Cartoon of hammer descending on a person.

The hammer (an epilogue to the impostor)

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Third place winner in the Storytelling Contest fiction category.

My breath was shaky. My hands were still trembling as my fingers gripped tightly around the hammer. I could distinctly feel the sweat between my palms and the wooden handle. The impostor, a sculpture I had built over the years of the perfect grad student lay in pieces before me.

I thought that I had become free of this torment. Yet, whatever that was in that sculpture seemed to cling on to me like a drenched shirt on a rainy day, cold and wet, and weighing me down. A sickening feeling clouded my heart. Every passing moment felt like I was missing or forgetting something. There was no rest.

Was this because the hammer was not good enough?

I looked closely at the hammer. It seemed fine. Weighted head fixed to a wooden handle, the standard lab issue for students. The thing is, I knew that there were better hammers back in lab. You see, my lab specializes in making precision hammers for biology. The gene hammer could knock out a mutated gene, preventing cancer. A skillful handling of the protein hammer could change the shape of a misfolded protein, altering the course of Alzheimer’s disease.  The hammer of all hammers though, was a golden hammer that lay on a shelf behind my PI’s desk. Although I had never seen it in action, I had heard stories of its miraculous ability to cure diseases, helping to generate a great number of high impact research papers and thus tons of funding. Funnily, much like the mythological Thor’s hammer, only a chosen few deemed worthy by the PI were able to wield it.

It has been three years since I started learning to use these hammers. I had become pretty adept at using them. I recently managed to use them in mammalian cells! Very fine precision was required on such a microscopic level. Quite an achievement, I must say. But… I have still not been deemed worthy.

A fellow lab mate 2 years my junior on the other hand, had been using the golden hammer for close to a year by now.

Initially I was told, the use was project dependent... When I required the use of that hammer too, I was told to have more creativity and find another way around it. That’s part of the PhD training after all, right?

Another time, during a project review, I pitched an idea to use the golden hammer as a positive control against the other hammer methods. But… I did not nail it. Apparently my training in Asia did not allow me to make as good of a judgment as someone trained in the US.

Change the way you speak. Change your name. Change the way you look. Stop speaking with an accent. Oh and by the way, Asians from Asia do not have English names.

One day, I held out my heart and stared at it on the bench. I could shatter that too with the hammer like I shattered the sculpture.  Afterall, with so many others having tied theirs to experimental success, I wouldn’t be the first person to be heartless in grad school. But, as I stared at my heart, living and beating, a consistent rhythm, almost like its own living being, I realized I couldn’t do it.

I put my heart back and laid my standard hammer down on the bench.

Heart pounding back in my chest, I looked around the lab. It was a quiet afternoon in typical academia fashion. Everyone was either buried in a long experiment or on a coffee break. No one had even noticed what I just tried to do. Then I saw my PI nodding off at their desk, with the door to the office open.

This was my chance. Quietly, I snuck in and picked up the golden hammer.

I almost burst out laughing.

It was almost weightless, not good for most experimental purposes. It was merely the words behind it that gave it its weight.

I cautiously placed the golden hammer back in its original position. What had I been doing for the past few years, and what had I been working for?

I walked out of the office and out of the lab. As I trudged on, each step became lighter. Perhaps, letting go would allow me to soar higher.