This week, we present two stories about death in science, from a university lab to a crime lab.
Part 1: To make ends meet as a college student, Cris Gray takes a high-paying job in a veterinary school lab… and finds out why it’s so high-paying.
Cris Gray is just a guy who can get bored with things very quickly and loves a good story. You can see him doing stuff and saying things in front of an audience or to just one person in intimate conversation. He's been sighted taking long walks around the city. He's also a really good sleeper.
Part 2: Chemist Raychelle Burks learns how to cope with death while working in a crime lab.
After a few years working in a crime lab, Raychelle Burks returned to academia, teaching, and forensic science research. An analytical chemist, Dr. Burks enjoys the challenge of developing detection methods for a wide-variety of analytes including regulated drugs and explosives. Her current research efforts are focused on the design, fabrication, and analysis of colorimetry sensors that are field portable. To maximize portability, Dr. Burks works on utilizing smart phones as scientific analytical devices. A chemistry enthusiast, Dr. Burks hopes to ignite her students' appreciation of chemistry through innovative projects, multi-media education tools, and probably far too many pop culture references. She help create and organize SciPop Talks! a popular talk series blending science and pop culture. Dr. Burks is a popular science communicator, appearing on the Science Channel's Outrageous Acts of Science, ACS Reactions videos, Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts, and at genre conventions such as DragonCon and GeekGirlCon.
Part 1: Cris Gray
So in 1994, I’m in college and I’m sitting in the office of a professor at the veterinary school. She's telling me about a job position she's trying to fill. All I know is that she was looking for somebody to work in her lab.
I had a history of lying to get certain campus jobs even though I wasn’t in those departments. I worked on the on-campus childcare facility. I was not an education major. I worked in the campus radio station. I was not a journalism major. I worked in the computer lab. I was not a computer science major. Now, I’m sitting in the office of a professor in the vet school.
All she tells me is that the job pays twelve dollars an hour. Now, you got to understand, that’s 1994 dollars. The minimum wage in 1994 was four-twenty-five. The highest paying job I had found in college, up until then, had been five dollars an hour. And I thought I was rich getting five dollars an hour.
Twelve dollars an hour. Before I heard any description of the job or what I would have to do I had already decided: I am taking this job. I don't care what I have to do. Twelve dollars an hour.
In college, when you're a broke college student, that was going to change my life. Twelve dollars an hour. I could now work part-time and make more than I've been making working full-time and going to school full-time. I could take less student loans and actually pay some of my college tuition with what I was making. I could finally get an apartment without five roommates.
Maybe I could get a car. Maybe I could stop buying my clothes at the Goodwill. Maybe I could finally get involved in some social events in college instead of having to always come up with an excuse why I couldn’t go because I didn’t have any money.
I could finally take a girl out on a date instead of trying to be all creative and slick and being like, “Oh, why don’t we just watch a movie back at my place,” because that costs nothing.
So I was going to take this job. She continued telling me that she had had a hard time finding someone to stay in the position. That should have been another red flag, because all I could think at the time was, How could someone not keep a twelve-dollar-an-hour job? Impossible. I am your man.
So she said, “Okay. We’ll try you out for a week, see how it goes.”
So she walks me over to her research lab and introduces me to her research assistant. There's other grad students working in there. Everybody is like a nice… I don't know. It wasn’t a med school, but they had on lab coats and I was like, Okay. We’re doing some real science shit in here.
I was like, Do I get a lab coat too? It’s going to be awesome.
So her research assistant says, “Okay. Part of your job will be general cleanliness of the lab. You'll clean up glassware, things like that.”
I was like, “Cool. I can do that.”
“You'll also be monitoring the experiments,” and what they were doing in this lab was they were testing different drugs. They're from pharmaceuticals. It’s like, “We have the samples, we have the petri dishes, you'll monitor them, you'll write on the chart. If there are petri dishes where there's contamination or some of the cells have died, you'll discard those. And you'll move the other ones into these warming trays that just kind of they keep moving and rotating in these large fume hoods.”
I was like, “I can do it. Easy.” Really? No one could do this for twelve dollars an hour?
He said, “But your most important job is, for all of our experiments in this lab, they're done on kidney cells. So your job is to harvest kidney cells and prepare the petri dishes for the experiments.”
So then I got a little worried. And he, this research assistant, he was like, “No, you're fine.” And he goes over to this bank of cages, and they're like ten cages. Each one has a little white rabbit.
And he's like, “Now, we use rabbit cells.”
So now, you ever feel like your ears are getting hot? Like you've talked yourself into a situation and you're like, Oh, okay.
In his defense, he was just real jovial about it. He's like, “I’m going to show you how to do it.” He takes a rabbit out of one of the cages and…
Oh, the lab has one of these stainless steel tables. So he puts a rabbit down and then he begins to put out like puppy pads, putting those all over the table like he's making this weird kind of Dexter kill room with puppy pads. And I just keep thinking, Twelve dollars an hour. Twelve dollars an hour.
