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Lab life: where are my cells?

It was July 2015 when I dived into the laboratory for the first time. Since then, I have started to learn the craft of cell culture, I have pursued experimental protocols, I engaged in empirical search, I was co-domesticated with numerous technologies. I am searching for a grip on the other forms of life with whom I dwell in this basement near the Rideau Canal. I wonder which status the cells take on when we isolate them from their organism of origin and cultivate them in laboratory. I wonder how human beings were able to manage this isolation of what is considered to be the structural and functional unity of life. I wonder how we conceptualize other forms of life when our relation is weakened by a complexity of the intermediaries who are necessary for the preservation of said relation. And what emerges when we form a relation with cultivated cells beyond traditional scientific inquiry?

To reiterate, I became an anthropologist in residence. During the last months, I have focused on the apprehension of the practices of cell culture which are now widely spread in the laboratories that explore the life sciences. I wanted to understand what particularizes the functioning of the Pelling Lab, an interdisciplinary scientific laboratory. While following the development of my relations with another form of life, a question kept arising : where are my cells?

This ethnographic film is an attempt to show the different ways cells are mobilized and conceptualized during a day in the lab. Their presence is felt in many, often indirect, ways. Images and sound have enabled me to affect and share this human-cell relationship in different ways than words do.

The smell of ethanol is omnipresent. The blue of the gloves seems to fly as my hands are at work right beneath my eyes. Tints of pink allow me to orient myself : fuchsia for trypsin, bright for fresh media out of the refrigerator, pulling towards orange for the media where my cells dwell. The infernal noise of the fan. My eye with a fixed gaze and my face resting on the eyepiece of the microscope. And, between all these lines, smalls bumps at the bottom of my petri dish which are nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. I get a glimpse at this form my cells take when I rinse them with the PBS (salted and sterilized water). Then I bathe them in the trypsin. Trypsin is, as described to me by Sophie a PhD student, a cutting enzyme. It interacts with cells to detach them from the two-dimensional surface of the petri dish. Time is necessary for trypsin to have its effect and it is only when I remove my dish from the incubator five minutes later that I perceive fragments of cellular tissues which float in the enzymatic liquid. Media neutralize the trypsin, and the whole is centrifuged. My cells make three miles rotation during their journey of three minutes in the centrifuge. Result: they changed. The fragments concentrated and, at the bottom of my vial, I find a white-ish pellet of cellular sedimentation. The re-suspension makes me lose sight of these cells which I find again under the microscope, between the lines of the hemocytometer – tool which allows the counting of cells that are suspended in a liquid. I leave the microscope to seize – in the most literal way – a quantity of cell with the grip a 10-100 µL micropipette gives me. Transferred in a dish and swimming in fresh media, my cells finally return to the incubator and I exit the room. Me, changed. Them too: they are thousands to be dying in a blue container among liquid waste. Media, enzymes, ethanol and other ‘undesirable’ substances will go to join the multitudes of waste up to the water purification centers.

My Dear Cyborg narrates this quest for cells that took place on a Sunday afternoon, in the Pelling Lab.


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