Growing up, I was surrounded and intrigued by biodiversity. It was habit to check under rocks and between blades of grass for insects, snakes, and toads to gently catch and release. It was especially important to handle butterflies with the utmost care, to avoid damaging their wings. Raised in a vegetarian household, I was constantly reminded by my parents to inflict no unnecessary harm upon any living creature, and to respect life indiscriminately. This environment instilled in me empathy and respect for any life; even forms that I could not fully understand.
My upbringing may explain why I anthropomorphize my cells in culture, and admittedly, sometimes even protein extracts. Just as I never feel completely alone deep in a forest, surrounded by lifeforms large and small, I am kept company as I study mechanisms of life in the lab.
Since deciding to pursue research in biology, I have been aware of the costs to non-human life. Dissecting the uterus of a 10-week old mother mouse to derive embryonic fibroblasts, the sobering sacrifices are impossible to ignore. We do it for the greater good, for the benefit of humankind. However, I am adamant in my own research that any experiment requiring animal sacrifice must be rigorously designed and carefully executed to minimize unnecessary harm. Respect and empathy for non-human life must be maintained.
My first animal training brought me face-to-face with the “greater good” tradeoff that had been lingering in the back of my mind and reminded me to take my experiments seriously. My decisions were literally life or death for the mouse in my hand. I assumed that the other students and post docs around me were having similar experiences, as I could see the focus with which they listened to our instructor and the care with which they handled the mice.
Since that experience, I have avoided working with mice for the most part. Four months ago, however, I started work on a translational research project that will inevitably lead to in vivo validation. Since I accepted this trajectory of my project, I’ve been conflicted between my excitement about new biology waiting to be uncovered and my reticence to harm mice.
I don’t see myself resolving this internal conflict easily. I don’t want to compartmentalize my love for animals separate from my work with animal models. Though this will be emotionally difficult, I want to give lab mice the same respect I’ve actively felt for all living beings up to this point.
When I briefly worked with mice in the past, even though only a few were sacrificed, I was often kept up at night questioning whether it was really worth it. The answer was always yes: the experiments were well designed, important for basic discovery, and potentially informative to human health. But I will continue pondering this question during my future work involving mice, in preparation for the day that the experiment I plan is not the best one. In this way, I believe that empathy drives me to be a better scientist.
I am incredibly grateful for the resources and expertise we have to conduct experiments with animals at Rockefeller, and I recognize that we do this for the greater good. To save one human life, I would kill a thousand mice. But I would not do it unnecessarily, nor disrespect them in the process. No part of inflicting death, on mammals or otherwise, should be taken lightly. These animals give their lives to science and deserve our empathy and respect, especially when we sacrifice them. Further, recognizing the lives at stake makes us better scientists and encourages better experimental design and execution. It costs us nothing to acknowledge and respect the lives we take in the name of science.