Heartbreak: Stories about times science breaks our hearts

This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, we're presenting two stories about heartbreak in science.

Part 1: Rattled by a recent heartbreak, neuroscientist Prabarna Ganguly makes a mistake in the lab.

Prabarna Ganguly is one of the many Bostonian graduate students, studying neuroscience at Northeastern University. Her research focuses on how and why maternal care is necessary for the healthy development of infants. As an aspiring science writer, she is constantly looking for good science stories to share, and makes sure that her elevator pitches are always grandma-friendly. Comfortably Indian, she likes cricket, Pink Floyd, and enjoys simple frivolities. Also, having just dyed her hair red, she is quite excited about its possibilities.  

Part 2: Marine ecologist Kirsten Grorud-Colvert bonds with her diving buddy when they have an unexpected encounter with a hammerhead shark. 

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert is a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, where she has studied ocean organisms in the Oregon nearshore, the Florida Keys, and California’s Catalina Island, along with other marine systems from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. She uses data from different species and habitats to ask, What happens when you protect an area in the ocean? And what can we learn from those areas to design even better protection? She also directs the Science of Marine Reserves Project and loves learning from her creative colleagues in science, communication, and graphic design. Kirsten has always been obsessed with water—that’s what growing up in the 120 degrees Arizona desert will do to you!

Note: Kirsten's story was produced as part of our partnership with Springer Nature's Springer Storytellers program. Find out more at beforetheabstract.com.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Prabarna Ganguly

In 2009, I came to the U.S. on a student visa and a suitcase full of expectations and pressure neatly packed in by my not-so-overbearing Indian parents.  Following the normal Indian immigrant trajectory, I studied and got my bachelors in biology and then found myself studying early-life stress in rats.  I’m not sure where that came from. 

Everything was going pretty well when I fell in love.  So we met on the first day of grad school.  He said that he fell in love with me by the fourth day.  We were friends for eight months and then we started this whirlwind romance.  I can imagine all of you knowing this whole idea of, “Oh, he made me feel so good,” “He made me feel so amazing.” 

Prabarna Ganguly tells her story at the Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last August. Photo by Kate Flock.

Prabarna Ganguly tells her story at the Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last August. Photo by Kate Flock.

And he would send me these postcards from faraway places saying things like, “Home is not where you're born.  It is where you belong.  Some people find it in places.  Some people find it in people.  I know this to be true; I found it in you.”  And as kitschy and cliché this quote was, I’m sitting there bawling.  I mean, come on, guys.  This is rom-com stuff.  When it happens to us it’s wonderful. 

So things are just going really great, but there was one problem.  You see, I was unhappy and I had been for a while.  So at work, I was struggling to keep up.  At home, in terms of talking to my parents, I was struggling to listen and take their advice.  And at home per se I was struggling to balance my emotions.  And being with somebody who is unbalanced isn’t really easy, as I’m sure many of you can imagine, because not only do you have to take care of yourself, you now have to take care of another person. 

Inevitably, that relationship ended.  I remember, as he was walking away after having packed his bags and having said things like, “Oh, I don't love you anymore.  I don't wanna be with you anymore,” and all of that, I just couldn’t help thinking, “How could you say that to me?  This is crazy.” 

You see, I'd always been the one doing the breakup so somebody telling that that to me was the first time when I realized, well, I can be at fault here.  And the relationship had been really important to me because outside this relationship bubble was another bubble that is much more unforgiving, which is the research bubble, where you have to stay on top and be on top or you're out. 

So a couple of weeks pass and I had to do some research.  I study neuroscience.  I have to do some surgeries on the rats from time to time and study their brains.  So I go to my lab and I take a rat and I give it an analgesic which is just to alleviate its pain after the surgery is done.  I take it to the surgery room, I put it on the contraption that I’m going to use to open its brain and at that moment all I can think about is him.  I mean, the whole mourning phase that happens with people after a breakup.  “Oh, my God, the first time he kissed me.  I’m never gonna be kissed like that again.”  You know, the first time he said he loved me, the first time… and all of those innumerable personal histories that people share when they spend all their time together.  I imagine this happening while there's “Amsterdam” by Coldplay playing in the background, which happened to be his favorite breakup song so, yeah, slightly ridiculous. 