He puts the little rabbit into this contraption that just has a hole so its head could stick out, and he goes, “Don’t worry. We’re not barbarians here. We do this very humanely.”
He takes a little pediatric needle, inserts it into a little vein the rabbit’s ear. Then he gets a syringe, which I later find out that we have to check out because it has a DEA number because there was some really crazy drug shit. He puts it in the syringe and just gives a little bit of sedative. I want to say it phenol barbital. I could be wrong. I just know that if I was ever caught with it outside of the lab, I was going to jail.
So he gives it to the rabbit, the rabbit just falls asleep, he takes it out of the thing and then he goes, “See, that was easy.”
I said, “Okay, yeah. That looked pretty easy."
Then he whipped up a scalpel and then started slicing into the rabbit.
So I’m just staring in horror, like not even really at the sight of blood that’s freaking me out. It was just the casualness of the way he did it. It was just like, zoop, like Sweeney Todd. Like he should have burst into song while he was doing it.
Then he had another moment of levity where he's showing me how to basically remove the kidneys.
And he goes, “Hey, you know that urban legend about the guy who drinks something then he wakes up in a bathtub of ice and his kidneys are gone, and he says, ‘Call nine-one-one’?” He goes, “I’m going to show you why that’s bullshit.”
I was like, Ooh, I can’t wait to see this.
So he clips one kidney then he goes, “Look, the rabbit’s still breathing.”
I’m like, “Uh-huh.”
Then he clips the second one, rabbit stops breathing. And he goes, “See? That’s why that would never happen.” And I was like that’s a long way to go to prove a story I didn’t believe in the first place was fake.
So then he said, “Well, now, it’s your turn.” So I, with shaking hands, have to do it. I just keep thinking, Twelve dollars an hour. Twelve dollars an hour. I go through the whole thing, and I did it.
He's like, “All right. Every Monday, you get ten cages. You're supposed to harvest all the kidneys and then, very scientifically, put them into a blender.”
There was just like a blender like you would get at Service Merchandise. You remember that back in the day? Service Merchandise? A Sears competitor. You all know it’s pre-Amazon.
With just a standard blender, make yourself a nice little kidney shake and then pour that into each one of the petri dishes and then they would put another solution on it and that’s what they would test the drugs on.
So every Monday to me was the Kill Day. Sunday nights I couldn’t sleep. I have anxiety attacks. Because I knew… well, you know how people say their Monday sucks? My Monday, like every Monday morning of your Monday involved traffic and then murder. Yeah. Got a case of the Mondays.
So I made it through the first week. Then I made it through the second week. After a while, it just it became like Lucy in the candy factory. I was just kind of doing it, just muscle memory. And every day I was just like, Twelve dollars an hour. Twelve dollars an hour. I think I spent a lot of that twelve dollars an hour on booze because I was just like I got to deaden what’s happening.
So one day I’m going through the procedure, get the rabbit, I put it in the little rabbit stocks. I go to insert the needle. The rabbit started screaming.
Up until moment, I didn’t know rabbits made noise. At all. Never heard a rabbit make a noise. I just thought it was like a barkless dog. I was like, Yeah, rabbits just don’t make noise. I don't know how they communicate. It must be through some ESP something. I didn’t know they made noise.
This rabbit started screaming. It sounds like a baby crying. And in an institutional laboratory like at a university, linoleum floors, cinderblock walls, it is just echoing in the lab. It is echoing down the hallway. Like I’m imagining people poking their heads out of other labs going, “What is going on down there?”
And I am just panicking because, first of all, I didn’t know noise was going to come out of it, and it is screaming and screaming. And I keep thinking, Twelve dollars an hour. Twelve dollars an hour. I can’t lose this job. No. I’m panicking.
So I start hitting the rabbit. It stops screaming. Afterwards, I look around, I’m the only one in the lab. So I take the rabbit and I tie it up in one of the little bags and I get rid of it.
Later, when the research assistant came in, he said, “I notice there weren’t as many petri dishes kidney cells.”
I lied and said, “Oh, yeah. One of the rabbits, for some reason, was already dead in the cage. I mean, I don't know what happened? Weird.”
And he just said, “Okay,” and we went on with the experiments that week.
Now, I kept that job for four semesters. Every Monday. And when I tell people this story, they sometimes ask, “How could you do that?” Sometimes, when I hear myself telling this story, I ask myself, “How could you do that, just for twelve dollars an hour?”
So today, sometimes when I watch the news, read the news, you hear horrible stories. You hear about like a police officer who’s killed somebody, you hear about a politician who’s poisoned the community’s water, or they've taken or they're trying to take away somebody’s rights because of their gender or their religious beliefs, or any horrible thing, and I ask, “How can they do that?”
I sometimes think maybe it’s just the best job they've ever had and they don’t want to lose it. And the moment something begins to scream out of protest, all they want to do is silence that voice as quickly as possible so they don’t get fired.
Part 2: Raychelle Burks
You know, if you ask a scientist and you say, “What’s a question you get asked a lot?” and we get asked lots of questions, but we tend to get asked the same question a lot. And I've got a friend who’s an astronomer who gets asked all the time about black holes and whether they really suck you in like a vacuum. Yes, I am one of the people that ask them that.
