by Laina Villeneuve
According to her family, Karla Hernandez spends far too many hours working in the lab. A dedicated research scientist, she has contributed to a drug that could vastly improve the quality of life in diabetic patients. Her quality of life, however, could use some help.
She thought she would sleep better when she finished grad school or her post-doc, but launching a cutting-edge clinical trial isn’t helping. So when her eleven-year-old niece approaches her about participating in a school science project about insomnia, Karla agrees. Finding a girlfriend was not the conclusion she had anticipated, but Karla is not one to deviate from protocol—especially not when the judge at the science fair has some ideas about helping to cure her insomnia.
All research requires troubleshooting, but Karla isn’t prepared for the complications that threaten to shut down more than her love life. Does she need to find a new project or dig in deeper to her professional work? Or will putting faith in her niece’s research project be the key to her ever elusive sleep?
|Publication Date||April 15, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Kayla Mancuso|
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Science is sexy...Right? Sexier than cowgirls? I got an Associate's Degree in Equine Sciences, so most of my books have pulled heavily from that education and that life that I miss. Once I transferred from a community college to a university, my goals shifted and took me further and further from my days of horseback riding. I knew I did not have what it took to be a career cowgirl. My sister picked my next major: Journalism. I did fine in that program, but by the time I graduated, I knew that I didn't have it in me to be a beat reporter. I was spinning, still searching for a calling.
I was developing pictures at a one-hour photo shop when the photojournalism teacher got sick. Someone from the university contacted me and asked if I could teach the lab until they found a replacement. Those two weeks changed my life. Sharing what I knew about developing film and pictures (I'm really dating myself here!) made a lightbulb go off—picture a red light-bulb, though, one that doesn't damage film or photographic paper—I knew I had to teach.
My wife had a similarly circuitous route to her career as an educator. She got her bachelor's degree in French and then took time off to work as a chef before going to grad school to study biology. I met her when she was pursuing her PhD, and you'll see her influence in this story. Really, though, it is a story about finding a career that supports a meaningful life. This book has been quite a journey for me to write. I hope you enjoy reading about how Karla finds her way as much as I enjoyed writing it."
Not one more second to spare, I saved my updated file for our lab’s application to the FDA to fast track the drug we had developed. As I shrugged out of my lab coat, the reddest lips I’d ever seen caught my attention. The way she’d penciled the perimeter mesmerized me. Rosa’s voice whispered that could be her, the answer to your sleeping problem! I cringed and extinguished her idea with a loud internal WAY TOO young!
Wanting very much to encourage my niece Rosa’s interest in science, I’d allowed myself to become her research subject for the middle-school science fair, her goal to cure my insomnia. The eleven-year-old’s conclusion? That I needed a girlfriend. The oh-so young woman was peering into the real-time thermocycler, making me anxious that she didn’t know how to use it. Relief swept through me when she walked away from equipment so expensive our lab had to share it with the neighboring one. I grabbed my bag from the drawer and said a prayer that our Principal Investigator was at lunch or deeply absorbed in her work. I needed to get over to Rosa’s science fair, now.
Passing through the lab benches, I saw Red Lips return to the machine. Scowling at it again, she started to lean forward with her lips pursed as if she was about to blow out birthday candles.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” I hollered, startling the woman as she let loose a puff of air projecting all sorts of contaminants toward a machine that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. “No more blowing!” I said, hustling around the bench. “What the hell are you doing?” Up close, I could see a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead.
“The tray got stuck, and when I opened it…” She looked away.
“The cap on one of the tubes came off. I was trying to get it out.”
“By blowing in there?” The younger woman cringed. Young. Inexperienced. I took a breath to calm myself. “Ask for help.”
“Sorry! I couldn’t find the postdoc who asked me to run the samples.”
“Look harder! Use your eyes, not your mouth. And for heaven’s sake, find gloves for those,” I said, pointing to the woman’s hands.
Red Lips nodded vigorously.
Fear in her eyes, the woman spun around and ran toward Dr. Bautista’s lab. Burning with frustration that they had left someone so green unsupervised at the bench, I considered following to make sure that a staff member would come back to assist her with the thermocycler, but I was already late. I turned, only to spot my boss, Dr. Judy Vogelsang talking to a research scientist just inside our lab. My heartrate spiked as it always did. Was it because of how intimidating she was? Attractive? No, it was definitely how intimidating she was. There was no way to slip by unnoticed, so I said a prayer, held my breath and hoped that she was so involved that she wouldn’t interrupt her conversation. Hand on the doorknob, I was practically free when my boss’s voice froze me in my tracks.
“Karla! Are you finished with the report?”
“I will have it finished tonight,” I said.
“Something is keeping you from it at the moment? It is essential for the meeting I have with the sponsors tomorrow morning.”
“I will have it finished…” I wanted to leave it at that, but the air in my lungs puffed out of my chest when I realized I had to explain my errand. Knowing I would be gone longer than it would take to grab a late lunch, I had to admit where I was going. “I’m on my way to the county science fair.”
“Are you a judge?”
The idea had not even occurred to me, but I quickly saw how I could run with it. “Not this year because I was my niece’s research subject. It’s something I’d like to do, though.”
“The Miracle Center sponsors the Innovation Award. See what sort of projects the students are doing these days. Talk to the judges. It wouldn’t hurt for them to see us out in the community.”
