We, liberal arts students of Bowdoin, postpone professionalism. We buy into the model that taking courses from a variety of disciplines doesn’t simply prepare us for a single career path, but aids us in acquiring the skills for “life long learning.”

College is a time for self-discovery and development, we’re told—a time to find our passions, make mistakes, make friends, and hone skills that will follow us in whatever we choose to pursue. College isn’t all about the silent Russian film you happen to be analyzing, or the derivatives you happen to be taking. It’s about the mini life lessons hidden in these scholarly pursuits.  

One Tuesday night in Druckenmiller Hall, working in lab, I got one of those mini life lessons.

Someone is developing film in the dark room and I need to visualize a gel. To be technical:In technical terms, I need to bathe a slab of agarose gel with UV light to look for glowing bands of DNA, but the room with the UV box is “IN USE.” A sign by the entrance politely requests that I don’t turn on any lights.

But I’m determined. It’s after business hours, so I don’t have access to the gel doc system on the upper floor of Druck. I’ve already zapped my DNA-gel with 40 minutes of electric current, and would have to start from scratch tomorrow. Added to the several other lab dilemmas I’ve encountered recently, this seemingly simple endeavor has been almost a week in the making. I have my heart set on seeing results tonight.

Determined, I see the loop-hole: I will somehow get to the UV machine in the dark room, place my gel in the required spot, and take the necessary measurements all without turning on the lights and disrupting the photographer.  Improvisation at its best.   

Gel in hand, I slide the revolving black-felted door and enter the dark room. Trying to locate the UV machine in this very dark room, I bump the counter almost instantly and knock the gel out of the Tupperware and to the floor. My mouth twitches to grimace, but I remind myself, “It’s okay, I’m learning to adapt to unforeseen obstacles! I’m learning to embrace my mistakes!” This must be part of my mini-lesson’s plan. 

Now on all fours, I pat the ground around me, eventually recovering the gel. At least most of it. A chunk’s gone, and I really hope it’s not the chunk where the DNA should be. Palms starting to sweat, eyebrows making the move to furrow, I begin to wonder if maybe the lesson is in patience or hubris. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so proud as to think I could have done this in the dark.

I open the UV machine’s door with forced calm, place the gel as much in the center as possible, close the door, flip the switches (making a point to angle my body to shield the developing photography across the room from the faint green light emanating from them), and print out a picture.

When I step outside of the dark room to check the photo, I realize that the gel is not in the frame at all. I bitterly mutter “Life-long learning, Life-long learning!” As I step back into the dark room for round two, I’ve stopped guessing at what the lesson is exactly.  

Let’s skip to the end. I succeed in getting the picture I need without ruining someone else’s. Yes, I learned something about cricket DNA and advanced my research project. But mostly, I learned about myself. Although now still unclear, I know I’ll find meaning in the frustration and seeming inanity of “The Day I Dropped the Gel” at a later date.