Sophia wakes to find her SocialStream full of supportive texts, toots, bleets, and bumps, including one from Noah.
gr8 luck today, babe!
His message grates her, negating the positive vibes from her other well-wishers, as she moves about in the early morning darkness, brushing her teeth, showering, shoving her shoulder-length gray hair into its usual functional ponytail.
Babe? Who is he to call her babe? When they’d been together—years ago now—he’d never used the term. Maybe it’s the kind of word that’s hip in Bangalore. Certainly being there has changed him. His SocialStream is nothing but science stuff and the most banal pictures imaginable: a bunch of women in saris in a Starbuckle’s, some families eating chicken nuggets at a McKFC. She’s refrained from commenting innumerable times: You could see the same damn thing in Chicago or Boston.
Or even in this backwater town, Sophia thinks, heading out into the frosty air. Though it’s less likely than it used to be, with so many heading back to India, accompanied by a slew of Americans like Noah.
She breathes deeply, the cold air scorching her nostrils and lungs. This place is a backwater, but it’s come to feel like hers. The fields of 20-foot-tall Ethocorn™ surrounding the town may be the butt of jokes told by people who’d see them only from their airplane seats seven miles up, but to Sophia they’re a protective cocoon: the promise of security and stability. She’s lived here for six years, by far the longest anywhere since graduate school, and she’d be happy never to leave. Give her cornfields and real winters any day.
The bus drops her a block from the Bionomics Building. She scans inside and trudges down the dim corridors, past purring sequencers, humming freezers, and ominous groaning from the autoclave room. Assistant professors like Sophia enjoy small desks at the edge of the building’s “photic zone” (a joke among Bionomics denizens: the layer beyond which no natural light can penetrate). Senior faculty luxuriate in their very own cubicles near the windows. But most everyone else operates entirely with shared machinery, space, and lab benches, every inch piled with equipment: centrifuges and microscopes, flasks and tubes, boxes of wipes and stacks of petri dishes, jars of reagents and powders.
Sophia loves the lab, but there’s a reason—beyond her pittance of a salary—that her rented apartment is so sparsely decorated: after spending most of her waking hours in this insane clutter, retreating to order and simplicity is essential.
She turns a corner and faces precisely what she hoped not to see, especially this morning: the back of Professor Emma Davis’s bald head. Though it’s not yet seven, Davis works feverishly at the bench, a whirl of test tubes and flying pipette tips. Music—Sophia can’t tell what she’s listening to, wonders if Pythia have a special mix—blasts into Davis’s ears. She wears latex gloves at the end of her toned arms, obscuring the dark tattoos on her wrists, but otherwise she’s clad for the gym, from which—if the reflective sheen from the fluorescent lights on her head is any indication—she’s recently returned.
Sophia feels a familiar sense of inadequacy. Sure, Pythia like Davis are always working, but they’re also fanatical about physical fitness. Pipetting like that would be an open invitation for another one of Sophia’s increasingly frequent arthritic flare-ups. But it’s more than that: despite having no meaningful existence outside the lab, Emma Davis looks a good 15 years younger than Sophia.
But we’re about the same age, Sophia thinks. And we’re colleagues…at least for now.
She rubs her wrists absently as she remembers the day, two years before, when she’d learned that her fate was intertwined with Emma’s. Sophia waited uncomfortably in Myles Lutton’s palatial eighth-floor cubicle. Photos of the chairman’s children—three or four from what she could discern, and they seemed to play every sport imaginable—adorned the desktop and shelves. Professor Lutton wore a white lab coat, though it’d surely been years since he’d worked at the bench. He flipped through papers, pretending not to enjoy prolonging her unease.
Only a certain number of tenured slots came open, and when they did, it was up-or-out for assistant professors. University life was always like that, but with competitive tenure, it wasn’t just their own research productivity—grant dollars, publications, citations, students, and postdocs—that mattered; it was their productivity relative to particular colleagues. Up-or-out meant up for one and out for the other.
Finally, he spoke. “Emma Davis.”
