July 2, 2014

The Life and Times of Churchill the Lab Rat

by Krishan Aghi

Krishan Aghi '15 is a is a Royce Fellow  and Neuroscience Concentrator. His research project titled "The Effects of Optogenetic Inhibition of the PER-POR Pathway on Contextual Memory and Learning." To tell us about his research, Aghi takes a creative writing approach from the pespective of a rat in his lab.

When the Rat was born, all he could feel was a warm darkness. He didn’t know it yet, but the small bodies pushing against his mother’s belly were his brothers and sisters, most of them destined to be separated from his mother. Some would be flown hundreds of miles away, whilst others would be put in a room a mere twenty feet away from their birthplace. But that didn’t concern the Rat - the only thing he could think of was surviving.

“Food. Warmth. Sleep. Move.” he thought. He could not see, he could not hear, and he could not speak. But he knew what he had to do to live.

At three days, he felt a bristly undergrowth all over his body.

At ten days, he opened his eyes, and met the Titans for the first time. Tall beasts draped in white, they reached into his home and took away his family. You see, some of the Rat’s siblings weren’t too lucky. Some never got back to their mother, passing silently. Others lost heat too rapidly, drifting off into an endless, frozen sleep. An unlucky few were swallowed mercilessly by their own parent. The Rat, however, trudged on, living and fighting.

At 4 weeks, it was time for him to leave. The Titans reached in, and tried grabbing him, but the Rat scampered away.

“Don’t touch me!” he squeaked. They were relentless, however, and grabbed him by the base of his tail. “Leave me alone! Mama! Someone help me!”

The Titans stroked his fur, and the Rat was momentarily calmed as his curiosity supplanted his fear. “They don’t smell like my Mama,” he thought. “But, they don’t smell scary either. Mmm, I like how they scratch my ear.”

Slowly but steadily the Titans placed him down in a new home. The Rat walked around a bit, feeling the soft floor and smelling the new odors. “Wow, I can’t wait to mark this as my own,” the Rat spoke as he sniffed a small patch near the corner. The cover went over, and a comfortable darkness descended. His home began to sway to and fro like a crib, and so the Rat curled up and was lulled into a peaceful sleep.

When he woke up, the darkness was still there. “Strange. I thought there’d be more light,” the Rat mused. That didn’t bother him, however; he was used to that.

Time passed without any marker, and the Rat began an unfettered cycle of sleep and wake in that same darkness. “I miss my Mama, but this is nice. I don’t have to deal with the others poking their noses in strange places and sleeping on top of me. I could get used to this.”

Finally, the cover broke. Harsh light streamed in, and the Rat knew he was in a different place. It was brighter, and he saw rats he hadn’t seen before. The Titans here were different as well. They mumbled to one another. “Six Long-Evans, as requested. Four weeks old.”

The cover went back on and off just as quickly. The Rat was picked up out of his home and put somewhere different. The walls were slightly yellow, and the floor was browner. More musky. “I don’t mind this either,” said the Rat.

A new Titan walked in the room – this Titan smelled like a mixture of fatigue and strange chemicals. He held the Rat and smiled.

What should I call you? 14-022 is too long, and you’re not a machine.”

The Rat continued to poke his nose into the crevices of the Titan’s arms. You never know, he may be hiding food, the Rat thought.

“I shouldn’t be too dramatic with this – the last batch was named after angels from the Kabbalah. Should I do the Spice Girls?” the Titan spoke in a quizzical fashion. The Rat darted away and stuck his head into an elbow crease.

“Oh! Scary Spice isn’t nice, but she shouldn’t scare you that much. You’re totally right, though, it’s too silly. Maybe…Prime Ministers of the UK?”

This Titan sounds pretentious, the Rat thought.

“You can be Churchill! You’re totally a Churchill."

And so the Rat became Churchill.

 

 

Days passed, and the same Bearded Titan would visit to feed and hold him. The Titan’s hands were clumsy, and they shook slightly whenever he put them in Churchill’s home. But Churchill knew he wasn’t bad. “What’s that mark on his finger? His hands smell good. I want to nibble them. Maybe he’ll appreciate it.” He didn’t. Churchill learned that very quickly.

Sometimes, the Bearded Titan would put him on a Hard Thingamabob, and read off numbers.

“346 grams already? Oof, I’ve been spoiling you.” The Titan grinned. Of course, after weighing him he would still give Churchill that extra pellet, his face adorned with the same goofy expression he always had.

 

 

One day, the Bearded Titan walked in with a different expression. “Are you ok?” Churchill squeaked, as the Titan picked up Churchill’s Home and placed it on a black cart. He swung a large blanket over the rats, and began to push them down a hall. Churchill, of course, fell asleep.

The rumbling of the cart stopped, and Churchill woke up promptly. “I wonder where we are,” he said as he climbed the walls of his Home. The cover came off, and the Titan took Churchill and placed him in another box.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be ok," spoke the Titan. He turned a knob, and Churchill began to feel very, very sleepy. In moments, everything went dark.

 

 

Churchill woke up. “Where am I?” he asked. The ground was warm and his head hurt. Churchill tried moving, but his legs failed him. He crawled into a corner and shivered before drifting off into a dreamless sleep.

A few days later, Churchill could move without wanting to cry. He felt slightly different, however. “Where did this block come from?” He asked, sniffing a block that had been in his home since the first day. “What is that mark? It looks strange. Has another rat been here?” He wandered over to a stain that he had been cultivating for the past few weeks. The Bearded Titan walked in, opened the cage, and gently took Churchill in his hands.

“My poor baby,” the Bearded Titan spoke, “your head must be hurting so much. I’m so sorry we had to do that to you. I’ll get you an extra pellet, I promise.” He put Churchill back, and placed a cover over his Home. All was dark.

The darkness would come and go but Churchill’s confusion continued to increase. The Bearded Titan would put in him boxes he had never seen, with noises he had never heard. Sometimes, Churchill would be whisked away to mazes of unfamiliar objects without warning. He could feel his head pounding during these inexplicable moments, but each time at the end he was reassured by a comforting nudge, the soft hand feeding him that extra pellet.

This sort of routine continued on for enough until, one day, Churchill awoke not to the floor of his Home but to a much softer kind of floor.

He woke up on his back, his mind clouded and his vision blurred. His tummy stung a tiny bit where the injection had entered. He turned over – he was being cradled. “This ground is so familiar,” he said, as he nuzzled into the Bearded Titan’s hands. “It’s nice enough to take a nap.” The Bearded Titan stroked him as Churchill closed his eyes and thought of all the food he would nibble on when he woke up. His breath grew softer with each passing moment, until he finally slipped away into his eternal nap, dreaming of soft beds and tasty morsels.

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