About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 3, 2003

Per Fits and Starts, Ad Astra

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Posted by Derek

Last summer I was working on an interesting chemistry idea. I posted about it on and off, in what was likely an irritating fashion - irritating because I could never quite go into just what the idea was. There were two reasons behind that: for one, my employer gets the rights to chemistry ideas that I work on in my employer's labs, and quite right. (The contracts that you sign when you join any research-based industrial organization are very, very clear on that point.) The second consideration is scientific priority, and scientific pride.

Now, what I'm doing isn't going to win me a Nobel prize, but it is a very nice idea, and one of the better ones I've ever had. So it would be more pleasing to me if I could get it to work with my own hands before letting everyone else take a crack at it. One problem is that I tend to work on things like this in jerky bursts of activity, and those don't come nearly as often as they should. Someone with more discipline would have made more progress, no doubt. A scientist who combined periods of free-association idea generation with stretches of well-structured lab work to follow them up would be the person to have around. I haven't met too many of those people, but they certainly exist. I'm not one of them.

I comfort myself by thinking that the folks with the most disciplined work schedules tend not to have ideas as off-the-rails as this one. It's a common complaint in the drug industry that the work is so ceaseless as to leave people with no time to think. And as I've written before, if you don't have some staring-out-the-window time, you don't have that many ideas. I know that when I've run a project myself, I don't as many good ones. There's no mental overhead left for them; I'm too busy making sure that everything's going the way it should. It's exciting, being at the head of a drug project, but it does wear you out.

Even when you're not running a project, there's always enough work to keep you busy. Keeping busy isn't the problem. The problem is remembering that "busy" doesn't always mean "productive," although they can be mistaken for each other in dim light.

I bring all this up because, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm taking another crack at this stuff. I've been messing around with the idea(s) on and off over the intervening months, but a very good opportunity now presents itself. It's the same core concept that I've worked on before, but (for once) it matches up very well with the project that my lab is officially working on. If I can continue to keep on the tasks at hand, this coming week will see most of the groundwork laid, and the week after that should see the first runs of the real thing.

Here's hoping that I ignore all distractions, and have the nerve to put my favorite ideas on trial. That's the real problem with working on ideas of your own, ideas that you think have the potential to be really good. They don't all work. Most of them don't work. It can be more psychologically comforting to keep them in the "untried but promising" category, rather than find out if they're real.

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