Anyway, I’m about to make my first incision into the rat and I notice that it’s not breathing.  Okay.  So I take it out of the contraption and I stroke its back a little bit.  No response.  I turn it over, do some chest compressions, no response.  Then I go, “Okay, well, I guess I've got to give it CPR.” 

So the way that you give rats CPR is you have a syringe with a needle and a plunger.  You take out the plunger, you take out the needle, you put the bigger end of the syringe under the rat’s nose and you just go [makes puffing sound], so you just breathe air into its lungs.  No response.  Shit. 

So I’m thinking, well, sometimes this happens and rats die before you do a surgery because, life, and you just don’t know what to do about it and so I go, “Okay, listen.  I’m going on a trip with my friends tomorrow.  I've got to finish these surgeries onwards and forwards here.”  And after mourning for five seconds, because I used to name all of my rats at that point in time -- big mistake.  Don’t do it -- I go on to the next animal. 

So I get that bottle, the analgesic bottle, and I’m going to the animal room and I just take a glance and this time shit for real.  It happened to be an identical bottle but it had a drug called ketamine in it, the same dose of which could potentially kill a rat.  So this wasn’t life. 

And I’m standing there with the murder weapon thinking, well, now I really need to tell my adviser about what happened here.  So I’m thinking, “Confess?  Not confess?  Confess, I guess.  I guess that’s fine.” 

So I take the bottle, I take my future, and I go into my adviser’s office and I tell her what happened.  She looks at me and she says, “I think you should go home for today.” 

And I say, “Okay, I guess.  What about the other surgeries?” 

“Don’t worry about them.  They'll be done by someone else.” 

“Okay.” 

So I go home and I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think.  I’m just walking around.  I turn on the TV.  There's Rocky playing, so I watch Rocky for a bit.  Then I make some curry because curry is great for all of you and all of us, Indian food, comfort food (my ass). 

So I am waiting for something and in the evening I get this email from her and my stomach just drops.  It’s titled “Today and the Future.”  Okay.  Bring it on. 

And I can’t read the email at this point.  I’m just reading it so fast there's just phrases coming into my head, “deeply disappointed,” “could not be more clear,” “asked to leave.”  And at that moment I’m just thinking, “Well, this is it.  This is it.  My life’s over.  I’m going to be kicked out of the program.  I’m going to have to go back to India.” 

I think of my parents and those awful headlines such as every day a student commits suicide in India.  All of these insane things are coming into my head at that moment.  I don’t know what happened but I had this bizarre frantic response.  I say, “You know what?  I've got to send her something in this moment.  I've just got to send her something.  Let’s send her an experiment.” 

So I just sit there and I think, “Let’s send her science because she doesn’t think I can be a good scientist.  Okay.”  So I just sit there and I just write some experimental design and I just send it to her.  Then the next day I pack my bags and I go to Puerto Rico as I had planned with my friends.  Classic for a story of dealing with your problems.  You just pick a travel destination and you go there for two weeks.  So that’s what I do because I obviously needed to clear that head space for a bit. 

The second week in I get an email from her saying, “I’m looking forward to working with you when you come back.”  Great! 

Fast forward four months.  Work is fine, my heart is healing one way or another, and I go into the lab and I’m about to enter the office when this undergrad comes running up to me saying, “Prabarna, Prabarna, something’s really wrong.  You need to come with me right now.” 

And I’m thinking, if an undergrad is saying something’s wrong then I guess something probably is really wrong right now.  Okay.  So I go with her and I enter this room where we keep our negative seventy-degree freezers.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this temperature, it’s really, really cold.  We have to keep our brain samples here so that they don’t melt, basically.  This is really important because all of our data is gotten through the brains that we keep. 

I look at the freezer and I see water outside.  There's condensation outside.  Anyone with a fridge knows that’s not a good sign.  So I open the freezer and everything has melted.  Now, just to, again, reiterate, months of data.  Years.  Decades.  Stuff that most likely is not going to be used anymore, still, really important science hiding somewhere in there, gone.  Even the data that I had collected for the study that I had written before I left for Puerto Rico, gone.  Mechanical failure, they say, or whatever.  Some electrician hates us. 