“She’s Pythia,” Sophia responded, trying to keep her surprise, and panic, down.
Lutton cocked an eyebrow. “I realize that. But there aren’t many other choices.”
“Well, what about Dorsey? Or Chang? Or Velasquez?”
Lutton smirked, his eyes on the floor. “The algorithm,” he said, “chose Davis.”
Oh, bullshit. She saw it now: the others were men. It made perfect sense politically. This choice guaranteed the tenure line went to a woman. Regardless of whether Sophia Sandoval or Emma Davis won tenure, the real winner would be the Department of Oncological Metabolomics …and its chairman, Myles Lutton. But someone was going to lose in this situation. And Pythia almost never lost.
Coming back into the moment, Sophia slinks past the bench, grateful that Davis hasn’t noticed her.
At her desk, Sophia checks up on happenings since she left the lab nine hours ago. Something looks off in her postdoc Alexandru’s latest batch of results, but insofar as she can interpret the broken English of his notes, he’s not troubled. She sighs; she’ll have to take it up with him when he comes in later. Second-rate people, a critical voice in her head says, you’ve got second-rate people because you didn’t go to Xu’an as you should have. None of this would be happening if she’d gone to Xu’an. And, while Bangalore wouldn’t exactly be close by, it’d sure be closer.
But it’s too easy to forget she’s not the only one with something at stake. Should Sophia lose her competitive tenure bid, Alexandru—who she knows tries his best—will be left without a valid visa sponsor. Before she’s even finished cleaning out her desk, he’ll be on a one-way flight back to Bucharest to spend the rest of his life driving a taxi.
After the conversation with Lutton, Sophia opened up a new line of research: Emma Davis herself. But beyond Davis’s bibliometric productivity statistics—right there, of course, on her ResearchCVBook profile—the trail was cold. Davis joined the Pythia nearly 25 years earlier and at that time ceased to exist beyond her scientific persona. Typical. But what had Sophia been hoping for? Some dark personal secret? A case of research misconduct swept under the rug?
Sophia exchanged few words with Emma over the years, either before or after being assigned to an academic death match with her. In this way, at least, she knows competing with a Pythia makes life easier. In other cases, all manner of dysfunctional relationships have developed between competitive tenure rivals. Some steal each other’s spouses; others become each other’s spouses. Some refuse to acknowledge the other’s existence; others do everything in their power to stamp it out. There’s the whole category of “PostProfs” who have lost their competitive tenure bids. Many leave the university entirely. Some accept offers to work for the victor in what Sophia considers a mix of desperation and self-loathing. Others, in a form of academic regression, return to work for their dissertation advisors. And then there’s the famous instance where both victor and vanquished, who’d become good friends, went to a bar after the decision and drank themselves to death.
Well, that sure as hell isn’t going to happen here, Sophia thinks. But with no vulnerability to exploit, what was she going to do: spike Davis’s reagents? Poison her samples?
Messing with a Pythia meant courting disaster, and science lore—the kind of stories told to graduate students at boozy lab happy hours or conference hotel bars—was full of chilling rumors. A disagreement over the use of lab equipment, missing chemicals, even an improper citation leads to a visit—usually at home, late at night—from a stern, bald woman you’ve never seen before. She warns, and then she leaves, but now you’ve embarked down the Pythia Force Continuum. Few continue further, but there are cases.
An infamous one involved an assistant professor who liked making lewd remarks to the Pythia in his department. He was warned repeatedly, which only provoked him. His tires were slashed. His pet cat went missing. He kept it up.
When his home was broken into, he responded by taking a swing at his Pythia colleague. The next day his seven-year-old son arrived home from school terrified, his head shaved bald, with tattoos—they were permanent—on his wrists. Soon after, that professor left the university.
Sophia would never sabotage another’s work and she’s confident she needn’t worry about it herself. Such action on Davis’s part would be completely unacceptable to the Pythia. Their motto is “The Science Comes First,” four words not only describing their entire raison d’etre, but also laying out the limits of loyalty to individual “sisters” in a group that might otherwise be confused with a cult or a gang.
