I’ve started preparing for my move from Mill Hill to Midland Road (this is the street address and the name used in-house to refer to the new Crick building). One of the tasks I’ve been doing is clearing out my office: identifying the things that need to move with me, boxing up items I want to archive and disposing of accumulated detritus. Unsurprisingly, the last category is the largest. It’s taken me longer than I expected. I don’t have a big office – it can accommodate three people for a meeting, as long as everyone knows each other pretty well and we agree the order that people want to enter and exit the office before we start. Nevertheless it has a lot of shelves and I seem to have collected a lot of stuff over the last 15 years, much of which I’d forgotten about until it was rediscovered in a box file, or under a pile of other bits and pieces. I found several Secret Santa presents that I’d be given over the years, these included a small cuddly toy in the shape of a hedgehog, a coffee mug with a hedgehog on it and a box that had contained a cupcake shaped like a hedgehog – apparently I’m either very easy or very difficult to buy for. In addition, I found boxes of CDs, DVDs, 3.5” hard disks, Jaz drives and various other now obsolete data storage formats. I’m sure there are several papers’ worth of results on these, if only we still had the means to read them. There was also a whole shelf of reprints of papers I’ve authored, spanning from 1993 until sometime in the mid 2000s, which was the point I decided that, since no one requested reprints anymore, I would stop ordering them. Like 3.5” hard disks, reprints feel like historic objects, I’m fairly certain the graduate students in my lab, more used to reading a paper on their phone than in an actual journal, wouldn’t know what they were or why they were used.
Another reason for the large quantity of stuff cluttering up my office is that when I joined NIMR I brought notes, data and assorted files with me from both my PhD and post-doc. And part of the reason it has taken longer than I expected to clear my office is that I’ve been distracted by looking through these and reminiscing. One of the things I found was a yellowing fax containing the referees’ comments for the first paper on which I was an author. Back in the day, before online manuscript handling systems and emailed notifications, editorial decisions and referees comments used to arrive on the office fax, which in my case was shared between half-a-dozen labs on the same floor. Whoever happened to be in the office when the fax arrived would bring it through to the relevant lab, after having had a quick read. Consequently the good or bad news would spread quickly around the floor. I remember very clearly getting this particular fax. I also very clearly remember the day, about six months before, when we got the initial experimental results that led to the paper. At the time, I was a fairly new graduate student and was working closely with an experienced post-doc. We were trying to identify a gene with a particular function, by testing a set of what we thought were likely candidates. This involved exposing the experimental assay to photographic film, then developing the film to see if we could detect a positive signal. (I still have some of these photographic films in one of the boxfiles I found on a top shelf.) To get a good signal on the film we usually had to wait overnight, but we were always impatient, so our routine was to set up the experiment in the evening, go to the pub for an hour to two then come back and develop the film. If the film was held up to the light at just the right angle you could get a hint of whether the result was going to be positive or negative. We would then re-expose the experiment and confirm the result the next day. After a few weeks of doing this and getting only negative results I was becoming somewhat disillusioned. Neverless although I was tempted to stay in the pub that evening, I was conscientious enough to go back to the lab and develop the film. I remember angling the film to the fluorescent strip light, squinting at it, expecting another negative result and seeing the unmistakable smudge of a positive signal. I was elated. I don’t remember if we went back to the pub or not that night, but I do remember developing the experiment again the next day and seeing the clear and distinct positive signal.
It was the first time I had experienced that ‘Aha’ feeling of seeing a result and knowing it explained something that hadn’t been known before. I’ve heard this called a ‘dopamine moment’ to describe the pleasure and excitement generated in the brain. It was certainly memorable and it motivated an intense few months of further experiments that culminated in the faxed referees’ comments from the journal editor. There have been a few similarly exciting results in the subsequent 20 years. Unfortunately, they are rarer than I’d like, but then again, if they were more frequent I guess they wouldn’t be so enjoyable. These days they don’t come from peering at underdeveloped films but more likely from a graph of data plotted on my screen, or someone sticking their head around the office door and saying “I think I’ve got an interesting result….”. And now, with the date of our move getting closer and our attention increasingly focused on the practicalities of packing up and relocating, I’m looking forward to the first dopamine moment in Midland Road. I hope its not too long in the future.