With a quick stabilizing breath, Mia lifted her fist to knock on the office door of the head of the Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics department. She felt uneasy. The bubbling excitement she’d been feeling since he requested the meeting earlier that morning was being slowly replaced by nervousness.
Mia couldn’t fathom why. After all, she had known this day was coming. She’d been working relentlessly towards it and was prepared for what was beyond the heavy door. In a few minutes, she’d be ticking off a major box on her professional bucket list.
“Come in.” The deep, slightly grumbly voice of Professor Herbert Flinch boomed from inside, and Mia pushed the door open, greeted by the familiar scent of old books and oak.
The office wasn’t much to look at, aside from the vast collection of professional literature adorning the walls and stacked near Herbert’s well-used desk, but there was an aura of importance to this room. Mia always felt a bit sacrilegious wearing heels when visiting here, the clicking of them against the hardwood floor in complete contrast to the gravity of the atmosphere.
Herbert’s kind blue eyes lifted from his papers, observing her as she approached, and she told herself she was only imagining the sadness in them. Herbert was well into his sixties, though the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth made him look even older. He’d seen and done enough in his lifetime to earn the respect of everyone who met him, Mia included.
“Mia, darling, come and sit.”
She loved it when he called her darling. The undertone of fatherly affection always attached to the endearment made her long for his approval. Mia was well aware of how basically Freudian her response was, considering the relationship she had with her father prior to his death over a decade ago. She accepted it as a given state of mind, too ingrained to spend energy on trying to change.
“How are you, Herbert?” she asked, crossing her legs while consciously stopping the right limb from bouncing.
“Old and tired.” Herbert huffed in amusement before his expression turned somber. “The faculty has discussed my proposal for social genomics being granted an independent research hub, and they have agreed on a trial period to evaluate.”
“Oh?” Mia didn’t attempt to feign surprise, she just found it tacky to admit she’d anticipated as much. Sociogenomics was a rapidly growing field, and while many thought it should be left a small branch in social medicine studies, Mia had been relentlessly advocating, with the support of Herbert, for the field to be recognized in its own merit as part of his department.
“The trial period will start next month.” Herbert gave her a smile, but his usual warmth was lacking. “The person spearheading the hub will be officially announced tomorrow.”
“That’s wonderful news, Herbert.” Mia clapped her hands, ecstatic that they were moving so fast. It showed great faith in her and the research she’d been so dedicated to for the past eight years of her life.
At twenty-seven, she was one of the most highly regarded researchers in the field of human social genomics, a rising star on the horizon of innovative research debunking the age-old nature vs. nurture debate.
Mia had rejected the idea of behavior being separate from genetics around the age of sixteen. The idea of having no control over what her genes said about her made her skin crawl. The scientist in her once again acknowledged her personal desire to escape her own genetics. She made a conscious effort to neutralize that part of her brain when in the lab.
“Yes, a step forward indeed.” His features tightened, and the surge of nervousness from before was becoming a sliver of panic. Herbert was a seasoned scientist with enough social and political skills to score tenure and climb the ranks to his current position in Oxford, but he had an aversion to sugar-coating and seldom held back his words, especially with Mia.
Mia had been steadily working towards spearheading the innovative hub, with Herbert’s full support, or so she thought. Looking at the face of the man she’d considered a father figure for the past decade, the wrinkles doing nothing to hide his pensive frown, Mia was now steadily plummeting into a state of existential dread.
“What is it?” Her question didn’t seem to surprise Herbert. Like him, she preferred not to beat around the bush.
“We’re bringing on someone from the outside,” he answered tentatively, walking over to sit on the chair in front of her. “I wanted to give you fair warning, it didn’t feel appropriate to blindside you after all your hard work and dedication.”
Mia blinked back tears of betrayal that immediately threatened to burst, swallowing down the tremor itching to settle in her voice. “Why?”
“There is an array of considerations, none of which have anything to do with your competency.”
“If I am so competent, then why?” Anger flared alongside the hurt, her voice wavering under the force of it. “What about me is so inadequate that I’ve been overlooked after dedicating my life to this project? To this department?”