Sophia’s thoughts over the past two years have, over time, become less about Emma Davis and more inwardly focused, a round of soul-searching she thinks of as her mid-life crisis (or, when she’s feeling cynical, her end-career crisis). It’s easy to forget, after all this time, how close she herself, as a graduate student, came to joining the Pythia. She found their militancy and focus attractive, but many things held her back: her elderly mother—now gone for more than 15 years—with whom she was close, a boyfriend—now long forgotten—who seemed serious at the time, a fondness for cooking and hiking…hobbies she’s long neglected. Sophia thought she could never make the level of sacrifice the Pythia required.
Acquaintances and colleagues decided differently. Determined young women disappeared, replaced by bald-headed, tattooed fanatics with hard eyes; women Sophia simultaneously envied and pitied, who’d taken monastic vows of devotion to science. Her friend Amanda, after much soul-searching, took the plunge; the new Amanda no longer enjoyed bicycling or happy hours or planning travel adventures. Weeks after the old Amanda spontaneously broke into tears deep into one of their conversations about the future, the new Amanda seemed unable even to laugh at a joke.
Sitting at her desk, Sophia scolds herself. Home is for brooding, lab is for working. But that’s easier said than done, especially today. Where do Pythia like Davis brood, she wonders, with no home to go to? Maybe they brood at the gym, the critical voice inside her replies.
As the first rays of the thin winter sun land on her desk, her daily to-do list pops up on her screen. She scans its dozen items. Move some experiments forward; check in with Karolina, her Latvian graduate student, on those weird physio read-outs she’s been getting; fill out forms to certify her appropriate use of transgenic mice; call the Oberlin-University-Sponsored-By-Doric-Colleges™ Central Service Center to haggle over incorrect sequencing charges; order those…oh, who is she kidding? Every so often life compresses down to just one thing. Today is one of those times. The Koch-Zuckerberg Foundation is announcing its latest round of funded grants today at 10 a.m. sharp, with one of two possible outcomes: 1) they’ve decided to fund her latest proposal, in which case she stands a very good chance of beating out Emma Davis for the tenure slot, or 2) they’ve decided not to fund it, in which case she’s toast. Thus all the encouraging bleets and toots this morning, including the one from Noah.
“I don’t understand why you have to move to Bangalore to be a virtual lecturer,” she’d said during one of their heated discussions before his move.
“Honey,” he’d replied—and now that she thinks of it, maybe “honey” isn’t so far removed from “babe”—“it’s the students who are virtual. Kaplan-Appanoose requires staff to be on-site.” Noah—her pale, pudgy, loveable Noah, with whom she’d lived for five years before they realized they’d save a mint on health insurance if they married—had shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t have anything here. I haven’t for six months.”
She remembers this moment so well because she’d wanted to say, “You have me.” Getting married—even so late, even for such practical reasons—put thoughts in her head, in both their heads. Thoughts of their future, of children. Back then, it still wasn’t too late. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything, maybe still all she’d have now would be his boring photo stream and idiotic texts. But she wishes she’d said it.
She rises from her desk and strides toward the windows, stands near the vents. The snow glints in the early morning sun. They don’t have days like this in Xu’an or Bangalore. Do they?
Her proposal is good. Despite all the talk about the best years of young researchers’ lives being squandered in such a tough funding environment, this lead came only around the time Lutton paired her with Emma Davis in a passive duel to career death. It’s the excitement of a possible breakthrough more than anything else that’s kept her motivated. She’s found preliminary evidence that tumor-forming cells produce combinations of metabolites different from those of normal cells. What if cancer cells can be identified this way? Even more exciting, what if particular chemical interventions can change those cells’ metabolisms so they never form tumors at all? Or kill them before they do? Or mark them for elimination by t-cells? Or…the possibilities, if the hypothesis holds true, seem limitless.
