MY FRIENDS CAN READ IT FOR FREE. (Excerpt #11 from THE HARVEST OF REASON). The week that followed was a crazy marathon. Maddie took the test in Quantitative Genetics on Monday afternoon and felt awful when she walked out. Then she crammed all night for another exam on Tuesday. The depth of content covered in the courses was mammoth, so she developed a method of distilling it all down to a very highly concentrated substance. READ MORE

(if you’re here for the first time look at Blogs 1 -10 in earlier posts )

The week that followed was a crazy marathon. Maddie took the test in Quantitative Genetics on Monday afternoon and felt awful when she walked out. Then she crammed all night for another exam on Tuesday. The depth of content covered in the courses was mammoth, so she developed a method of distilling it all down to a very highly concentrated substance. She took a single note card and in the smallest possible handwriting proceeded to fill up both sides with a summary of everything in the course. When she was done she had a “cheat sheet” which of course she would never use for that purpose. The beauty of the method was that once she summarized the material down to such a degree it acted as a photographic image in her memory.

She had another exam on Thursday. Meantime she had to balance her own research with project work. She was a circus artist carrying a pole, sitting on a unicycle on top of a high wire.

When she finished her midterms and thought she could let up the pace she realized with full crashing panic that her graduate seminar presentation was less than two weeks away and that she had no more than a sketchy outline of the topic. What had happened? It had been a month away last time she looked.

She spent every free moment at Steenbok Agricultural Library researching her topic and trying to develop a coherent presentation. In her zeal, she over-shot the mark. She ended up with more material than she could possibly present in two hours, much less in the allotted twenty minutes.

Throughout the process, however, she had to fight the mixture of fear and excitement she felt at the prospect of facing the department with her presentation. At times the fear was so palpable as to virtually render her insensible. The panic rose in her throat. It was only by a combined process of taking deep breaths and administering verbal self-admonitions that she was able to calm herself and keep moving forward.

Six days of this routine led her into an even greater challenge; that of having to learn how to shoot and develop her own acetate slides[i] for the presentation. What made this project more complicated was that the keeper of the knowledge she so desperately needed was Edgar Simms.

When she went to his office for help with the procedure he was unenthusiastic. “You want me to show you how to do slides? Now? It’s Thursday afternoon, tomorrow’s Friday!” he added for double emphasis, leaning back in his swivel chair.

“So?” Maddie didn’t get it.

“I’m not coming in here on the weekend,” he stated.

“Okay, Edgar. I just…want to know where the materials are kept,” she spoke slowly, calmly. “If there’s a set of instructions I can use them too.” She’d be dammed if she would let him put her off until Monday. What if the first set didn’t work and she had to do them over? She was running out of time.

He seemed to recapitulate somewhat at this point and said, “Be here first thing in the morning. I’ll get you started.”

She thanked him and walked away, thinking tomorrow was better than nothing, even though she would be losing a whole night. She had a nagging uneasiness, which she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but it had to do with his habitual unwillingness to help her. It was part of his job to manage and allocate project resources for Dr. Gates. Did he treat all the graduate students with the same ill will, or was it just her?

He had said “first thing in the morning,” which was rather vague, but she didn’t want to give him any cause to default on his promise so she came in at seven a.m. At nine o’clock he walked into his office and when Maddie reminded him he got up without comment and went to the lab down the hall. She grabbed her notebook and ran after him.

His instructions were sketchy but Maddie was determined to try the process and see what would happen. She had never been handy or particularly mechanically inclined, but she was meticulous in following recipes and instructions. She worked non-stop on the process over the weekend, and when she finally held the blue slides up to the light she thought she had some acceptable results.

On Monday morning she and Lisa went down to the little auditorium and put the slides into the projector. “Oh no!” she gasped as she clicked on the first slide. “It’s too blurry to read!”

“Yeah, that one is pretty bad,” Lisa agreed. “Let’s see the other ones.”

“Oh my God, they’re all like that! They’re unreadable!” Maddie wailed, as she clicked on one slide after another. “What am I gonna do?” she said, turning to Lisa.

“Maddie, why don’t you just do overheads? I used them in my seminar last semester,” Lisa offered.

Maddie’s perfectionism reared its ugly head. “Oh! I’m not gonna give up now. No way. I’ll just have to shoot them over again.”

“What if you make the same mistake?” Lisa asked.

“I’ll just have to ask someone what I did wrong.”

“Why don’t you ask John? He makes them for Dr. Pinkerton’s talks. In fact he promised he would teach me sometime,” Lisa said.

Maddie found the prospect of asking John Pitts for help rather disturbing, but the alternative was demeaning. And she didn’t feel like crawling back to Edgar.

John said sure, he could show her right away. Lisa stuck around to watch. He gave Maddie some pointers on taking pictures with the mounted camera and then actually began shooting them for her. Maddie couldn’t allow this. “No, you don’t have to shoot them, I’ll do it,” she said, abruptly. She wasn’t the kind of woman who had to have a guy to change her tire.

