Natural Enemies

By: Roan Parrish



I was eating at my desk as I had every lunchtime since I began working at Scion Laboratory two years ago. Most of my colleagues ate together in the courtyard in mild weather, or settled in groups of twos or threes in the cluster of chairs near the windows that looked out over Rockefeller Park and the Hudson River when it was too hot or cold to eat outside at the pier. But I didn’t have anyone I particularly wanted to eat with. Or, more accurately, there didn’t seem to be anyone at Scion who particularly wanted to eat with me.

Besides, it was convenient to catch up on emails at lunch. I had a system. I spent the morning in the lab, recording data and prepping samples. I caught up on emails at lunch, so they wouldn’t distract me. Then I spent the afternoon in the greenhouse. I enjoyed going home with the smell of soil in my nose. In the evenings, I went for a jog, cooked myself dinner, read one article from American Journal of Botany, and went to bed. I’d had the same schedule since graduate school, so I always knew precisely where I was supposed to be and when. It soothed me.

And if my days were a bit repetitious, and my evenings a bit lonely, I could accept that. After all, I had a plan. I had goals. And sometimes to achieve your goals, you had to make certain sacrifices. That’s what I’d been taught, and I believed it. It had worked so far, hadn’t it?

The email from Charlie came as I finished the last bite of my turkey sandwich with mustard on wheat and cleaned my fingers on a napkin from the stack I kept on my desk. I hated crumbs or grease on my keyboard. I wasn’t an animal.

Charlie was a friend from grad school. We’d embraced a healthy attitude of competition that had propelled us both forward in our studies as students, but now, as professionals and colleagues, had taken on an edge of bitterness that I could identify, but didn’t feel moved to discuss, because the bitterness issued from Charlie, and I was used to it. Getting one of the top jobs in your field, in a desirable city, the year you finished your PhD wasn’t just enviable, it was the stuff vendettas were made of.

I clicked open the email lazily, expecting a pdf of Charlie’s recently published article on bumblebee-mediated pollination of the Swedish Orchis militaris, or a silly meme. Instead, it was a link to Time Out New York. The message said: Would’ve expected to find you on this list if I was going to find a plant guy at all…

The link led to a list called “30 Under 30: Rising Stars in NYC,” and I skimmed the pictures of carefully posed, smiling faces until one snagged my eye. In what had to be a candid photo, curly brown hair rioted around a man’s high cheekbones and huge grin. He was half turned toward the camera, as if the photographer had called his name mid-laugh. He was beautiful.

To the right of the picture, it read:

Milo Rios, 28, Botanist. Rios is the Head of Programming at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where he runs a botanical-themed story time for youngsters, curates the Learning Courtyard, and created a neighborhood planting initiative for local teens. Rios lives in Crown Heights, and says, yes: he has heard every joke about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you can imagine.

I only realized I’d fisted my hands around my sandwich wrapper in rage when crumbs scattered my desk and keyboard.

“Programming?” I muttered. “Do you even need a degree for that?” My palms started to sweat and the back of my neck prickled.

Compared to other sciences, botany was nearly always overlooked. And to have a botanist featured in a highly visible publication—even if it was a lowbrow one—was huge. The kind of visibility that promotions and funding were built on. And the one time it happened, it wasn’t me.

I was under thirty. My research into protein isoforms produced by alternative splicing had fundamentally challenged the dominant hypothesis that FLM-δ acted as a dominant-negative protein version. My research had been published in the New Journal of Botany, for god’s sake, and they had even used a pop-out quote! In red. How could this kid from Brooklyn, who didn’t even know enough to use a posed photograph, have been tapped as a 30 Under 30 rising star instead of me?

The anxiety crept up from my stomach to my throat, turning the taste of turkey to acid. The voice that had lived in my head for as long as I could remember started whispering.

It should have been you. If you were better, it would have been you. If you just did more, tried harder, were more, it would have been you. How embarrassing to be overshadowed by a glorified tour guide. You really don’t have much to show for your work at all, do you?

I pressed on the center of my chest as if I could neutralize the acid with my fingertips. I’d gotten very good at calming myself down when the floods of anxiety hit. After all, I had a lot of practice. I might have gotten one of the most prestigious jobs in my field right out of grad school, but I’d paid a price for it. Success might be lonely, but I’d been lonely for a long time before I’d been successful.