Normal Jenny

This is a little story about friendship, superheroes, and the gradual process of medical research. It won the 2018 SRUK ‘Science me a story’ competition, for science-related stories for under-12s. Thanks to them for organising, and arranging the production of the lovely illustration above.

I really like superheroes. Who doesn’t? But when they ALL turn up at your front door, all at once, they can be a bit overwhelming. They’re lovely people, but they’re not very patient. And five years ago, when they were all crowded outside my front door, jostling together in their brightly coloured outfits like a nervous bag of Skittles, they just could not, or would not, understand what I was telling them. I could not save Flying Jane.

I wanted to save Flying Jane more than anyone. She was my best friend, after all, and she always had been. In primary school she’d grabbed that boy who picked on me and dangled him upside down in the playground until he apologised (he definitely fancied me, we later agreed). For her 16th birthday I made her first cape out of a fire blanket we stole from the supply cupboard (it was practical AND beautiful). She once rescued my lost cat. I once made her a secret hat that popped out of her hairband when she flew too high (because it turns out when you fly up above the clouds, you get sunburnt really, really quickly). And even when she flew off to become a real-life superhero and I went to university to become a scientist, we stayed best friends.

It wasn’t always that easy having a best friend who can fly, though. Sometimes I felt a bit in her shadow. Especially because when she got overexcited (which was practically all the time) she’d sometimes accidentally rise up in the air like a balloon, so I really was in her shadow on the ground below. And when she dragged me along to parties with all the other superheroes, I always felt a bit out of place. They’d be comparing superpowers and telling stories about saving busloads of kids from evil villains. But all my stories were about flies. Not flying people – flies. The insects.

As a scientist, I have spent years doing experiments with flies. I’m not really that interested in flies, but sometimes flies are easier to deal with than people. They’re smaller, they’re simpler and they complain less. And if you can figure out how something works in flies, maybe you can then figure out how it works in humans. For example, if you can cure a disease in flies, it might help you to cure a similar disease in people. And that’s what brought all these colourful, concerned superheroes to my door five years ago. After years of being bored by my fly stories at those parties, the heroes were FINALLY interested in my science.

‘Normal Jenny!’ they cried. (I really wished they wouldn’t call me that. I don’t think the ‘normal’ is necessary though they were trying to be nice. They all had fancy names like Superstrong Jake and Invisible Fiona, so I think they wanted to make me feel included, like I was one of them with a fancy name too). ‘Flying Jane is sick with green jelly disease! You have to help her!’

Green jelly disease is what I have done research on for years and years. It sounds a bit silly, but it is deadly serious. Basically, it turns people to jelly. Back then, it happened quite a lot. When you get it, first you get lots of green spots, then about a week later, you turn to jelly from the inside out. Our bodies are made of thousands of tiny little packages called cells – a bit like tiny Lego bricks but so small you can’t even see them. Green jelly disease makes those cells pop open, so everything inside slips out and blends together like mashed-up peas.

For years, while Flying Jane saved the world, I’d been in my lab trying to cure this disease. Every few weeks, Flying Jane would email me another newspaper article about her saving someone from danger, fighting off aliens or changing the world. And every few weeks I’d make a little bit more progress in my little fight against green jelly disease. One week I’d manage to make a sick fly live a little bit longer before it turned to jelly. Or I’d try something new, and the sick flies would still turn to jelly, but at least they wouldn’t make the other flies around them sick as well. In that way, I’d make tiny progress. No dramatic rescues from burning buildings. No sudden breakthroughs or newspaper headlines. Definitely no lives saved. I was just slowly getting a bit closer to curing green jelly disease – in flies. Because if I could cure it in flies, maybe I could cure it in people.

But now, by complete coincidence, my best friend had it. Flying Jane (though she was really just Jane to me) was in trouble. I was getting closer to trying the treatment I’d been working on in people, but it’s not that easy. It could take another few years or more, but Jane was ill RIGHT NOW. The treatment was working for the flies in my experiments, but that didn’t mean it would work in people. Especially superhero people!

So that’s what I said to all the superheroes endlessly buzzing around my front door. They wanted a cure right now. I told them that to work out the proper dose for people and to make sure it was safe meant lots of testing. It could be years before there was actually a cure. I wanted to help more than anything! But I couldn’t. I just didn’t have a cure for humans yet.

But the thing with superheroes is that they’re used to saving the day. They were all used to coming up against impossible situations, like an aeroplane about to crash into a dinosaur and finding a way to save everyone. They thought this was just the same, so they insisted. ‘But Normal Jenny,’ they said (augh!), ‘this is your moment. We know that if you work superhard all night long, you can make the medicine for Flying Jane, and she’ll get better.’

So I did it. I did the calculations, and I double- and triple-checked them. I worked out how much bigger Flying Jane was than a fly and how much of the medicine she’d need, and we gave it to her. And it worked!

Well, it worked at first. The day after the treatment she felt a bit better, and her big green spots were fading. The next day I caught her flying around her room and had to drag her back to bed, saying she needed rest. But on the third day, the spots came back and she didn’t have the energy to get out of bed.

Sometimes all the heroes in the world can’t save someone. Flying Jane could fly, but she wasn’t invincible.

After about a week, in a room crammed full of brightly costumed men and women who could walk through walls or lift a car above their heads, Flying Jane turned to jelly. One by one, the sad heroes wiped away their tears, shuffled to the window and flew home. Soon it was just me – Normal Jenny – and a lump of jelly. Jane was gone. She would never save anyone again.

The world had lost Flying Jane. But I’d lost my best friend, Jane.

Eventually, I went back to work. I hadn’t been able to save Jane, but maybe I could stop more people turning into jelly. But this time, I would do it right. I knew I was getting closer, but I couldn’t just give people the same treatment I’d given the flies. I mean, think about it: people are really different from flies! Even Jane, who could actually fly, wasn’t really much like a fly. So I changed the treatment – a little bit at a time – until I could cure green jelly disease in mice. Because when you think about it, a mouse is a little bit more like a person than a fly. They have fur like we have hair. They have two hands and two feet just like us. It’s a smaller jump from a mouse to a person.

After a few years (and it really did take years!), if a little mouse got green jelly disease, I could cure it.

Then it was time to give a few actual human people the medicine. Of course, it didn’t work straight away. The first medicine helped a bit but didn’t quite cure them. People took much longer to turn to jelly, which is better than nothing. I tried again with a new treatment, and people took even longer to turn to jelly. And after a few more tries, changing the medicine a little bit each time, I finally found the one ingredient I’d been missing. I’d tried thousands of different ways to make it work for people like it had for flies and mice, and in the end there was just one ingredient I hadn’t tried before. And when I added it, after all these years of trying, the cure finally worked. If people took it, they stopped turning into jelly.

And that was it! I hadn’t been able to save Flying Jane, and I miss her every day. But now, five years later, the medicine saves thousands of people every year. Just like Jane used to. And what was that last ingredient? The tiny final step that made it work in people after years of trying? To be honest, it has a really long, boring, sciency name: Joro-Alkane-Neuro-Enzyme. Most people just called it JANE.