It took years for Professor Oraina to learn the best technique to graft skin onto perspex. There were hundreds of false starts and failures, but he persisted. After completing his P.H.D. specialising in Bionics, he embarked upon some serious horizontal certification. First, he studied chemistry. Then, after receiving his Masters, he studied engineering, biomechanics, and ethics. For someone so well educated and qualified, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask, why would anyone want to design a perspex abdomen? What problem would it solve?
Professor Oraina took criticism on the chin. He laughed at what he thought was pathetic intellectual snobbery and ignorance. What was the academic and social point of the moon landings? Sure, go there once to prove you can, but six times?
By the time he perfected his skin graft technique, he was in the dying throes of his fifties. He screamed ‘booyah,’ once the final test compression mould had finally dried. Then he trimmed and polished the mould, carefully spraying it with a growth starter and meticulously applied the skin he had harvested from his buttocks. Two weeks later, he stood back, admiring the culmination of his life’s work – the skin had taken and was starting to grow. “I’ve done it,” he said with pride. “I’ve bloody well done it.”
The abdominal mould was flexible, made from inert plastic, which his body would not reject. It was rust-proof, bulletproof and sported a firm six pack to replace his current keg. The temperature could be regulated through one-way vents located in the nipples. If he wanted, he could easily glue some hair on his chest, but he was still undecided on this. The best thing was that the perspex abdomen was completely transparent. That’s precisely what he wanted. People could see his bits and bobs, and this thrilled him.
His long-time assistant Felicity Sanders baulked when Professor Oraina asked her to cut away his skin and then drill bolt holes into his sternum and ilium bone to secure the perspex abdomen to his body. After bolting it in, the next steps would be to glue it into place and start the skin grafts to ensure a perfect seal. He only wanted to cover the seal and 500mm beyond that – no more. “I want the world to see how brilliant I am, even if it means showing them what I ate for breakfast.”
“There’s no way in hell will I do that,” Felicity said defiantly. Professor Oraina fired her on the spot. She didn’t get it!
Te Rongopai Heke was a fine replacement. With a career in reconstructive surgery and prosthetics, she had the personality of a refrigerator and the temperament of a pizza oven. Her polarity appealed and seemed apt when attempting to replace one of nature’s greatest gifts – skin – with one of man’s greatest inventions – a bio-mechanical torso. She got it!
“What’s the dream, Oliver?” she asked during her lengthy interview.
“Let’s walk,” he answered. “Don’t talk; just observe and think.” They walked from the lab; it was a sizzling January afternoon.
From the main road, they turned right into the path which ran alongside Poor man’s Stream. The stream and surrounding trees and shrubs were clogged with litter. Plastic bottles, plastic packaging, and plastic bags sat in and alongside the stream. They followed the stream down to the Back Beach. They walked along the beach. Plastic ties, plastic holders for cans, lids for coffee cups, plastic this, and plastic that, lay scattered amongst the sand, clumped in piles, trapped under the sea of driftwood strewn by the standing pines.
They looped back onto the main road and returned to the lab. “It’s even hotter now,” he said; “you want a drink of water?”
Te Rongopai nodded.
Professor Oraina pointed to a side door, “go out to the courtyard; there’s a table and chairs out there. It’s a bit of a suntrap, but please, no hat, no sunglasses, and no talking. I’ll bring a drink out in a minute.”
He returned a few minutes later, carrying two tumblers full of water and ice, on what looked like a tray. After a moment, Te Rongopai noticed it wasn’t a plastic tray; it was the perspex abdomen. She smiled and greedily took a tumbler. He sat down somewhat gingerly.
Ten minutes later, they were both sweating profusely. “Feel the table,” Professor Oraina instructed out of the blue.
Te Rongopai obliged, then smiled.
“Now feel the abdomen.”
Once again, she reached out and then nodded.
“Do you want to go inside now?”
She nodded again.
Once comfortably seated in the temperature-controlled lab, he asked, “now tell me, what did you observe this afternoon?”
“I already knew the world is plagued by plastic, but while this is distressing, this is common knowledge. I presume your abdomen is manufactured from recycled plastics.”
Professor Oraina smiled and nodded this time.
“When we were outside,” she continued, “the glass table was hot, yet your abdomen was cool.”
Again, he smiled, thinking, she might work out, and then added, …and?”
She raised her eyebrows “…and, from these two things, I theorise your goal is altruistic. You want to save humans from ourselves. You want to reduce pollution, but I suspect there is something even deeper going on.”
“Go on,” he said.
“Now, I might be going out on a massive intellectual limb here, so bear with me, but I think you don’t trust humans to resolve global warming. And, from what we observed today, I think you might be right. What chance do we have when we can’t even be bothered to properly dispose of our waste? We don’t care enough. So, you want to offer a backup plan.”
“And?” He asked again.
“…And, your perspex abdomen is a prototype. A prototype for a complete exoskeleton. An exoskeleton to protect humans from the ravages of global warming: increased temperatures and increased u.v. rays. I also suspect that the transparent abdomen is somewhat of a gimmick, a marketing ploy. Something to draw attention to your technology. There’s a lot to see in the abdomen. I imagine, too, you focused on the abdomen, as this is probably the largest section of the exoskeleton. Limbs and joints will be much easier to develop – there is already prosthetic technology for this.
I also noted the state of your lab. With all due respect Professor, your set-up is not exactly state of the art. I imagine it’s been a while since you received a research grant.”
He smiled, “you are very perceptive indeed, Miss Heke, your observations are correct, and your theory is sound. I admire and respect your deductions. However, the perspex abdomen is so much bigger than you can imagine. I believe it can resolve one of man’s most fundamental but insidious emotions.”
She leant forward, elbows on knees, palms on face. “Okay, go on; you have piqued my interest.”
“What do you imagine the biggest impediment to your career will be?”
“I’ll rephrase… what might stop you from achieving any study, academic or scientific goals you might have?”
“Well, it could be anything. My ineptitude, lack of intellectual prowess or funding, faulty science, faulty research.”
“Yes,” the Professor agreed. “Anything else?”
There was silence.
“Let’s change gears,” he conceded after a few minutes. “Imagine a world where people could only see the inside of people’s skin? All we could see were muscles, sinew, cartilage, organs, blood and bone. Colour was non-existent. Everyone’s exoskeleton was transparent. We were all the same.”
Te Rongopai beamed, flashing big white teeth. “I get it,” she said, “yeah, I get it.”
This story was inspired by what we already knew but was brought to light by a recent study and the following headline.
Racism, exclusion and tokenism: how Māori and Pacific science graduates are still marginalised at university
7:36 pm on 9 August 2022
First published on The Conversation