So I go back into the office and I’m just going, well, I don't know what to think.  I don't know what to feel at that moment.  And I hear footsteps.  I know that it’s my adviser’s footsteps who has very distinct footsteps.  Okay, well, preparing myself for the attack here. 

So she comes in and she looks distressed.  She's obviously really, really upset.  She looks at me and almost teary-eyed she says, “Prabarna, I don't know what to say.  I don't know what to say.” 

At that moment, some random, crazy, absurd line comes into my head, and I think some of you probably know this line.  “Life is not about how hard you hit.  It is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” 

So with Rocky Balboa by my side, I just look at her and I say, “Well, let’s get to work,” and we did.  Thank you.

Part 2: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert

So I've come to believe in big things.  When I was a grad student, my research took me to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.  I live and work in Oregon now and Oregon is not that.  So I find myself often thinking about those crystal clear blue waters and what it felt like to be flying in our boat over that water out to the fringing reefs of the Florida Keys therein about thirty feet of water.  It was beautiful. 

And that’s what we were doing on this particular day.  We were heading out to those reefs because we were going to be taking some surveys of baby fish.  I work with baby fish.  Sometimes I kill baby fish, but don’t tell people.  We are going out to do these surveys and I was going out to do them with this group of people that I had really come to know and love. 

Most of us were in our early 20s.  It was a time of my life where my research meant that we were underwater more than we were above water each day.  We were all idealists.  We were going to save the ocean.  And for me, a bad day was I forgot my sunscreen or I lost the data sheet, even though losing a data sheet is still a bad thing.  Am I right?  Always. 

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert shares her story at the Ecological Society of America meeting in August. Photo by Stuart Pollock.

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert shares her story at the Ecological Society of America meeting in August. Photo by Stuart Pollock.

So most of us fit into that category except for one person on this day and that was Chris.  Chris would come out to volunteer with us.  He worked at the same university but he was a physicist.  He would come out so that he could keep his scientific diving certification current. 

I’m sure that Chris probably told me what he did but, honestly whenever I pictured Chris at work, I pictured him in this white lab coat, he's got his safety goggles on, it’s a dark room and he's shooting lasers.  Like Space Invaders-style lasers because, to me, why would you want to be a physicist if you weren’t shooting lasers, right? 

So Chris was with us and Chris was very different.  He was at least twenty years older than us, he had a family, a wife, he was raising kids, he had a job, a real job, and a lot of times I felt like maybe Chris was doing a little bit of an internal eye roll because we would be, you know, the drama of being a student.  It’s one drama of being a student.  We’re like talking about are we going to have time off this weekend to go to South Beach, you know.  So I always kind of wondered what he thought about that.

But as with any kind of fieldwork, you buddy up.  So on this day, Chris and I were buddies.  We grabbed our transect tape, our data sheets, holding on tight to those, and we strap on our scuba tank and we hit the water.  That feeling when you hit the water, it’s just like this weightless, the water is like a bathtub.  There's a little bit of sound from the reef but you just hear your breath and it’s so meditative and you're experiencing it all with another person.  You don’t talk to that person but you're there together. 

On this day, at this reef, like every other time we went to this reef, the first thing that I do is I look for my touchstone and I see it out amongst the sea of low lying gray-green algae that’s like the last redwood on the reef.  It’s this huge stand of Acropora coral, elkhorn coral.  It’s this rusty-gold apartment building and these little, tiny coral polyps and it’s the last one left on the reef.  The reason it’s the last one left on the reef is because of this gray-green algae that we’re there to study. 

And we’re there because the little fish really like that algae.  They live to hide in it.  So we lay out our transect tape and what it means is that we have to be shoulder to shoulder, one on each side of the transect tape, and we have to get way down in there.  We’ve got to put our fingers in and kind of riffle through that frilly algae because when we do these fish come out and they're like pop-pop-pop, these little guys.  You watch them and as soon as they come up you have to know what species they are and you write it down. 

So this is what we’re doing.  We’re like our noses to the reef looking for these baby fish. 

