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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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October 18, 2007

Understanding Dawns

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Posted by Derek

My graduate school lab, like most of them, had an assortment of people from different countries. That kept things at all sorts of hours, since we’d get the occasional Japanese post-doc who never really seemed to get off JST and worked the zombie schedule. It also made for some adventures in communication. English was the lingua franca of the lab, naturally, but there were a lot of varieties spoken (and attempted).

And although it’s risky to generalize, I think that the ones with the biggest language gap were the aforementioned Japanese. Friends of mine from the country have blamed the problem on the traditional state of English teaching there, and the way that too many students are taught the language as if its phonics really did conform to what’s available in Katakana.

That’s the writing system used in Japan to render words phonetically. Reading fancy Japanese (Kanji) takes some real practice, but any hack (like me) can plow through Katakana with a chart and a little practice. I’ve been asked many times, in wondering tones, if I read Japanese after I pulled out a useful reagent name from a Japanese patent, but I wasn’t reading Japanese – I was reading English. Sort of.

Sounding out the words makes you sound like the most unfortunate expatriate Japanese post-doc you’ve ever heard. “Cyclohexyl”, for example, comes out as “Sa-ki-ru-he-ki-sa-ru”, and “chloro” is “ko-ru-ru”. I’d probably sound even worse than that if I had to speak Japanese, but it does give you some insight as to where the stronger features of the accent come from.

One way or another, we all did communicate in the end. I remember talking with one of our post-docs, trying to learn some Japanese profanity (a well-known gateway into a foreign language, of course). But I couldn’t get the concept across. “Bad word?” he asked, puzzled. “Curse word?”

An idea hit me. “OK”, I said, pointing at his rota-vap where a 1 mL flask was spinning. “How long did it take you to make that stuff?” That stuff, he informed me, was step 17 of his synthesis, and had taken weeks and weeks of work. “Fine,” I said, “what happens if it falls into the water bath?” “Ah! Terrible!” he said, looking fearful at the very thought. “Right”, I told him: “If that happens, what do you say?”

Enlightenment! “Oh! Yes! Those words! Bad word, yes, now I understand!” A great moment in international understanding. We went on to explore the sorts of phrases that are absolutely guaranteed to come in handy in any research lab, no matter where.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. daen on October 19, 2007 2:03 AM writes...

I read "Understanding Dawns" wondering why you were writing about language instead of explaining the early part of the morning, which seems to indicate a) that I really really need strong coffee, and b) how easily incomprehension can also occur among speakers of your own native language ...

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2. Zak on October 19, 2007 5:42 AM writes...

This is probably your only post ever in which I know more about the subject than anyone else (I'm a translator of chemical/pharmaceutical material from Japanese to English).

The katakana for drug names truly does help, although it's more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to actual communication. Many times when I'm conversing in Japanese with someone, the one word in the conversation I don't understand is a katakana term.

As far as cursing goes, however, Japanese truly does lack the kind of colorful profanity we have in English. There are things to say when you are mad etc., but nothing close to the intensity we have in English. Lack of a good cursing vocabulary is pretty indicative of the culture in general, though. As is the intricate levels of politeness largely missing from English.

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3. Seizai Bunseki Kagakusha on October 19, 2007 6:34 AM writes...

Tottemo omoshiroi! Waraimashita.

(translation: LOL)

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4. tom bartlett on October 19, 2007 8:12 AM writes...

In Japanese culture, you don't want to be "the nail that sticks up". This is not a bad thing; just different. Companies often have group exercise sessions in the morning. Teamwork is good.

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5. Derek Lowe on October 19, 2007 8:21 AM writes...

Zak, I was hoping that you were out there for this one. I can imagine that spoken katakana is a real speed bump. . .

And Tom B., you're right about that, of course. I have a fellow Arkansan chemist friend that I've known since undergrad days who's been living and working in Japan for many years now; that's one of the things he learned very quickly. It tends to turn meetings into a rarefied form of theater, though.

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6. Zak on October 19, 2007 8:56 AM writes...

One thing that's interesting is that it's incredibly hard to get a PhD in Japan in the sciences. Something like half of the students in any given PhD program never make it, and are kicked out. You have to publish several papers in decent journals, not just write a thesis (not that writing a thesis is easy).

In lots of ways a PhD here is considered the culmination of the first part of one's career, not the beginning of one as it is in the States.

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7. Flash-column Jockey on October 19, 2007 9:46 AM writes...

Quote from #6:

"Something like half of the students in any given PhD program never make it, and are kicked out."

In my limited experience (read: my department) this is the case in the US as well. Does anyone know where to obtain attrition rates for chemistry PhD students in the US?

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8. drpcp on October 19, 2007 12:21 PM writes...


There's a project out there to address that very issue:

The number overall that I have seen bandied about is similar to what you say:


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9. RKN on October 19, 2007 1:35 PM writes...

I work in a culturally diverse proteomics lab.

Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Ethiopian, American, Indian, Turkish, Czech, & British. I think that's it.

Anyway, it's amusing to me to have to on occasion mediate a disagreement between, say, the Russian mass spectrometrist and the Chinese biologist both of whom are arguing in mangled English:

"Uh, Serguei, I'm not entirely sure, but I think Su Wing Ho just called you an a**hole."

