Alice Williamson: Lab Notes
Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA Storytelling night I run at the Giant Dwarf in Redfern with support from the City of Sydney. This week – Scientist and Radio Star Dr Alice Williamson.
Good morning everybody. I’m Denise and I’d like to welcome to you all to the three most important hours of your new role. This workplace health and safety induction. Now I’m going to start with a little mantra I like to remind myself of every morning “Safety is no Accident”. I stare straight ahead, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anyone who might force me to lose composure and start giggling uncontrollably. But when I risk a swift look around, I realize that no one else is quite so entertained. ‘How did I end up here?’ I think.
Almost ten years after I first left home I am back again. Living with my parents, suddenly devoid of all domestic responsibility, wearing clothes that have actually been ironed, and being dropped off and picked up for work by my Dad. Sometimes with a lunch box he has packed for me in the morning.
Now let me start with a story – a story about someone who once sat in this very same room, in this very same safety induction. Let’s call him Trevor. One morning it was raining stair rods, and by the time everyone had come in from the foyer with all the coats and the brollies the floor was covered in water. Trevor was rushing to a meeting. He slipped on the floor and dislocated his knee. The ambulance came, Trev went to hospital, and muggin’s here started filling in the paper work. If I had a tenner for everyone who said to me “ooh that floor has always been a death trap”, or “I slipped on that last February”, well I would have had a lot more spending money for my annual trip to Teneree I’ll tell you.
But back to Trevor. He remained in hospital for a few hours, got his Xray and plaster cast and went home for a week or two. Three days later, Trevor died from a blood clot related to that injury. And all because no one had recognized that floor as a slip hazard. All of those people share some responsibility in that tragedy. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. And the standard I accept is that nothing less than everyone of you is getting home safely from work each night. I hereby pledge that I’ll have no more deaths on my watch. Who is with me?
Where the hell was I working? A friend had kindly gotten me a job on an Industrial Estate packed full of all sorts of businesses, the vast majority were desk based, and certainly not dangerous enough to merit a three hour health and safety morning. With perhaps the sole exception of the company I was working for – the one that specialized in the synthesis of chemical starting materials for research and drug development teams. I was quietly confident that Denise’s monologue would not delve into the safe handling of chemicals. And I was right. I stifled a sigh, I was supposed to be in Australia by now; learning how to surf, slathering vegemite on everything, trying to understand negative gearing and you know, all those things you need to know to prepare for a citizen test.
Instead I was back home in Warrington. Let me tell you a little bit about my mighty home town. It’s a town nestled between Manchester and Liverpool in the North West of England. A town home to the wonderful Warrington Wolves Rugby League, Leaver Brothers soap factory, and the first IKEA in Britain. But despite all of that, it’s also a town that was recently described as ‘the least cultural place in Britain’. Or as summarized by the Daily Mail in the pithy and succinct headline ‘Fancy a bit of Culture? Definitely don’t go to Warrington.’ It continues, ‘There are no parks, no areas of natural beauty, no battle fields or historical ships, and not even any nice old pubs’. Talk about adding insult to injury. But it is advisable to question anything that is published in the Daily Mail. And it’s really not that bad at all. It just doesn’t quite live up to the marketing campaign slogan plastered all over the deserted old high street ‘It’s all going on in Warrington’. Quite frankly, that’s a bit of an over statement.
But I reckon every town should a slogan though right? My sisters partner Tom who is here, he is from Hartley Pool in the North East of England, and his is ‘Hartley Pool – A Marina a much more’. That was my favourite for ages until I went to New Zealand and I saw the one that looks over Featherston Station which says ‘Featherston, if you lived here you’d be home right now’. Anyway. The reason I am back in Warrington is because my Australian VISA hasn’t come through. I thought it would arrive months ago and I have already had all three of my farewell parties. I ‘you passed your PHD’ party in Cambridge, a teary and alcohol filled dance fest in London, and a family weekend away in Glasgow where my cousin baked me a delicious but weird spiky cake. It made much more sense when she explained to me what an Echidna was.
Coming home was never part of the plan, and it doesn’t feel like anything is going on in Warrington. Because I feel uncomfortable and out of sorts. Partly because I want to be in Sydney, partly because I feel like I have regressed back to my teenage years, and partly because I’ve got a secret. What could it be? I’ve always been pretty good at working things out, which is really helpful as a Scientist. I think it dates back to deciphering my parents coded conversations as a child, they would speak to each other in broken French when they didn’t want us to listen in. But the main problem was that my Dad doesn’t speak any French, so what it would turn into is this frustrated game of charades and I was pretty good at working those out, so that’s where it comes from.
