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Questions of Science and Progress

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There is nothing on earth Brienne Tarth hates more than poster sessions.

Ever since she started the PhD program at University of the Stormlands she’s done everything in her power to avoid attending them, let alone presenting at them. Of course it doesn’t thrill her that five years of work can fit on a 1m x 1.5m sheet of paper, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the awkward misery of having to show off said sheet of paper at the Bitterbridge Molecular Biology Foundation poster session. She, like the 50 or so other presenters in the session, is expected to stand next to her poster for upwards of two hours while increasingly-drunk professors and students wander by, either ignoring her and her work completely, or, very occasionally, stopping to read the details of her research off the poster while attempting to ignore her presence mere feet away.

And that’s before taking into account the fact that her research is probably the least interesting at the entire conference. She loves what she is doing, so much that she’s put up with Dr. Tarly’s suboptimal advisorial skills-- teasing out the details until she knows exactly when and how these molecules interact is so satisfying to her, and she is damn good at the experiments-- but it’s definitely basic research. The foundational stuff that isn’t flashy in the least, but upon which all the big work sits. Nothing that would win any prizes or cure diseases. It suits Brienne, who has spent so much of her life trying to minimize the space she takes up, physically or otherwise. Sticking to basic research allows her to avoid attracting too much attention, which is prone to mutating into judgement rather quickly in her experience. This way she can go about her life, quietly and diligently performing her experiments, contributing to her field in whatever small way she can and letting others grasp at glory.

Hyle, who isn’t presenting, the bastard, had offered to bring her a beer to help with both the socializing and making the time go by faster. Brienne isn’t entirely sure why these sessions invariably happen in the evenings after a day of conference talks and invariably have either mediocre wine or a cash bar-- as if attempted socializing with professors could be made less painful by literally any force in the universe. She’d turned down the drink, but has been making liberal use of the happy hour setting to take frequent totally-necessary-for-reals trips to the restroom. If anyone were to notice they’d probably think she was sick, but Brienne considers it unlikely that someone would be paying that much attention to either her or her poster.

Leaving the restroom for the she’d-lost-count-th time, she peers across the hotel ballroom toward where her poster is pinned on the far wall and realizes with a start that there’s an actual human there. As she approaches, it becomes clear that not only is there a person, but they are reading her poster, almost as if they are interested in her work. With a furrowed brow, Brienne hurries toward them, tucking her phone and its endless supply of webcomics to read while on bathroom breaks into her pocket and thanking the gods that actually-usable pockets were a side benefit of the men’s trousers she’d brought to make herself look vaguely presentable.

It’s a man at her poster, and definitely a PI. The fanciness of his pants just screams Principal Investigator. Hells, he probably calls himself that unironically when everyone else just uses professor or, honestly, first names like actual human people. The only other thing she can tell from the back is that his hair is longer than most male professors, and not in that I’m too busy scrambling for grant funding to get a haircut way. More in the I have so much money I can do this on purpose way. Brienne circles around him from a distance, trying to decide how to minimize the awkwardness of her arrival. His hair flops over his face, obscuring it, but she sees him raise a hand to rub through his beard. An expensive watch flashes from his wrist.

Maybe she could just go back to the bathroom.

No. She can do this. As an undergrad at Crown Tech, she’d learned the importance of communication skills from Dr. Goodwin. And Randyll had helped her prepare over the last week, all the while impressing upon her how important poster sessions could be-- both for information-communication and for (shudder) professional networking.

Besides, if only one person at this godsforsaken conference is interested in her work the least she can do is to see if he has any questions.

Deep breath. Time for the direct route. Someone as physically large and socially small as Brienne can’t afford to attempt subtlety.

“Hi, I’m Brienne Ta--” she breaks off as the man turns. Oh balls. He is unreasonably attractive.

Hot, rich, and a professor. The only way he could be more intimidating would be if he was somehow armed, like with a machete or something. Or maybe a sword….

Oh gods that image only increases the hotness problem.

She realizes she stopped in the middle of her sentence, her hand frozen, half-extended toward him for the firm and professional handshake she was usually so careful to provide.

“This is my poster.” Brilliant.

He considers her for a long moment.

She stares back.

Something in her brain begins to scream.

“I’m Jaime Lannister,” he says, and she stumbles to execute the handshake she’d aborted earlier. “I’m at Westeros University these days.”

“Brienne Tarth.” He already knows that because she’d just said it. And her name is on the poster. Fantastic. She rubs her palm on her leg hoping it hadn’t been weirdly clammy during the handshake. “I work with Randyll Tarly at U of S.”

Something between a smile and a smirk pulls at his lips. “You seem to have gotten some compelling results,” he comments. “And I must say I’m intrigued by your suggestion that this might indicate a role for both target and small RNA secondary structure in the silencing process,” he adds, gesturing toward the box of text that houses her conclusions.