Me, what do I get asked? Well, I get asked, “How do you kill people and get away with it?”
I’m not an assassin. I’m just a chemist with interesting life experiences. Maybe I should -- full disclosure here. One of the reasons why I get asked about killing people a lot is because, for the last five or six years, I've hosted forensic science panels at big genre cons like Dragoncon and GeekGirlCon and CONvergence. So think about it as how to get away with murder as a Q and A, not a television show.
And these genre cons, there are all kinds of people that come to these. Scientists and non-scientists, geeks, dweebs, dorks, nerds -- so my people -- and also cool kids and jocks. It’s a real mixed bag in the audience so it’s a great way to do science communication. We just get all kinds of questions when we do these panels.
These panels are so much fun to do, these murder panels, and that might seem really weird. Why would it be fun? But first I want to give you the same disclaimer that I always give the panels. I'll put on my serious face now.
Murder is serious and murder is wrong. If we are sarcastic or outlandish, it’s not because those things aren’t true, it’s because we’re trying to cope with really complicated things and really awful things, and we’re trying to talk about the science involved in that. It’s just a way to cope with difficult stuff. It’s gallows humor and it’s not meant to be disrespectful.
With that, I usually open up the panel for questions. We get all kinds of questions, deliciously evil questions because people have great imaginations. And a lot of people have given murder a lot of thought, so I'll be working for a very long time.
You can imagine that a panel with an anthropologist, a biologist, a chemist, a geologist, an engineer, an entomologist, we’d have all kinds of answers. You'd get a different answer for every question. Except for that one question, this one question where we all gave the same answer. Where would you kill someone?
Clearly, the answer is a national park. It’s isolated, it’s remote, there are scavenger predators. I don't think I need to go on.
And as a chemist, we’re quite famous in fiction for killing all kinds of people in interesting and exciting ways, so I fielded all kinds of questions.
But there was one question that I got at a panel that really threw me for a loop and it threw me back into time. Somebody right in the front said -- they started their question with, “So, my friend was murdered.”
You can imagine that the room’s mood completely changed. Up until then there was lots of gallows humor and inappropriate jokes and outlandish schemes. It changed in an instant with, “So, my friend was murdered.”
And I know that in the two seconds between the end of that person’s question and my answer -- I know it was only two seconds, but it felt much longer -- in that two seconds, I relived an entire day. In that two seconds, I was no longer in the panel room. I was in a basement morgue looking at a little girl. A little girl who looked so much like my niece. To this day, it still takes my breath away. A little girl whose short life had obviously been filled with so much pain, and I didn’t do a good job. I still don’t do a good job when I talk about it. What I mean by a good job is being this stoic professional who had a job to do.
At the time that this occurred, I was just a flunky intern trying to learn the ropes. One of the most important things that I was going to have to learn was to process life’s cruelty much faster so that I could do my job. You see, everyone of us, I think, in this room, if we were to die in mysterious circumstances, someone would cry for us and someone would grieve for us and someone would be so angry that this had happened to us. And those are the people that love us, right? Those are our loved ones. Those are our friends and our family.
But maybe you don’t know this. There's a second group of people, strangers to you, that will care for you too. But they will care for you in a different way. They will care for you by being thorough and task orientated. They will care for you by being accurate and precise. These are the forensic pathologists and the crime scene analysts and the toxicologists and the print examiners. They're people that maybe you don’t know in your everyday life, but they will demonstrate care by doing their job and doing it well, and giving some type of answer and maybe some type of closure to that other group of people that will care about you in the emotional way because they knew you and they loved you.
I had to get to the point -- I had to learn to be that stoic professional because I needed to be able to step up and do my job and do it quickly and efficiently with the skills and experience that I had. I wasn’t in that other group and I couldn’t act like I was because I had a job to do. I first learned that and how to do that by failing at it spectacularly in that basement morgue.
I did not hold it together. I cried. And I took involuntary steps back. That is not what you do in that type of job.
But I got better at it and I was able to, instead of stepping back, to step forward and to do my work and to demonstrate care.
I don't do that kind of work anymore. I came back to academia. But I brought with me some of the ability to be the stoic professional.
Back in that panel room, I switched into that mode and I answered that person’s question that had started with, “So, my friend was murdered,” and I answered it professionally and I hope with compassion. But there was no gallows humor. It wasn’t the place for it. What do you do after a question like that? Because the panel long as an hour long and we were about thirty minutes in.
Well, here’s what happened next. We went right back to being absurd about murder and making fun of Bones, a show we all can’t stand, and lamenting over why we don’t get sunglasses like CSI: Miami. That may seem like a wild shift, just this ability to go from jovial to this so-my-friend-was-murdered moment in a panel, but it didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel jarring. It felt like life.
Life brings us moments that take our breath away. And sometimes we’ll cry. And sometimes we will scream. And sometimes we will laugh. Sometimes we do all three. It’s how we've learned to cope. It’s something that I’m still learning.