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Unexpected Surprises This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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The coveted red hue vanished from under the bedlam of lights and lenses. With that, the last piece of the puzzle went astray.

“Ay, Martha, venga aqui!” I exclaimed as I motioned my research mentor to take a look at the slide under the university medical center's state-of-the-art microscope. She let out a glum sigh.

That sigh concerned me. Not once since the lab's principal investigator gave me the opportunity to carry out my pancreatic and prostate cancer project and paired me with Martha had I seen her distressed. Whenever I entered those heavy, green doors, I always saw a gray-haired lady smiling at me, greeting me with, “Hola! Como estas?” I would return those greetings, chat with her about my mood, and ask about the happenings of her week in the same romantic tongue. I loved that atmosphere, enjoying those conversations in Spanish, telling each other stories about our lives, giving me the freedom to explore new ideas, trying to loosen up the pressure-filled environment. I had a feeling that Martha enjoyed our talks too.

But I was frustrated by my research. I had followed the protocol exactly as the company had written it – bake the slides, melt the glycerol, stir the milk, sit overnight – but after multiple attempts, there was nothing. The publications about prostate and pancreatic cancer in Nature Medicine paved a lucid path to the same result: a red tint should smear the thin layer of cancer cells. With a vast ocean of knowledge feeding my hungry brain and coveting an accurate final product, I tried the process over and over. But my clumsy hands refused to listen.

As I ventured into the treacherous jungle of the city and arrived at the comforts of the 11-story cancer research building nestled between 90th and 92nd streets, my fingers were quivering like mad, my toes frozen with chills running up my spine, my stomach contents ready to fly into space. I've never spilled water on the slides before. Now the experiment is ruined. The grant is going to expire soon, and the update and the paper are due in a couple of weeks. Precious time is a wasting, precious money going down the drain.

But with each step toward my destination, my anxious and aching body was settling down to the slow, graceful tempo of Debussy's “Clair de Lune.” I'd performed this experiment so many times that I could do it with a lift of my pinky. Yet, I still had no result. And just because I messed up the first step doesn't mean I couldn't tweak the rest of the protocol to see what happened. I just had so much fun ­fiddling around with the experiment. That excitement won't ever slip away from me.

I grabbed the steaming slides from the oven and drenched chemical after chemical over each one with the joy of being a kid again. Then I gently pushed a slippery slide under the microscope.

There it was. The lights and lenses radiated the sparkling glow of fire, a glow that had been elusive thus far. As I screamed, “Martha, venga aqui!” for the last time, grateful for the opportunity, the relaxed atmosphere, and our unique bond, I was thrilled to see the beaming smile that had been missing for so long.

Sometimes, I have learned, the beauty of life comes from the joy of unexpected surprises and not in the pursuit of robotic perfection.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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