“I’ll make sure to find them.” Relieved the exchange had gone so well, I pushed the door, but Judy’s voice caught me once more.
“Good. I’m in the clinic seeing patients this afternoon. I’m hoping to recruit some volunteers. Check back with me when you return as I may have some samples for you to process.”
I froze. I had promised my family that I would join them for the celebration dinner following the fair. I’d been in the lab hours before anyone else that morning since I hadn’t planned on coming back. I’d hoped to finish the report at home, but I couldn’t do that if Judy did collect samples. “I’ll check with you when I’m back. It may not be until this evening.”
“It’s no matter,” Judy answered. “I’ll be here.”
Stuck again, I agreed and jogged down the stairs.
It took me twenty minutes to cross town and ten more to park and walk to the fair site. The room was swarming with teachers, parents, and students. I impatiently navigated through the displays until I found my family.
Antonia glared when she saw me. “So happy you could make it, Dr. Hernandez,” she whispered. Rosa was running through her project with someone, her expression anxious. I felt terrible when Rosa saw me and visibly relaxed.
“Hi. I’m the research subject,” I said, in case the man was a judge. I didn’t know if they made themselves known or tried to blend into the crowd. As Rosa continued explaining her experimental method, I leaned toward my sister. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here when it started. I ran into all sorts of problems trying to get away from work.”
Antonia waved off my excuse which was somehow worse than the punctuality lecture I usually received from our mother. “This is the first person to ask questions,” she said.
“Judge?” I whispered.
“What do I know?” Familiar taunting edged her tone.
“What would you do differently next time?” the man asked. He was tall and lanky and wore running shoes with his loose-fitting suit.
From what I’d researched about how the judging worked, the question positively identified the man as one of assessors. A knot of anxiety formed in my belly, but I was impressed with Rosa’s poise as she discussed trying multiple methods to cure my insomnia. Rosa concluded that she either needed more time to gather data or needed to omit one of her experimental arms, so she could dedicate a week to trying two of the potential remedies paired.
I knew from my own poster presentations how hard it was to keep it succinct and as clear as possible when the curious wanted to know more about my work. It had taken me a while to learn to keep my mouth shut, thereby masking my insecurity and making me appear confident and collected. All of this seemed to come naturally to Rosa, who appeared at ease with the man now offering his thanks. After he left, I swept her up in a hug.
“That was a judge, wasn’t it?” Rosa asked.
“Probably, and I’m so, so impressed with how you answered all his questions. Keep doing that, and you’re going to knock their socks off!”
A group of students stopped to ask questions, taking Rosa’s attention again. As she explained her project to cluster after cluster of attendees, I realized how little she needed me. I scanned the nearby projects, listening in on some of the students. The boy to the right clearly had no idea what his parents had done for his effects-of-an-oil-spill project. His setup with a huge tray of water with oil floating on top amid coated bath toys looked great, but he had trouble discussing both his method and the relevance of his project. When asked about recent oil spills, the kid’s silence and his parents’ tension spoke volumes about who actually had the investment in marine wildlife.
I could see myself being a judge for the event sometime. I itched to walk around the hall and see more projects and hear the young scientists talk about their work.
Across the aisle, a gorgeous woman in a tailored suit and heels caught my attention. My body zinged with the probability that she was a judge. Her attire made her stand out as loudly as her actions. She took a seat in the student’s chair, putting her at eye level with him, and listened as if the child was the only person in the auditorium. I appreciated the length she went to make the student comfortable. To be honest, I appreciated a lot more. Every aspect of her screamed professional. Her wedge-cut black hair accentuated her slender neck and flawless jawline. Her features were delicate but her expression sure and strong. When she reached out to shake the student’s hand, I felt the urge to offer my own.
The woman stood and turned, reading the projects on Rosa’s side of the aisle. I watched as the woman’s gaze went from the flawless project next to us to Rosa’s project before stopping on me. Caught staring, I should have looked away, but I couldn’t. Warmth flooded my chest as if I knew the woman, yet I was sure I’d never seen her before. She moved in my direction, every step accelerating my heartrate. Only when she was directly in front of me did the woman’s gaze drop to Rosa. A wide smile graced her face as she gestured to Rosa’s chair.
Rosa nodded vigorously, as tongue-tied as I was. She nudged the chair toward the visitor.
The judge, because surely she was a judge, tucked her perfect legs to the side, a picture of elegance. “Tell me how you chose this particular project.” She had an accent that I couldn’t quite place. The cadence and pronunciation suggested that English was not her first language.
By now, I had heard Rosa’s answer many times and was accustomed to nodding politely when Rosa pointed me out as the research subject. This time when the questioner’s eyes turned to me, my body reacted again. I cursed the person who had decided that judges would not wear name tags and myself for not removing the elastic I typically used to keep my hair out of my face. My thick black curls would have covered the blush creeping up my neck.
“Not being able to sleep sounds terrible,” the woman said. “What did you find?”
Though her question was directed at Rosa, her eyes stayed on me. She frowned sympathetically as Rosa explained that the suggested remedies of melatonin and meditation grew less effective. Next was the question about what Rosa might have done differently, but instead of giving the answer she had for the whole afternoon, Rosa went a completely different route.
“If I did this as a project in the future, I’d try to find more people who have trouble sleeping and compare how the treatments work, but for my aunt, I just have to find someone to sleep with her.”