“Nothing, Mia, I assure you.” Herbert took her hand in both of his. “You are more than enough, I personally could not have thought of a better candidate, but I am not alone in this choice. A new hub that involves a new position requires division resources. This is above department level right now.”
Mia wanted to argue, send Herbert back to the faculty and tell them they could all fuck off, but Oxford was still her home. She wasn’t about to compromise her chances of making it a permanent home by throwing a childish tantrum.
“Who did they bring in?” she asked, forcing her voice to stay calm.
“Doctor Wyatt Jenkins from MIT,” Herbert answered, and Mia couldn’t suppress her awed gasp. “I gather you’ve heard of him?”
Heard of him? She’d read every single one of his publications. His research of the social genome in shifting environments and his derived theories were nothing short of brilliant.
“I’m familiar with his work, yes,” she finally managed to say. “But why is he leaving MIT? With his status and family connections, his position there is all but guaranteed.”
“I don’t know, darling, all I know is that he was ecstatic about the hub when we presented it to him,” Herbert answered with a slight shrug of one shoulder, conveying he, too, was surprised that Jenkins had said yes considering what he was leaving behind. “What I do know is that those pros you listed will be of great value to the department and the hub.”
That’s when it clicked. She wasn’t being cast aside due to her lack of skill, but rather her lack of social status in the scientific community. After all, how could she, a young Parisian socialite with no familial ties to lean on, compete with the son of a Nobel Prize laureate scientist?
“Don’t be cross, Mia,” Herbert attempted to soothe her, probably sensing the shift in her demeanor. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you to work with a top scientist in your field, one that will help bring funds much faster than we could have on our own.”
“I am a top scientist in my field, Professor Flinch.” The chill in her voice didn’t mirror the raging inferno in her body. Mia had been trained to keep a ladylike façade at all costs, something she usually held against her mother. This minor offense fell somewhere in the middle of the infinite list of wrongdoings the woman who gave birth to her had committed, but right now the skill was proving useful.
“Yes, and one of the main reasons Doctor Jenkins agreed to head the hub.” Herbert leaned forward and pinned her with a serious gaze that meant he was done with her borderline petulant behavior. “He insisted on you being his chief scientist, said he’d been following your career and feels that the hub has no merit without your guiding hand.”
“And yet it has merit with him steering the wheel.” Mia shook her head, partially in disdain and partially in resignation. “I will not play lackey in my own laboratory, Herbert.”
“You do not have a choice,” he replied in a voice that made it clear she really didn’t. “The division wants Wyatt Jenkins, and Wyatt Jenkins wants you. If you ever hope to achieve tenure and advance in the division you need to learn to play the game, Mia.” Herbert leaned back with a heavy sigh. “I understand your frustration, I do. I’m not naturally inclined to this kind of bullshit either, pardon my French.” Mia couldn’t help but bark out a laugh at his obviously intended pun, earning a smile from Herbert. “But I bent and flexed and learned what needed to be done to get to where I am today.”
Mia nodded, a desolate feeling settling in her chest. She was cornered, and Herbert knew it. Even if she felt like running off to a different institution, they both knew she wouldn’t. Herbert had put so much effort into mentoring her, stirring her from the lost girl who first entered Oxford’s halls to the proud scientist she now was, she couldn’t disappoint him by throwing it all away and leaving.
She’d already proven enough of a disappointment by not being up to par merely by her genealogy, which, for Mia, was probably the most painful reason to be cast aside and disregarded.
Mia thanked Herbert, squeezing his shoulder to convey she was okay, though she was anything but, and held her head high as she walked out of the building.
Merde! All the air left Mia’s body as the single word crossed her mind. Her predicament was dire. A man like Wyatt Jenkins would receive tenure faster than she could blink. If his professional skills and notorious charm didn’t do the trick, his family name would. But, unlike Mia, Wyatt had somewhere to go back to if things didn’t pan out in Oxford.
That’s when a thought occurred to Mia. She had to stay at the hub and continue to fulfill her duties as a scientist, but she didn’t have to pretend to like Wyatt or his presence. The man had stolen her rightful place, after all. Maybe if he didn’t feel welcome, if he realized they couldn’t coexist in the same research space, Wyatt Jenkins would go back to where he belonged.