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Destination Chromosome

As a Biology subject matter expert in my company, part of my job is to ‘perform’ dissections. I use the word perform, because it is indeed a performance. We travel from school to school hauling gargantuan bags stuffed with science (and math!) demonstration kits. Dissections happen to be one of my more popular sessions. Once in class, I occupy center stage, enveloped by inquisitive young minds in a hysterical uproar, while I calmly draw parallels between the specimen in my hand and the diagram in their textbooks. Yup, it’s fun.

I remember my first mammalian dissection – a mouse. A tiny white furry thing that was growing in our lab, along with several others.

We kept it in this cage that was made of a wire mesh. We used to feed it with carrots and other tidbits. And then, one day we had to dissect it. I still remember the wave of nausea that clenched my gut. We opened the cage, and one escaped. We ran around – half of us trying to escape from it scurrying across our feet, and the other half trying to actually catch it. When we finally did catch it, we put it into a glass jar along with a cotton ball dipped in chloroform. When all forms of visible movements in the body came to a halt, we placed it on the dissection tray, pinned it onto the wax and slit through its body. It then shuddered, its blood spilled all over, and the nausea in my gut grew even more. [No, we did not do a cervical dislocation. I bet our instructors had no idea what the even meant. #ScienceEducationinIndia]. Two hours of pulling and prodding and we finally plucked out the bone, extracted the marrow – all we wanted were the cells in them to observe chromosomes. Two days of experimentation and we finally saw them – the chromosomes of Mus musculus. All sensations of nausea and revulsion were lost. The exhilaration I felt at that point was beyond description. It was the first time I was seeing animal chromosomes!

Later, of course we were informed that what we observed weren’t chromosomes at all. LOL. It was bacteria – our sample was contaminated. Our procedure was all wrong. Whatever the case, the process emboldened me. I am now able to dissect any animal with steady hands.

But even if I can, I am not a huge fan of dissections. It is immoral I agree, but absolutely inevitable, if one wants to understand the working of a biological system – a necessary evil! Why necessary – you would know if the medical system has ever been able to save you or someone you loved at a time of need. The knowledge of the doctor who treated the condition or the medicines that we devoured during those days, all comes from extensive research – research that involved dissecting animals, using them as laboratory guinea pigs, and sacrificing their lives to enhance our understanding. Does the cause justify the means? I am not one to comment. But I do know for a fact that if I were to choose between my life and that of a couple of mice – I would choose mine.

Today, we have animal rights activists overplaying the cause. Would these people agree to be the first to try a newly developed cancer drug on them – never tested on any animal? I wonder for all their concern should the entire discipline of medical research be discontinued for lack of testing. I have no answers, but for those who agree that no learning is complete without hands-on practical experience I must say the same is true for biology too.

P.S. We did not give up on those mouse chromosomes. We had to sacrifice around 3–4 of them (employing the amateurish techniques that we were taught by the instructors in our Masters) before we finally saw 'em chromosomes. But then, trust me, in the end, it was all worth it.


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