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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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December 1, 2004

Strangers on a Train

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Posted by Derek

Sean Carroll over at Preposterous Universe is one of those half-physics half-astronomy guys. He mentions that when he's on an airplane, the conversation takes a totally different turn depending on which field he claims. (Hint: people have some idea of what an astronomer does. . .) But Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles hasn't been able to hide behind physics, because of the field's known ability to bring the cranks out from under chairs and behind curtains.

How does a medicinal chemist fare? Pretty well compared to those disciplines, actually. I've been afraid, at times, of inducing a rant about rapacious drug prices from total strangers, but that's never really happened. What I've found is that people are very interested in what I do, although they know almost nothing about it. I get a lot of questions - those experiences, in fact, are one of the things that started me blogging.

Now, introducing yourself as an organic chemist (which is also a fair statement) gives me a chance to reproduce Carroll's experience. That'll generally quiet people down very quickly, because odds are they've either never had a chemistry course or have less-than-fond memories of one. The most commone response is: "Organic chemistry! Man, I hated that!" But at least it doesn't breed cranks. . .what would they do, shove twenty-page syntheses of tetrodotoxin at you, with notes in green ink all around the margins?

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Ghafla on December 2, 2004 9:54 AM writes...

You know, I'd pay real money to see a crank's twenty-page proposal for the synthesis of tetrodotoxin, and I haven't done synthesis since I was an undergrad.

One conversation-prolonging response I have gotten is "Do you know how to make cocaine (X, heroin, LSD, meth...)?"

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2. Derek Lowe on December 2, 2004 10:00 AM writes...

When I was a teaching assistant, I would put up a "molecule of the week" on the blackboard and invite the sophomores to guess what it was. One week, naturally enough, I drew cocaine's structure, and someone eventually guessed it. "Hey, can we make that?" came the inevitable question.

"Guys," I said, "let's switch from chemistry to economics for a minute. If this stuff were easy to synthesize, why would anyone go to South American and deal with machine-gun-toting maniacs to get it?"

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3. jsinger on December 2, 2004 10:37 AM writes...

He mentions that when he's on an airplane, the conversation takes a totally different turn depending on which field he claims. (Hint: people have some idea of what an astronomer does. . .)

I dunno -- what I always hear is that the usual response to "I'm an astronomer." is "Oh, I'm a Libra! What does that mean for me?"

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4. qetzal on December 2, 2004 10:38 AM writes...

I told a guy on a plane once that I was in biotech, trying to discover new drugs. He wanted to know if I worked on AIDS drugs, and didn't I really think that AIDS patients deserved to die for their homosexual sins!

(I told him, no, I didn't think that at all, and didn't understand how one could reach that conclusion based on the bible. Took a while to extricate myself from that conversation!)

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5. Harry on December 2, 2004 6:23 PM writes...

Your remark about organic chemistry cranks struck a chord, I'm half owner of a small chemical company,basically a kilo-lab. When we first were starting out, about 15 years ago,we somehow got mentioned to a fellow in New Jersey that began peppering us with inquiries and long, involved proposed syntheses of various compounds. At first, we took him semi-seriously,even though his preferred way of communicating his ideas was to copy a bunch of Chemical Abstracts and scrawl his ideas on the margins.

For some strange reason, we never seemed to be able to get a commitment from him to buy anything.

Eventually, we came to find out he was an actual crank. He'd been doing this sort of thing for several years with different companies until they got tired of him and quit answering.

We ALSO found out how he happened to hear of us- it turns out that one of our customers fobbed him off on us to get rid of him!

Needless to say- we automatically built in a "Kowalsky" (not his real name) into all the price quote for this customer.

Ahh for the days when I was young and naive.

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6. Andrew Dalke on December 2, 2004 10:23 PM writes...

I worked for a small company developing software to analyze high-throughput chemical screens. We put a call out for software developers and got a response chiding us for drug testing -- we should test for people who can't do their job, not people who use drugs on their own time!

A chemist I know talks about how immigrations people are suspicious when they finds out he works for a chemical company. "Are you carrying any samples?"

I was once asked if any of my clients work on GMOs. I explained that insulin is made from a GMO and that almost certainly some of my clients use GMOs to understand how the biology works. She had thought that all GMOs were bad but hopefully not now.

In grad school, one of the other guys in the group worked on cytochrome C oxidase and got an email asking where to get ahold of cytochrome C as a supplement.

But that's about it.

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