By Alexandra Wick
I’ve spent two winters in Annapolis since starting my education at St. John’s, and each one was accompanied by a horrific mouse incident. I’ve never liked mice. Like my mother and her mother before her, I inherited a fear of rodents without ever having really encountered one.
Doing homework in the Chasement—the basement of Chase-Stone House, one of the older dormitories—I would see the occasional mouse scurry from beneath one cracked leather couch to another. This was bearable as long as I could bolt up four flights of stairs to my well-kept room with the assurance that my roommate and I were the only mammals that called it home. To emphasize how well I guarded against scavenging intruders, understand that I manage my anxiety by controlling the cleanliness of my environment. Whether that’s healthy or not, you can be sure that there was no trace of crumbs or stickiness or anything odorous or edible left anywhere ever. Although I kept some food in the cupboards in my room, I disinfected every surface before I left for break, convinced my room would be exactly the same when I returned.
Unfortunately, it was a lost cause from the start. For the month leading up to Christmas break, the girl across the hall had been keeping a “pet” mouse. I use quotation marks because this girl never invested in a cage to contain the mouse but always dutifully left food for the thing. Once the creature even fell into her trash can, and she released it. My disapproval of her charity turned to rage when I came back from the three-week break and witnessed what could only be evidence of this girl not having left enough food to satisfy the mouse. I was, of course, horrified to find my floor covered in droppings, but it was nothing compared to finding them on my desk, in my cupboards, on the shelves, in my drawers, among my towels and on my bed. With this evidence, you may be tempted to suspect that my room wasn’t as clean as I have indicated. Don’t be like that, reader. This was irrefutably not my fault. I spent the next hour and a half crying in my boyfriend’s car while he graciously did seven loads of my laundry.
Fast forward one year. I now lived a block away from campus in another building that was hundreds of years old. As a sophomore living off campus, I had earned the right not to eat at the school’s dining hall, which necessitated that I keep food in my apartment. Once again, my living space was the picture of cleanliness, and I did not anticipate having any pest problems when I returned. As before, however, that wasn’t entirely up to me. Based on the mess I found when I returned, there must have been a whole colony of mice living and breeding within the walls for the past three centuries, keeping themselves alive on the food they found from the other apartments. The rodents got into all of our food, except for the items actually inside the fridge, and all that remained was hundreds of their poopy pellets. Suddenly, all of the tissues our landlord had stuffed into holes in the walls made a lot more sense. My boyfriend was still on vacation, so I spent eight hours vacuuming, disinfecting, and sprinkling peppermint oil on the carpet. Google said the peppermint would help, but the mice only got bolder. They would scurry across the apartment when we had company over and spend whole days in the vents just beyond our reach. Our brave friends dutifully hunted mice from under the stove to the coat closet and back, laden with brooms and umbrellas to use as weapons. Nothing worked. The only thing that ever died was our hope of a rodent-free existence.
Past and present Johnnies, I apologize for any ghastly flashbacks to dorm-life my description may have triggered. Incoming Johnnies, don’t let this turn you off St. John’s. If anything, take heart. After all, there are clearly things about St. John’s I like so much that I have stayed despite the rodents. One of those many redemptive features is the Hodson Internship Program. Through this program, students can find an internship with an organization outside of St. John’s and receive a grant to help cover living costs or other expenses, pending approval of their applications. It’s a great way for Johnnies to explore the application of a liberal arts education in a potential work place.
This summer, as a Hodson grant recipient, I have been working at the behavioral genetics lab in Boulder, Colorado. Needless to repeat, I hate mice. To my own surprise, however, I chose this internship fully understanding that it would require a lot of contact with and observation of mice. It was not a retaliatory choice; I wasn’t seeking vengeance on the mice in my apartment by means of performing research on their more liberal Colorado brothers. I was interested in the field but still very scared. I spent almost as much time during the spring semester worrying about my upcoming internship as I did worrying about my classmates’ perceptions of me. That’s saying a lot. I spent a lot of time during the final weeks of May leading up to my internship staring at pictures of mice that I found on Google Images, growing accustomed to their faces.
I have never demonstrated an affinity for a scientific field. My interests have always been English, literature, and whatever skills are necessary when aspiring to “do good” and “work well with people” without the possession of any technical ability. St. John’s, however, has shown me that it doesn’t matter what I think I’m good at. I’ve had to give my all in every class—even if that class is mathematics or lab. St. John’s has given me the courage to explore fields I was previously too close-minded to consider. I’ve learned that a little bit of curiosity can facilitate actual enjoyment. St. John’s has taught me not to limit myself to certain kinds of inquiries, so this summer I turned my vague interest in behavioral genetics into an internship. Equipped with Johnnie courage, I braved myself to befriend both science and mice.
For the past two months, I have spent two days a week immersed in lab culture. I assemble Styrofoam equipment that nobody else wants to mess with. I label plastic tubes for tests that identify the activation of neurotransmitters. I make sure that the computer that analyzes data doesn’t smear ink when it prints. I make awkward small talk about cycling and fruit leather with the researchers. I listen to episodes of This American Life while preparing brain slices for imaging. I even interact with the mice, and it has proven not so bad. I perform surgery on anesthetized mice, inserting drug catheters. I supervise mice during behavioral testing conducted with the aforementioned Styrofoam equipment. Chalk it up to the tenacity I developed working on annual essays, but because of my perseverance, I no longer cringe when I see a caged mouse. (The jury is still out on the freely roaming ones.)
I realized sometime between harvesting mouse brain tissue and a stilted conversation about lawns that this field is just not for me. I don’t know if it’s the smell of the lab, the prevalence of sandals, or the nature of the work itself, but I don’t like behavioral genetics. This summer has been a great learning experience and an even better exercise in uneasy chitchat, but I will never do this again. Just as an indiscriminate appreciation for all the Great Books would diminish the weight of my admiration for a work like Augustine’s Confessions, my rejection of behavioral genetics as a future career will only strengthen my certainty when I finally find what’s right. I am grateful for my education because of the persistence I have learned, but I am most indebted to St. John’s for teaching me discernment.