In Light of Darkness

written by Kate Jiang

During the day, my boss goes through the usual chores of emails, committee meetings, and grants; but when night comes around and the clock strikes 9, he puts on a black lab coat and heads into our lab’s microscopy room.

Sometimes he bumps into people from other labs. “Good evening, Jeffery,” they’ll say, to which he replies, “How’re you doing?”. Most of the time, however, nobody notices him. He tells us he’s been working on a side project lately—but little did we know that it has nothing to do with the microscope.

Our lab, headed by Dr. Jeffery Darkson, is fortunate enough to have a super-resolution microscope and a computer powerful enough to match it. During his nightly routines, Jeffery locks the door, keeps the lights off, and leaves the microscope untouched. He goes to the computer, logs off the shared lab account—Aaron always complains because the password is impossible to remember—and switches to what seemingly is a guest account.

Jeffery is a computer genius. We could have easily developed into a full-on bioinformatics lab, but Jeffery went for a different route. “It’s too easy to fake the calculations if all you have to do is write code,” he often says.

Turns out experiments can just as easily be tweaked.

And that’s why Jeffery created his secretive internet persona, “Son of Dark”.

Son of Dark has their own reputation on the internet. They hunt for fake data—edited images, altered gel bands, copied numbers— exposing them to social media as well as journals. They’ll even hack unpublished results in search of tampered data. Their reasoning being “zero-tolerance for academic misconduct,” a philosophy that makes them highly controversial among supporters and detractors alike.

“Son of Dark catches cheaters before their fake data is published, preventing deeper damage to the research field.” I hear Aaron proclaim one day, shortly before we begin our lab meeting. “This is amazing from a long-term perspective—money won’t be wasted on funding bad research. They’re truly the hero we don’t deserve.”

“At the cost of privacy,” interjects Nichole. “Who agreed to give Son of Dark access to their data? What if it’s just a beginner mistake by an oblivious first-year grad student, or worse, an undergrad? This could ruin their whole career. Obviously, they don’t care about the law at all, which is also dangerous.”

Unbeknownst to all of us, the topic of our discussion is sitting right behind, smiling, finishing an extra shot of espresso. I notice how pale Jeffery looks, and the bags under his eyes seem larger.

“Tough night?”

“Well, yes, and no,” he throws his paper cup across the conference room table—it lands perfectly in the recycling bin despite almost hitting Nichole on the way— “Either way, I’m happy with the outcome.”

That afternoon the emails begin to pop up in my inbox.

The first is the retraction notice of my paper, followed by tons of follow-up emails—“data fabrication” “opening investigation” “Come to my office now. -Jeffery”. Aaron rushes to my desk waving his smartphone like an out-of-control shaker, “Callen, what the hell did you do? You’ve been exposed by Son of Dark!”

Nichole, in contrast, is staring at me from her desk, completely frozen. She doesn’t believe that I could have falsified my own research.

I choose not to go find Jeffery right away. Instead, I hide in the lab behind a couple of incubators. My phone is buzzing like crazy; I see messages from my lab mates as well as calls from Jeffery flooding my screen. I ignore them.

I wait and wait, until the night comes around and the clock strikes 9. I hear footsteps and peek from the shadow of the incubators; I see Jeffery dashing through the hall in his black lab coat. He is in such a hurry that he has not noticed me at all. Slowly, I emerge from my hiding spot, and follow him to the microscope room, using the glassware racks to keep myself out of his sight.

He goes into the room and locks the door—or at least he thinks it’s locked. I turn the doorknob and it opens, letting the light fill the room. Jeffery is standing beside the computer, stunned, his hand helplessly trying to block the incoming light.

“Callen? How did you…”

“You are not the only hacker in this lab, Son of Dark.”

The dim light from the computer screen reflects off Jeffery’s face, making him look even paler than usual.

“Do you remember your first post? A questionable Western Blot figure in a newly published paper, done by an undergraduate. That was me,” I say. “That was my first summer research project, and I didn’t know it was wrong to copy and paste the control gel band. You got me kicked out of school right before my graduation, cyber-bullied for months. All because you didn’t give me a chance to correct myself—and you became famous because of me. You are the Son of Dark, Jeffery, because you never made me see the light again.”

The confusion gradually disappears from his face. “So the data falsification is real—because you want to use it against me.”

“Exactly. I figured out your real identity and managed to become your student. Then I deliberately tampered my data and hacked into your account to expose myself,” I chuckled. “I want to destroy both Dr. Darkson and Son of Dark; how interesting will it be, when people find out that their ‘hero’ of scientific integrity is actually fabricating data in his own lab?”

I lock the door behind us, submerging us both in darkness. We have plenty of time before the clock again strikes 9.

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