out a glossy folder. I closed my eyes, not wanting to look at it: here it was, the remedial program for students needing extra help, forced in front of me like that list of campus resources I’d printed out last semester as my only hope. The folder was white with a crimson stripe down the front of it, a gold logo embossed at its center.
—This is connected to my research group. It’s a summer position at our field laboratory off the coast of Santa Barbara, in California. You would be perfect for it.