Gateways: “Vital Research” by Kate Akerboom read by Kat Evans



TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Kate Akerboom. Kate tells us she is simply a writing enthusiast. She started telling stories as a child, and started writing things as a teenager. She enjoys writing realistic fiction with fantasy or sci-fi thrown in. Writing is a hobby, but a well-developed one for her. This is “Vital Research”

My head was pounding. The combination of the argument at the table next to me and the Environmental 101 exams I was grading were enough to make anyone rage quit. I mean, this is a library. Quiet is valued, isn’t it? I slammed my papers closed and huffed, marching out of the library. 

Being a science professor has its perks, some days. Everybody calling you “doctor,” endless research opportunities, and the ability to cancel class whenever you want. As a recent PhD grad, this was enough of an ego boost to get me through the mind-numbing freshman courses I needed to teach before I hit tenure. My only solace was my Environmental 335 class. It was a research-based course on climate. In the not-so-distant past, this was usually a depressing course about how humans were killing the planet and the animals. Now, 100 years after the climate crisis, species are thriving. Plastic, while still in use, was produced at a manageable rate, and very few people used it outside of necessity. Covering the climate crisis was always an emotional struggle, but seeing how we made it out was always inspiring. 

I made my way to the classroom for 335, nodding and smiling at students I recognized. This university was established on environmentalism nearly 200 years ago, as the first university in the state to have a widespread recycling program. Now-a-days, it’s the top environmental research institutions. Relics of the 1970s were still scattered around the building, with the concrete exterior and almost bunker-like design. They were so worried about nuclear fallout at that time. I wonder if they knew the biggest threat to their way of life was actually themselves? 

As always, my students were already filing in as I stepped into the classroom. A small class of twelve, the students were eager to discuss the world around them. I set my belongings at the head of the room, set up to be a group of four tables arranged in a square. A variety of “Hi, Dr. Pearson” echoed around the small room. I smiled in response, and when I had everyone I began. 

“How many of you are familiar with the climate crisis of the early 21st century?” 

Every single hand went up. This was standard history class material nowadays. Even 50 years ago, that would not have been the case.

“Who can tell me about it?” 

Allie began speaking as she pushed her dark curls behind her ear. “It was a point in time where, if humanity didn’t act, thousands of species would go extinct, as would humans.” 

“People didn’t care about what they were doing to their environment.” Piper was indignant, their face flushed in frustration. “If students hadn’t have stepped up, we wouldn’t be here.”

I nodded, encouraging further discussion. “Does anyone know when the events started?” The students looked at each other and shook their heads. Martin, head turned in confusion, said “the 1980s?” 

I shook my head, and started pacing the way I did when lectures were about to begin. “No. In fact, legislation was beginning to be passed around that time. Now, I’m not a historian, but scientists agree the negative effects of human impact on the environment was around the turn of the 19th century.” I watched as students looked at me in surprise. “Coal and oil were the ones that started us off. Then came plastic, which was in everything: clothing, technology, even food was wrapped in it. It wasn’t until students like yourselves stepped up and spoke out that things began changing.” 

Roberto’s hand shot up. He was the only one that did that. “But how is that possible? How could they spend over a hundred years poisoning our planet.” 

“Planets don’t change. People change planets.” I let that sit for a moment. “Now, what can we surmise from that statement?” 

My students were silent, thinking. I let them sit like that for a while, until, in a quiet voice in the corner of the table spoke. “Well, it’s kind of a glass half full thing, isn’t it?” 

“How so, Liv?” 

“It can be negative. Humans have the power to destroy, for sure. But don’t we also have the ability to build, and rebuild?” 

“Exactly!” My excitement was causing me to gesture wildly at Liv, making them flush and smile. 

“I mean, we built the modes for interplanetary transport,” Penelope said, beginning to gesture while she spoke as well. “We’ve learned a lot from other terrestrial civilizations. People can change planets for the better. We just need to use our powers for good.” 

“‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” quoted Roberto with a chuckle. I stood still for the first time all lecture. My students looked at me expectantly. I took a deep breath, and couldn’t help the smile that was creeping on my face. 

“Speaking of interplanetary travel, has anyone been to Tullian?” Everyone shook their head. Only people with wealth traveled outside of Earth, especially to our sister planet in a neighboring galaxy. “Well, who can tell me about it based on their previous research?” 

“It’s like Earth, but bigger,” Eli started, speaking for the first time. “The climate is essentially the same, but the human-like inhabitants are smaller, and more in tune with nature.” 

“They’re basically Hobbits,” Allie interjected, grinning at her old-timey reference.

“Basically, they are as advanced as we are, without plastic.” Eli looked at me. “Are we going to be studying the alternative materials they use?” 

I hadn’t disclosed the research topic yet to the students because I wanted to get to know them first. Besides, what we were going to be doing needed a lot of funding and I hadn’t been able to secure it until now. “Something like that. We are going to travel to Tullian and embark on a research mission. You all are going to assist me on applying the use of their alternative materials here on earth.”

All twelve students sat there in stunned silence. Allie was the first to break the silence. 

“We’re going to assist you on vital research?” Her eyes were the size of saucers, and a smile was threatening to break the corners of her lips. 

“Sure are. Now, I’ll discuss logistics later, but I’m going to leave you with this assignment: learn as much as you can about Tullian. I expect a 6 page paper in two weeks on your findings. Check your syllabus for details. See you next week!” 

The students excitedly grabbed their things and chatted about their new assignment and the coming semester. As I gathered my things, I thought about my hero, Greta Thunberg. Gone for almost 50 years at this point, her wisdom still lived on in the hearts of these students, who only knew hope and the passion to save and serve. After all, planets don’t change. People change planets. 

Kat Evans has been an actor in Chicago since 2006. Theatres Worked with :City Lit, Black Button Eyes, Promethean, Savoyaires, Hypocrites. Also voices a few podcasts: Our Fair City, Starlight Radio Dreams, Toxic Bag