All of a sudden I get this prehistoric feeling, this feeling that something is coming, and the something is a very big thing.  So I look up and, honestly, it takes a moment for my mind to process what I’m seeing because this animal is so outlandish.  It doesn’t even seem like it could be real and swimming straight towards you, because it’s a hammerhead shark. 

This is like a National Geographic-worthy hammerhead shark.  I know that because the science part of my brain, and this is the part of my brain that spent hours, hours in swimming pools with these little floaty plastic fish training my mind like, “Okay, estimate that length.  Estimate that length.”  My science part of my brain says that this shark is at least twelve feet long and it’s swimming straight towards us.  Out of the blue, just swimming straight towards us. 

And I can feel that Chris sees it too.  He's still next to me and there's nothing we can do.  We can’t swim away.  We can’t stuff ourselves down into the reef.  This is a predator moment, right?  We understood what it meant to be prey.  That shark was swimming straight towards us and it kept coming. 

And it kept coming, and it was still coming until it was about four feet away and then it just turned.  It showed us this incredible power of its tailfin and then it just swam away back into the blue. 

My heart has never raced so much.  I tell you.  I have goose bumps right now because I’m remembering what it felt like to have that thing swimming straight towards us. 

So I look at Chris.  Our eyes are both like… they're big.  Our eyes are big.  And then I look down and I am holding Chris’ hand, and we did not have a hand-holding relationship. 

We were scientists first, though.  We finished the transect.  We did the next transect and then we went back to the boat.  And everyone else was done so they're just waiting for us like, “What’s up?” 

And we were like, “You will never guess.”

And they were like, “No.” 

We’re like, “You didn’t see it?” 

“No.” 

“We’re like twelve feet, yes.  Like two of me.” 

Everyone, well, it was a free-for-all. 

So in the middle of all that I just kind of nonchalantly sidled up to Chris like, “Chris did I hold your hand down there?” 

And he was like, “Um, yeah.” 

I still kind of blush when I think about it.  I was very embarrassed. 

So Chris and I, I always felt so different from Chris, but at that moment, man, those differences didn’t mean anything.  We had had this amazing experience together.  It was the end of the day, we were heading home and Chris was kind of quiet.  And I was kind of quiet and I was kind of wondering if he was thinking what I was thinking.  Because I was thinking about that shark and that shark is an ocean swimmer.  It visits so many reefs during its life just looking for the next meal and I wondered what that shark thought when it got to that reef.  There's just that one coral stand left, a couple of snappers in there, but that’s it.  That’s the only thing going. 

So a couple of months later, I was back in the same reef and Chris, he wasn’t really diving with us anymore.  He was back in the lab because the lasers called.  Like any other time, when I drop down on that reef I look for my touchstone.  And it wasn’t there. 

In a second, I could see what had happened because there was a pile of rubble on the reef and wrapped against one of those pieces, wrapped around, was a fishing line.  You could see really clearly the marks of a propeller on a boat on the chunks of coral.  I think you can imagine I cried.  I cried underwater and that’s really uncomfortable because the tears kind of run down and then to your nose and then you're clearing your mask.  I was devastated in that moment. 

I thought instantly of that shark and what that meant now.  That reef was dead to him.  There was nothing, nothing for him on that reef now. 

And I thought instantly of Chris, too, and how we had had that experience.  I honestly thought maybe I should call him up and tell him, but what would I say?  I felt what would I say?  So I never called him.  In fact, I never talked to him again.  We each went our separate ways.  It’s been a really long time now. 

But that moment, it cemented a passion in me because I lost something that day.  And really, we all lost something that day.  I found myself thinking what if that area had been protected?  Maybe those fishers would have moved on.  They wouldn’t have wrapped their fishing line, they wouldn’t have chopped up that coral.  I think about that a lot.  And because of that, a major focus of my research now is marine protected areas and what can they do, what can’t they do, how can we design them well, where would we put them, how many, how big? 

I also think about what if other people knew about that reef, if they knew what we had lost?  If other marine biologists, other physicists, our neighbors, grandparents if they knew what we lost, but that there's also a path forward to protection.  That would be a really big thing.  Thanks.