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|Our Serotonin, Our Selves? - Page 5|
Arango interrupts my reveries. "Would you like to see the brains?" she says.
"Yes," I answer, a little tentatively.
We walk down the hall and enter a back room. It's about 20 by 40 feet and cold, filled with banks of six-foot freezers. Arango opens one to reveal racks upon racks of plastic bags, each with an extremely detailed label. Each bag contains a frozen, pinkish-grey substance, which I can't make out exactly, so the general picture isn't quite as morbid as I'd feared. For some reason, I'd expected to see the brains intact, under glass domes or something.
"We must always keep the brains frozen at minus 80 degrees centigrade," says Arango. "We were very worried when there was a blackout in Manhattan a few years ago and Upper Manhattan lost power for three days. We have a backup generator, but I came here myself, with my husband and others, and stayed here the whole time just to make sure everything was okay. We cannot lose our brains!" she says, with sudden vehemence.
Arango was teaching neuroscience to first-year medical students when she answered an advertisement from Mann, who was seeking a research associate. Initially, she had no idea of what aspect of neuroscience he was studying, but she was intrigued and excited when she learned more about his work. She tells me that she's personally been touched by suicide: two of her cousins, who suffered from severe mental illness, committed suicide, and while she was studying for her doctorate, a fellow student who was a good friend killed herself. "She died of an overdose, and she used my pharmacology textbook to tell her what drugs to take," Arango says, her voice trailing off.
We leave the freezer room and go on to other parts of the lab. There's a room for treating and preserving the brains with a huge variety of chemicals and dyes, a room for sectioning the brains, a room for computer analysis, and numerous offices for the postdoctoral candidates and faculty. The New York City traffic below on Riverside Drive is visible, but can't be heard in the lab. On the walls are large images of neurotransmitters, posters from past presentations and conferences, and copies of recent papers. The whole place has an air of happy productivity.
Arango introduces me to the international staff. The brain sectioner, Manuela, is Cuban. She used to work as a housekeeper in the hospital, until Arango discovered and promoted her. A lab scientist is from Iraq, with a master's degree from a university in Baghdad. A postdoctoral student is from Italy. Helene, a junior scientist, is Russian American. Victoria is originally from Colombia, and Mann is Australian.
Manuela happens to be in the middle of cutting a frozen brain block using a rather boxy-looking machine called a Cryostat. With it, she cuts a piece of brain that looks exactly like a defrosting pork chop into minute sections the width of a human hair. If Manuela weren't so soothing a presence, it would be at this point that I'd feel nauseous.