Sophia prepared her proposal for the Koch-Zuckerberg Foundation, the world’s second-largest funder of cancer research. Thinking about the largest funder of all still makes her squirm because she’d had a chance, after her fourth postdoc, to join the gravy train. Xu’an University offered her a position with five years of guaranteed funding from the Chinese government. After that, she’d have to compete, but success rates there were higher than anywhere else. She was in her early 40s, and China was hot.
Joining the Pythia was always good for a woman’s career, and through the Pythia the number of successful female scientists skyrocketed across the disciplines. But Sophia often wondered at what cost.
With the best of intentions she flew to Xu’an to check it out: exchanged her dollars for yuan, strapped on an OtoTranslator™, and rode an immaculate bullet train to the city’s center. But when the doors opened, the bubble burst. Crowds jostled her on the sidewalk, JauntCars nearly ran her down on the street. The air was a choking haze; within minutes, dirty sweat droplets formed on her brow, her nostrils clogged, her throat swelled, and dust collected under her fingernails and in her hair. “You’ll get used to it,” people said by way of consolation. “You’ll be spending all your time in the lab anyway. Besides, it’s all the more reason to work on finding a cure!” Morbid humor aside, Sophia couldn’t fathom living someplace where she couldn’t go outside. She flew home and declined the offer.
Had she been Pythia, such action would be unthinkable. The Science Comes First. Joining the Pythia was always good for a woman’s career, and through the Pythia the number of successful female scientists skyrocketed across the disciplines. But Sophia often wondered at what cost.
The story of the Pythia’s origin was a science legend that everyone—even the smarmiest tenured male in the most backward department—knew. It started with Giorgina Blanchett, a 30-something chemistry postdoc who, in the early years of the 21st century, worked at a major university, in the lab of a senior professor named William Wendell. Giorgina slaved away on her research for years and was just at the stage where she was ready to write it up. She hoped to publish it in Science, one of the world’s top journals, which would go a long way toward securing her a tenure-track position. But Dr. Blanchett became pregnant and when she told Wendell the news, he fired her. Blanchett sought out Barbara Hought, the dean of arts & sciences and herself a chemist, to file a grievance and seek reinstatement. But Hought reminded Blanchett that postdocs were at-will employees who served at the pleasure of their supervisors. “Choices have consequences,” Hought said. Blanchett was out on the street: pregnant, without income or health insurance, career in tatters, years of work squandered.
Stories like this were common, but what happened next was not.
They say that Blanchett snapped. She slit her wrists, but her husband called the paramedics in time. Nobody knows what was going through Blanchett’s mind, but as soon as she left the hospital, using money that she surely didn’t have, she placed a full-page ad—ironically, in Science—in the form of an open letter to Wendell and Hought.
You doubt my devotion to science, it read, but I assure you my commitment is complete.
The letter listed steps she would take to prove it:
I will terminate my pregnancy immediately.
I will divorce my husband and move out of our home, ceasing all contact and pledging not to pursue other romantic relationships.
I will take up permanent residence in my lab, leaving only for hygienic, nutritional, or health purposes, or those related to the work of the lab.
I will sever all contact with my family.
I will cut all social connections with my friends and acquaintances and will not develop any new such relationships.
I will cease spending time on other activities and interests, devoting myself solely to maximizing my research productivity.
The letter was a bombshell. Some thought it a hoax, others definitive proof of mental illness. But Blanchett followed through on her steps and in the ensuing outcry was reinstated in her lab long enough to publish her research and earn an assistant professor position at another university.
She also attracted a following of female scientists who made similar pledges. The shaved heads appeared soon after, first for functional reasons—they made personal grooming easier—but ultimately as a proclamation of solidarity and identity. The tattoos followed, designed to mimic the cuts in Blanchett’s wrists. And so was born a new class of people adapted to institutional life: the university equivalent of the Aryan Brotherhood or the urki of the Gulag.
