Experimental Marine Biology by Susannah Nix

Chapter One





When Brooke Hilliard had decided to become a marine biologist, she’d never imagined it would involve so much earwax.

That’s right. Earwax.

Whale earwax, specifically.

Most people didn’t know that baleen whales produced earwax like humans did. The oily gunk built up in their ear canals over time, hardening into giant, tapered plugs. Their earwax plugs looked kind of like super-gross candles, but in cross section they revealed layers that corresponded to the years of the whale’s life, and could be studied like tree rings or the ice cores that climate scientists used to look into the past.

You could learn all kinds of things about the places a whale had been and the things it had done, just by analyzing its earwax. Information about their migration, diet, stress levels, reproduction, sexual maturity, and pollutants in their habitats—it was all there. If you knew what year the animal died, you could not only determine how old they were, but basically piece together their entire life history, year by year, like a biography.

Just from their earwax. Imagine.

Everyone carried memories of their past selves within them, but whales quite literally carried around a biological record of their own lives. In the same way the rings of a tree trunk could be carefully carved away to reveal an image of the young sapling it used to be, the layers of earwax that built up in a whale’s ear canal preserved snapshots of its younger self.

It was really pretty cool, once you got past the ick factor of working with nasty old globs of earwax that had been building up inside a whale for decades. Fortunately for Brooke, she’d left all her ick factor behind in seventh grade, the first time she’d cut into a squid while her lab partner stood uselessly off to the side making retching sounds.

Lots of kids said they wanted to be a marine biologist when they grew up. But by the time most of them reached high school biology and realized it wasn’t all cavorting with dolphins, they set their sights on another dream.

Not Brooke. She didn’t mind the dissections or the rote memorization of biochemical processes and Latin terminology. In fact, she thrived on it. And now here she was, at the age of almost twenty-six: a marine biologist in the fourth year of her PhD program, analyzing earwax.

“What the poxy hell are you doing here so early?”

Brooke smiled at the sound of her lab mate’s voice and threw a glance over her shoulder. “I’m always here early. The question is, what are you doing here so early?”

Tara Phillips sauntered into the lab and snatched something off one of tables. “Forgot my earbuds last night. Going for a run.” She was dressed in colorful, mismatched spandex and bright orange running shoes.

“Masochist.” Brooke turned her attention back to the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay in front of her, otherwise known as an ELISA. She didn’t mind waking up early—in fact, she enjoyed being the first one in the lab every morning, so she could work without any distractions—but she despised exercise of any sort.

Tara grinned, showing off the gap in her front teeth. “Says the person who’s in the lab working before eight a.m.” She wandered closer and peered over Brooke’s shoulder. “Whale, whale, whale, what do we have here? Are you doing another ELISA? I thought you’d finished all the data collection for the cortisol abstract.”

“This is something else.” Brooke bit down on her lip as she concentrated on the multichannel pipette she was using to measure liquid into the wells of a microtiter plate.

She was testing progesterone levels in the fat extracted from the different earwax layers of a single female whale, which would give her information about the animal’s reproductive history, such as when it became sexually mature and how many pregnancies it had. She’d already done the work of cutting the earwax layers apart and mixing them with solvent to extract the lipids. The hormone assay she was doing involved a lot of pipetting and a lot of steps, and required concentration because if you messed any of them up, the samples were ruined.

“What’s that, then?” Tara asked.

“It’s for the graduate student award at NAMMC.” Brooke had just found out about it. The deadline was only a month away, which was a bit of a tight turnaround. But she was ahead of the game on her dissertation research, and confident she could put something together in time.

“Bit ambitious, don’t you think?”

That was almost exactly what her advisor had said when Brooke had asked if she’d give her a recommendation for it. She’d seemed surprised Brooke had decided to go for it, but she’d wished her luck and agreed to write the recommendation.