Home > Love on the Brain

Love on the Brain
Author: Ali Hazelwood

 

 


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THE HABENULA: DISAPPOINTMENT


   HERE’S MY FAVORITE piece of trivia in the whole world: Dr. Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie showed up to her wedding ceremony wearing her lab gown.

   It’s actually a pretty cool story: a scientist friend hooked her up with Pierre Curie. They awkwardly admitted to having read each other’s papers and flirted over beakers full of liquid uranium, and he proposed within the year. But Marie was only meant to be in France to get her degree, and reluctantly rejected him to return to Poland.

   Womp womp.

   Enter the University of Krakow, villain and unintentional cupid of this story, which denied Marie a faculty position because she was a woman (very classy, U of K). Dick move, I know, but it had the fortunate side effect of pushing Marie right back into Pierre’s loving, not-yet-radioactive arms. Those two beautiful nerds married in 1895, and Marie, who wasn’t exactly making bank at the time, bought herself a wedding dress that was comfortable enough to use in the lab every day. My girl was nothing if not pragmatic.

   Of course, this story becomes significantly less cool if you fast forward ten years or so, to when Pierre got himself run over by a carriage and left Marie and their two daughters alone in the world. Zoom into 1906, and that’s where you’ll find the real moral of this tale: trusting people to stick around is a bad idea. One way or another they’ll end up gone. Maybe they’ll slip on the Rue Dauphine on a rainy morning and get their skull crushed by a horse-drawn cart. Maybe they’ll be kidnapped by aliens and vanish into the vastness of space. Or maybe they’ll have sex with your best friend six months before you’re due to get married, forcing you to call off the wedding and lose tons of cash in security deposits.

   The sky’s the limit, really.

   One might say, then, that U of K is only a minor villain. Don’t get me wrong: I love picturing Dr. Curie waltzing back to Krakow Pretty Woman–style, wearing her wedding-slash-lab gown, brandishing her two Nobel Prize medals, and yelling, “Big Mistake. Big. Huge.” But the real villain, the one that had Marie crying and staring at the ceiling in the late hours of the night, is loss. Grief. The intrinsic transience of human relationships. The real villain is love: an unstable isotope, constantly undergoing spontaneous nuclear decay.

   And it will forever go unpunished.

   Do you know what’s reliable instead? What never, ever abandoned Dr. Curie in all her years? Her curiosity. Her discoveries. Her accomplishments.

   Science. Science is where it’s at.

   Which is why when NASA notifies me—Me! Bee Königswasser!—that I’ve been chosen as lead investigator of BLINK, one of their most prestigious neuroengineering research projects, I screech. I screech loudly and joyously in my minuscule, windowless office on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health. I screech about the amazing performance-enhancing technology I’m going to get to build for none other than NASA astronauts, and then I remember that the walls are toilet-paper thin and that my left neighbor once filed a formal complaint against me for listening to nineties female alt-rock without headphones. So I press the back of my hand to my mouth, bite into it, and jump up and down as silently as possible while elation explodes inside me.

   I feel just like I imagine Dr. Curie must have felt when she was finally allowed to enroll at the University of Paris in late 1891: as though a world of (preferably nonradioactive) scientific discoveries is finally within grasping distance. It is, by far, the most momentous day of my life, and kicks off a phenomenal weekend of celebrations. Highlights are:

              I tell the news to my three favorite colleagues, and we go out to our usual bar, guzzle several rounds of lemon drops, and take turns doing hilarious impressions of that time Trevor, our ugly middle-aged boss, asked us not to fall in love with him. (Academic men tend to harbor many delusions—except for Pierre Curie, of course. Pierre would never.)

 

          I change my hair from pink to purple. (I have to do it at home, because junior academics can’t afford salons; my shower ends up looking like a mix between a cotton candy machine and a unicorn slaughterhouse, but after the raccoon incident—which, believe me, you don’t want to know about—I wasn’t going to get my security deposit back anyway.)

 

          I take myself to Victoria’s Secret and buy a set of pretty green lingerie, not allowing myself to feel guilty at the expense (even though it’s been many years since someone has seen me without clothes, and if I have my way no one will for many, many more).

 

          I download the Couch-to-Marathon plan I’ve been meaning to start and do my first run. (Then I limp back home cursing my overambition and promptly downgrade to a Couch-to-5K program. I can’t believe that some people work out every day.)

 

          I bake treats for Finneas, my elderly neighbor’s equally elderly cat, who often visits my apartment for second dinner. (He shreds my favorite pair of Converse in gratitude. Dr. Curie, in her infinite wisdom, was probably a dog person.)

 

 

   In short, I have an absolute blast. I’m not even sad when Monday comes. It’s same old, same old—experiments, lab meetings, eating Lean Cuisine and shotgunning store-brand LaCroix at my desk while crunching data—but with the prospect of BLINK, even the old feels new and exciting.

   I’ll be honest: I’ve been worried sick. After having four grant applications rejected in less than six months, I was sure that my career was stalling—maybe even over. Whenever Trevor called me into his office, I’d get palpitations and sweaty palms, sure that he’d tell me that my yearly contract wasn’t going to be renewed. The last couple of years since graduating with my Ph.D. haven’t been a whole lot of fun.

   But that’s over with. Contracting for NASA is a career-making opportunity. After all, I’ve been chosen after a ruthless selection process over golden boys like Josh Martin, Hank Malik, even Jan Vanderberg, that horrid guy who trash-talks my research like it’s an Olympic sport. I’ve had my setbacks, plenty of them, but after nearly two decades of being obsessed with the brain, here I am: lead neuroscientist of BLINK. I’ll design gears for astronauts, gears they’ll use in space. This is how I get out of Trevor’s clammy, sexist clutches. This is what buys me a long-term contract and my own lab with my own line of research. This is the turning point in my professional life—which, truthfully, is the only kind of life I care to have.

   For several days I’m ecstatic. I’m exhilarated. I’m ecstatically exhilarated.

   Then, on Monday at 4:33 p.m., my email pings with a message from NASA. I read the name of the person who will be co-leading BLINK with me, and all of a sudden I’m none of those things anymore.

 

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