If this new phenomenon of women publicly forsaking their personal lives does not unequivocally illustrate how badly the system is broken, trumpeted the editor-in-chief of Science in a famous editorial several years later, I do not know what does. Nobel Laureates, university presidents, and federal agency heads made similar public statements. (In private, they were giddy at the Pythia’s productivity.) Over the following ten years, half a dozen committees of muckety-mucks assembled: they navel-gazed and proselytized, they expressed their “strong concern” and “deep commitment to systemic change,” they generated reams of damning data and shelf-feet of dense reports with recommendations totaling in the hundreds. But funds were too tight, institutions too competitive, globalization too real. No group ever managed, either through policy or cultural change, to develop a realistic career disincentive to joining the Pythia.
Sophia senses eyes on her and turns. Emma Davis, gripping a pipette in her latex gloves, is staring at her. Sophia feels ashamed again, this time to be caught in idle reverie. What’s the point of coming in so early, the critical voice asks, when you mope around and get nothing done?
“Your proposal is promising,” Emma says. Her expression is flat, her eyes unfathomable.
Sophia is caught surprised. “Th-thank you.”
Emma doesn’t move. The ghost of a smile—a kind one, Sophia thinks—forms on her lips. Emma hesitates before opening her mouth as if to say something more. Just as she does, a stopwatch in her pocket begins beeping. Whatever she’s left brewing on the bench is ready for the next step. Davis clicks it off and walks away.
I guess that’s what passes for a heartwarming conversation with a Pythia, the critical inner voice says. But the voice is weak; Sophia feels touched.
Back at her desk, she pulls up her ResearchCVBook profile to await the results from the foundation’s reviewers. It seems like everyone’s online now; the chatter of bleets and toots is like a party.
The first score pops up in her feed: a perfect 10.000 from KZ_PeerReviewer1.
Speaking of parties, Sophia imagines the one she’ll throw if she gets the grant…and with it, her tenure. She imagines Lutton coming down from the eighth floor to congratulate her, the smugness wiped off his face forever. Alexandru and Karolina will be there, both grinning, any lingering worries about forcible returns to Eastern Europe erased. Maybe Noah will fly in from Bangalore, or at least VidAppear for a while.
The second score pops up.
KZ_PeerReviewer2 Score: 10.000
There’ll be cake at the party, which they’ll hold in the departmental seminar/faculty meeting/conference/multi-purpose room in the basement. Noisemakers. Funny hats. Maybe even stupid games. Lighthearted stuff …the sort of stuff Sophia would have done for her kids’ birthday parties, if she’d had kids.
A third 10.000 arrives from the final peer reviewer. Only one more score to go, this one from the foundation itself.
What will her research uncover? Might it lead to new cancer treatments? To the alleviation of massive amounts of human pain and suffering? To prestige and success, and maybe even wealth, for Sophia? Even if not, she thinks, even if none of it pans out, this investigation will be a worthy way to spend the remainder of her career.
The last score arrives.
KZ_Program_Officer Score: 9.854
Comment: “interesting hypothesis, though we are concerned that the applicant’s prior decision to turn down an offer from Xu’an University may suggest less than full dedication to her career.”
Average score: 9.964
Score required for top vigintile/positive funding outcome: 9.968.
Funding outcome: NEGATIVE
The data autopopulate her ResearchCVBook profile and automatically re-toot to the world. Before Sophia can process what’s happened, the first sympathetic emoticons from colleagues appear in her feed. Noah bleets a wailing face with a tear rolling down one cheek and a cloud of steam escaping from its nonexistent ears. She wants to slap him for responding to the destruction of her career with a yellow smiley-face’s unhappy cousin, like she’d texted that she missed the bus.
It’s too fast, but just like that, it’s over.
She stands, needing to get away from the screen.
She should break the news to Karolina and Alexandru. She should try to negotiate with Myles Lutton. She should go home, pour a stiff drink, and climb into bed.
Instead, she walks—wobbly and jittery at first, then more certain—back between the lab benches, where she knows she’ll find Emma Davis, working away in the name of science.
Josh Trapani (firstname.lastname@example.org) is writing a novel about a young scientist who faces the same situation as Giorgina Blanchett, but makes a different choice. He has worked at the intersection of science and policy for nearly ten years.