“These results are still fairly preliminary,” Brienne hedges, feeling the blush climb her throat and up her cheeks. Maybe Dr. Fancy Guy won’t notice, or if he does hopefully he’ll chalk it up to the cheap chardonnay that’s being served. “And there’s loads of work to do before I can even hope to address the structure question with that level of detail.”

He looks at her oddly, cocking his head. “We’ve been working on RNA silencing for a number of years in my lab,” he says. “If you’re right about the role of small RNA secondary structure we could improve our knockdown efficiency by--” he glances at Figure 5 of Brienne’s poster and his eyebrows go up, “--quite a lot.”

Brienne blinks. This guy not only read her poster but is thinking of ways to apply and expand upon her findings. Her publications to date hardly ever get cited, though Dr. Goodwin always assures her during her periodic crisis-of-confidence calls that they will be soon-- basic research just takes longer to get noticed, he says. But here she is, being taken seriously by a person whose tie cost more than her plane tickets to get to this conference.

Dr. Lannister has turned back to her poster, running a finger along the caption to figure 4. His hair hides most of it but she can see his lips just barely moving as he reads. Fear that she has overstated her results suddenly seizes her as the silence stretches. She doesn’t want anyone to get the idea she doesn’t know her place in the basic research dungeon. Even if she likes it there, she does not relish the idea of being told that her work is actually far less important than even she thinks.

“Have you thought about looking at the kinetics of the interaction?” he asks as his gaze returns to her.

“Actually, I started looking into that last week,” she answers, gratified-- if a little startled-- that not only did he grasp the necessary next steps but that she had something to talk about. “Titration gel-shift assays seem to show a two-phase binding curve--”

“No kidding.” His eyebrows shoot up. “My company is just starting drug discovery experiments assuming a simpler interaction.”

“Your company?” Brienne can feel her mood curdling. They’d been getting on so well-- she’d been more or less participating in the conversation at least, which is rather a win in her mind-- but if he turns out to be one of those one-foot-in-pharmaceuticals profs she’s rapidly going to resent any time she might have wasted on him.

“Well, my latest one.” This is only getting worse. “I have two others but we just spun Kingslayer Pharmaceuticals off in the last couple months to specifically focus on small RNA anti-cancer therapeutics.”

Brienne grinds her teeth, knowing she should let it go. There are plenty of profs with decent, reasonable research who manage startups on the side. Probably. Surely there must be a few somewhere. But she just can’t imagine being so confident in your lab’s abilities that you’d move into pharmaceuticals with no actual basic understanding of the mechanics underlying the system you hope to fix. “You started an entire company to make drugs when you don’t even know how binding specificity works?”

He shrugs and it is absolutely the worst possible response. He doesn’t even care enough to argue. “We don’t need to know the details in order to start high-throughput screening of candidate molecules for tumor-suppression activity.” He grins. “And it sounds like by the time we’ve narrowed it down to a few good leads you’ll have figured out the basic stuff.”

Brienne stares at him, the seething feeling blocking any attempt to continue the conversation.

“Though I do have a suggestion for you,” he continues as if she hadn’t failed to respond to his backhanded dig at her work.

Gods save her from constructive criticism. She braces for the attack.

“You should be proud of this work.”

Of all the things she might have expected to hear-- of all the critiques she’d already weathered-- that was certainly not one of them.

“But I--” she stammers. “What makes you think I’m not?”

“You’re hardly selling it here.” He gestures at her poster again. “I only read past your abstract because I happened to be able to make the three or four steps in logic to figure out what your findings could mean to my own research. Nobody else would put in that effort.”

Is he trying to be as offensive as possible? “It’s science. It shouldn’t need to be sold.”

“Fine then, think of it as standing up for your work. You know the implications and all the different diseases that could be treated with specifically designed small RNAs-- there’s no reason not to state them outright.”

“Or I could just focus on doing the work and wait for a prof like you to recognize that you need it.”

“Not a great plan. There aren’t a whole lot of professors like me.”

Well that’s certainly true. Brienne just can’t decide if it’s a point for or against Dr. Lannister.

While she’s still deliberating a sudden commotion erupts on the other side of the ballroom. A slightly weaselly-looking young man appears to have cheap chardonnay dripping from his bright blond hair as a brunette grad student storms away toward the women’s bathroom.

Lannister groans from behind her. “I’m going to need to go deal with that.” When Brienne looks back at him questioningly he grimaces and avoids her eyes. “That kid is... an undergrad in my lab. Not my choice,” he hastens to add, “his mother forced him on me. Regardless, he’s my problem.”

He’s half a step away when he turns back to her, and she sees the irritation drain from his face. “This was nice.” His smile, against all odds, seems genuine-- on top of nearly blinding her through sheer force of attractiveness-- as he hands her a business card. “You really are doing good work. Shoot me an email when you get those kinetics titration results cleaned up, I’d be interested to hear what you find.”

“O-okay.” Brienne has never been accused of thinking fast on her feet, but this conversation has reversed itself so many times she can’t figure out whether it’s been constructive or some sort of joke at her expense.

“And think about what I said. There’s nothing wrong with having pride in your work.”