Laboratories are supposed to be places of discovery. Scientists carefully design experiments and endure stringent reviews. They follow protocols and run control trials to manage every uncertainty. But laboratories are also places of power — where the usefulness and morality of the experiments can be subject to the idiosyncrasies of the researchers. Animals are often a necessary part of these experiments, and activists, rightly and in some cases wrongly, draw attention to perceived cruelties. However, the victims of animal research aren’t always animals. Sometimes, it’s the researchers who lose their sense of humanity.
Throughout college, I worked in a lab that specialized in the neurobiology of rats. The purpose of our work was to analyze brain activity thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. I was thrilled to find myself at the forefront of science, investigating unknowns that might help millions of people.
We implanted electrodes in the animals’ heads and ran trials in a windowless room. I spent my days feeding the rats and making sure they remained healthy. They would frequently sit in my lap and, after a few weeks, could recognize me from the other researchers. Nonetheless, regardless of how the study was going, regardless of how well I came to know these animals, we inevitably had to sacrifice each rat to confirm the placement of our electrodes.
One afternoon during my senior year, we were in the middle of this procedure, preparing a rat’s remains for inspection under the microscope. A graduate student with me was holding the animal’s body, looking around its neck and pondering how best to take out its brain. Suddenly, she froze and then turned wide-eyed towards me.
“Wait, do you have a bottle opener?” she asked.
I looked up worried that I had forgotten something. Before I could reply, she blurted out, “Just kidding, it’s a twist-off.” Shred. She walked away laughing, head in hand, as I stared blankly at the tiled floor.
Over the next several months, I never brought up this episode. More rats cycled through our windowless room, chasing sugar pellets and filling our spreadsheets with data. I kept my head down and finished my thesis. On the outside, it looked as if nothing had ever happened.
Yet, all the while, I was uneasy. I was no longer an optimistic scientist curing disease and exploring the depths of the mammalian brain. Whenever I entered that room, I had a gnawing sense that what I was doing was wrong. And the fact that I didn’t address these concerns troubles me to this day.
Since leaving that lab upon graduation, I have struggled with my stance on animal research. My training in medicine reminds me that the world desperately needs new vaccines and medical therapies. If we are to achieve these goals and spare people the risks of early experimentation, we need to use animals in our studies. I tell myself to accept these tradeoffs. But then I return to that moment from college and remember that empty feeling of staring at the floor.
I learned an unforgettable lesson on that day: Science is an art of precision, but its application depends on the work of imperfect people. The dangers of research amplify the consequences of our mistakes, and it is within this arena that we have the capacity to both make great discoveries and inflict great harm. When we place animals into that gray area, I worry that we underestimate the power of our role. I worry that we exact too large a price for our gains.
So, where do we go from here? At the moment, we do not have many alternatives. We will have to rely on animal models for some time. Research labs around the country will maintain armies of mice and fish and primates, and, most often, scientists will learn incredible things through minimal harm. Nevertheless, I hope that emerging technologies like non-embryonic stem cells and 3D printers will significantly reduce our need for animal testing. We can then wean ourselves from these methods and move on from the necessary evils of our time.
As for me, I won’t be partaking in any animal studies in the near future. I’ve shifted my research toward health policy. I’m not sure if my misgivings about animal research make me a weak scientist or a flawed physician-in-training. Still, I know that these are important questions to address and, without discussion, we cannot progress toward better understanding of the issues. In the end, isn’t that the point of science?
Nathaniel P. Morris is a student at Harvard Medical School.