He looked up, puzzled. “Suit yourself,” he said and backed out of the way.

She began to take the pictures, bending over the mounted camera.

“Wait!” John intervened, “Make sure you focus each shot. Even though it’s mounted on the bar the camera jiggles.”

“Oh!” Maddie hastened to obey. “Thanks,” she said, trying to make up for her earlier abruptness.

“Another thing. Make sure your text fills the frame. You don’t want to have a lot of space around it. You want the words as large as possible. Here, let me see.” He bent over, looked in the camera and adjusted it downward somewhat. “Here, look at that.”

Maddie had to lean right into him to peer into the camera.

“See what I mean?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s great.” Now why couldn’t Edgar have told her all that stuff?

“Right. Just do them like that and you’ll be fine.” He moved to leave.

“Wait! I mean…can you spare a few more minutes?”

“Sure. Do you want me to show you how to develop?”

“I…could you review the steps in the process? Maybe I screwed up there, too.”

“Okay, tell me what you did.”

As she went over the process, it turned out she had done that part right, and so it was just a matter of taking good pictures.

“Call me if you need me,” he said on his way out. “I’ll be here till late.”

After he left, Maddie turned to Lisa. “Gosh, am I glad you talked me into asking him for help.” She was so grateful she had almost choked up. He had made it so easy, so matter of fact. She didn’t feel stupid or humiliated when he helped her. It wasn’t like asking Edgar for something. Not at all.

With dogged determination Maddie began the painstaking process of re-shooting the whole role of film. By Wednesday afternoon, at which time she was reduced to whispering prayers under her breath, she found that she had a set of usable slides.

But when she began to practice her talk she discovered, to her dismay, that it was running forty five minutes in length. Two other students had to make their presentations during that hour so her talk could not go over the allotted time. But all her rigorous efforts, in the end, only whittled the talk down to thirty minutes.

She entered the auditorium on Friday conscious of a need to rush through her material and with very little confidence in her ability to keep it down to twenty minutes. She scanned the audience as they came in the back of the room and walked down the steps toward the front. Cup of coffee in hand, Dr. Ellison walked in, trailed by his graduate students. Dr. Pinkerton yelled out a question to Dr. Carothers, across the auditorium, about whether he was having a tailgate party that weekend. Dr. Marcia Dobson was sitting in the back row. The Bean Group was in the fourth row, so she felt some support from that quarter. John Pitts and his group were on the right hand side. Dr. Gates hadn’t arrived yet. Like a child, she kept turning back to the door to watch for his entrance. But he never came.

She had chosen to wear a dark suit coat over slacks; it was a dress-down compromise. If she had allowed herself to look her best she would have worn a nice skirt and suit coat, in a happy color. But no one ever dressed up in this department; she would have called attention to herself by the oddity of such behavior. Even so, Lisa had said she looked okay; “scrumptious” was the word she had used.

From the moment Dr. Castle introduced her she felt like a racehorse let out of the gate. She tagged one sentence onto the next, one slide at a time, keeping the pointer handy, projecting her voice to the back row. She felt it all come out as the exhalation of a single breath.

Before she knew it, she had reached the end and was asking the audience if there were any questions. Her adrenaline had carried her thus far and it was only at this point that she was conscious of a little prick of fear, and a hope that there wouldn’t be any questions, or that at least she would be able to answer the ones there were. Only four questions later, it was over and she felt slightly deflated as she sat down to listen to the other presentations.

Lisa squeezed her hand and whispered “Great job, Maddie!”

“Really?” she whispered back. She had no idea how she’d done. It was all a blur.

One person in the audience had found particular pleasure in the presentation. It was John. He felt he had witnessed a commanding performance by someone with natural stage presence. Her choice of subject was somewhat unorthodox, though, at least in this setting. She was talking about the advantages of multilines[ii], in a country where pure line[iii] varieties were the absolute state of affairs. Big-money vegetable agriculture, which Wisconsin was famous for, did not consider multilines a viable alternative. Yet the research she presented, showing the advantages from the disease and insect resistance standpoints, was sound. She even had data showing that there could be actual yield improvements. Yet, he looked around at the audience and knew there were many who simply dismissed the topic as impractical. Somehow, this choice of presentation reinforced his view of her as an idealist.

[i] Acetate slides –blue slides used for seminar presentations (before digital methods).

[ii] Multiline – a crop variety with several different versions (alleles) of the same gene for resistance.

[iii] Pure line – a crop variety with only one version of a gene for resistance.


Hey! I’m really interested in your comments.*  Please join this global bookclub discussion by leaving a comment below (in the comments box)

QUESTION 11: What is Maddie Hawkins deriving from all her misery?

*(feel free to post your own question for group discussion)

*(you can also post your comment on facebook and start your own discussion with friends)



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About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at
This entry was posted in agriculture, chastity, college students, equality, female professors, genetic engineering, genetics, global discussion, graduate school, interracial marriage, John Pitts, Maddie Hawkins, national discussion, plant breeding, race on campus, Uncategorized, University of Wisconsin-Madison, women in science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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