A couple of years before my return to Warrington, aged 25, I still hadn’t managed to work out that I was a lesbian. I locked eyes with a beautiful woman in a Parisian bar one February evening and I felt a mixture of terror and excitement. Merde. This must be why I never wanted a boyfriend. My new lesbian hypothesis was supported by some other pieces of evidence – an explanation for those feelings I had for Rachel Griffiths in Six Feet Under. The holes that were growing in the elbows of that plaid shirt I wore at every opportunity. Of course my insatiable desire to push the gay agenda. Still, this new chemistry came as a shock, and a distraction from another type, one that was tricky but easier for me to understand and explain – the contents of my PHD research.
For a month, maybe more, afterwards my lab notebook remained blank. A solitary date and title hinted at results, but I just stared out of the window. The day punctuated with tea breaks and the sound of children entering and leaving the neighbouring school. The lab notebook is the equivalent of a Scientist diary, and sometimes it actually feels more personal. I tried to keep many diaries as a child and I had no problem in filling the pages because I loved writing. The problem was that I was so private that most of the entries were a fiction created to satisfy any adult who might pick it up rather than actually expressing any honest feeling or emotion. My PHD lab book on the other hand, was completely honest. Some days I did a better job of filling it in than others of course, but it charted the few highs, the many lows and the different plateaus of my research. I poured my results or lack of results into it, and had to accept that whatever it contained my Boss or colleagues would probably come to look at it and judge its contents.
I didn’t manage to fill up any more pages until I had summed up the courage to come out to my sister and a few of my close friends. As I started feeling more comfortable in my skin, my chemistry even started to work. Making the long hours and endless weekends in the lab a little bit easier. But I still wasn’t feeling great. I was concentrated on finishing the PHD rather than taking care of my mental health and I started to feel trapped in an academic bubble of competition, pressure to publish and secrecy.
So as a coping strategy I started to imagine what I would do next – I’ll give up research and go travelling for a few years and become a writer, and to make a long story short (something I am pretty terrible at doing), I ended up with a chance to come to Sydney, Australia. Much further from home than I expected, but with the chance to do Malaria research in a new type of science called ‘Open Science’ where all secrecy is removed and where all of our lab diaries are completely open and published on the internet where everyone can read them.
Now, I don’t know if there are any psycho-annalists in the audience but I don’t think you need to be, or even need to have read anything by Sigmund Freud to join any of those dots.
So I had a plan, and I started to feel better. I had studied a few maps of Tassie, and plotted a route up the East Coast and through the Top End for a six week adventure before I started work, and I had even submitted my PHD. But the VISA didn’t come, the lease on my flat has expired, and what little money I had has run out. So I move home, get a job, and have to listen to Denise. And Denise is not the only character at work, there’s far too many to introduce you to but I’ll give you a flavor. My boss, a man who ends every sentence the same way ‘Alice, if you’re in the lab today sort of thing, maybe you can finish making that last precursor sort of thing, and try it out sort of thing? Check the water content sort of thing? And pack it up ready for shipping sort of thing?’ One day we are in the staff canteen, a small depressing room that always smells of broccoli soup, and he answers his phone and starts speaking to his partner in Cantonese but continues to punctuate his conversation with ‘sort of thing?’, it was the best thing ever.
Lunch time in the canteen is the most depressing part of the day, but also weirdly my favourite bit. Not just because of my Dads amazing food, but also because of the daily rituals of my fellow colleagues. One has a lunch box the size of a cake tin. It is yellow and scratched and looks like it hasn’t been washed since 1992. Its’ monstrous size can only be explained by the fact that this colleague likes to fit his copy of the Daily Mail inside for safe keeping. He flicks off the lid, pushes his grimy lab specs to the top of his head, and begins to read out stories of interest to everyone at the table. We are really lucky, because he also gives us a running commentary on his feelings about the news at the same time. Shaking his head, with one hand he unwraps with one hand a tin foiled treat of a corned beef sandwich on white slice bread with congealed mustard pushed over the edges. The hand then reaches, the pull the ring of a can of coke, and once free lifts a bag of pork scratchings to his mouth, bites the corner, whilst still sharing breaking news on the causes and cures of cancer, and pulls them open. When the paper recycle is over and his lunch finished, he reaches for his piece de resistance – one of three packs of indigestion tablets contained within the lunch box. I am still not sure if they aided with the digestion of the Paper, as much as his processed food. This continues every day for weeks and then a month, and despite checking my email inbox every thirty minutes there is still no VISA.
Friends are starting to stage interventions and tell me that maybe Australia isn’t going to happen and perhaps I should start looking for a flat or a more permanent job. I’m starting to get pretty down. I cant face anymore lunch time daily mail, or keeping secrets from the people making my sandwiches, or delaying the freedom that I am sure Sydney will bring. I feel like things cant get much worse, and then once day, Denises voice ringing in my head, I slip over and dislocate my knee. Can you still come to work sort of thing? Asked my boss. But I cant. I get Xrays and a plaster cast and I go home to rest. Then three days later, my VISA arrives.