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10. Wavefunction on October 19, 2007 2:54 PM writes...

That reminds me of how interesting and unusual the language is, where you have different words for the same concept depending on the context or the "mood". Richard Feynman recounted that he gave up learning Japanese when he realised that the word for "solve" is different in the statements "Will you solve the Dirac equation?" and "Can I solve the Dirac equation?"
In my experience, the English skills of the Chinese are by and large worse than those of the Japanese, but that's probably because I have met fewer Japanese than Chinese.

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11. CMC guy on October 19, 2007 3:57 PM writes...

Being in a mix of multi-cultural labs/office can be rewarding if taken as opportunity to get acquainted with another country/customs. It can at times lead to humorous situations like described above. Yes there can be difficulties in communication with non-native speakers but its sad how few Americans even bother to attempt to learn another language or study abroad (as Derek did). Most Europeans I know can handle 3-4 different languages. Chinese and Japanese are supposedly about the hardest to learn so mental translation bound to be difficult.

50% attrition in Chem PhD Grad school sounds reasonable as in my class saw a couple go to Med School after1st year, a few just decide to drop out, a fair number who decided to stop at MS- I was one of the first to finish (in 6 years and think longest took 8).

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12. TEPAR on October 19, 2007 8:57 PM writes...

What happened to #12? (not mine, the one that was there before)

I am a PhD student and would not start it over again. I am on the cusp of being able to leave with a masters and not feel like it's wasted time (it'd be 3 years total). If I finish, it's because enough nonacademic employers will give enough credence to the PhD vs MS to make it worth it, not because of the training. I'm still learning, but I feel like 90% of it came in the first 18 months and this is why the MS is the sweet spot.

As far as I can tell, most PhDs are destined for techician-type careers (postdoc counts, here!) and the lack of career guidance from advisors and departments borders on the fraudulent.

I am leaving science when I am done. Period. "Postdoccing" is a scam to just pay us less than we're worth. Witness "industrial postdocs," the only worse thing I could think of than an academic postdoc.

We are training too many of us with not enough jobs. You should not need a postdoc after a PhD to get an entry-level industry "scientist" job, yet there's so many people with postdocs, it's becoming de rigeur. A PhD is a professional degree, but it's treated like a bachelors because our (ACS) lobby exists to increase supply (constrast, for the best example, the AMA).

I am coming out of a top 25 school with a well-known advisor - not Evans, Trost, or Corey, but well-known enough that this wouldn't be a concern in any sane market.

Take it from someone who ignored all the advice 26 months ago - don't do a PhD in chemistry. Even if you hate law school or Bschool, it's 24-36 months and you're done. Even if you take a BS level job at 40-50K, at 5yrs of PhD, you've foregone over 100K of earnings.

At a ludicrously conservative 5% over 50 years, that's $1.1M. I and none of my colleagues can afford to save for retirement (if you can even avoid taking loans getting that fancy berkeley PhD).

Please run the math before you do what we did. Science is fun and it seems like it should be profitable, but pretend you're applying to art school and run the math.

It's not worth it.

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13. TEPAR on October 19, 2007 9:13 PM writes...

"One thing that's interesting is that it's incredibly hard to get a PhD in Japan in the sciences. Something like half of the students in any given PhD program never make it, and are kicked out. You have to publish several papers in decent journals, not just write a thesis (not that writing a thesis is easy)."

This is the case in any decent US lab. The low end of "good advisors" expect 3 papers in JACS-caliber (or at least >Tet Letters) journals. I have heard 5 or 6 from grad student colleagues at my (Low end of the top 25) school.

I don't know of anyone who will let you out with at least 1 or 2 IF>=5-10 publications at any school i've interacted with in the top 100.

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14. Bubba on October 20, 2007 12:04 AM writes...

TEPAR - I did my Ph.D. in a top lab and have never heard anything about a "3 JACS papers" requirement or even 3 papers in a good journal. Seems like things go on a case by case basis. It's easy to publish seven articles if you're on a methodology project, sometimes you don't even get one if you're working on a huge total synthesis.

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15. Petros on October 20, 2007 2:36 AM writes...

Well when I worked for the WDF's owners are TA meetings could be fascinating since they involved scientist from England, the master WDF and the new (and now defunct) Japanese site.

Curiously the Germans and JApanese seemed to understand each other's English much better than we did!

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16. Derek Lowe on October 20, 2007 8:44 AM writes...

TEPAR, I agree with Bubba above. Your settings sound too high. I'm sure that people would like to have such publication records, and try to get them. But if you look at the number of people who finish at your top 100 labs each year and divide by the number of papers that come out (and the number of authors per paper), I don't see how this can work.

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17. RKN on October 20, 2007 12:51 PM writes...

For the record, I'm in the PhD program at what I think is one of the top 15 or 20 biomedical research schools in the country. Specifically, the department of pharmacology. One requirement for graduation is at least 2 first author publications is a decent I.F. journal. "Decent" being variable, depends on your committee.

I think this is reasonable. If you don't have publishable results after 4-5 years, seems to me something is wrong, either with the project, the student, or both.

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18. Max Hodges on October 20, 2007 5:14 PM writes...

White Rabbit Press has help for the kanji illiterate: Japanese Kanji Flashcards

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19. MolecModeler on October 22, 2007 8:44 AM writes...

TEPAR - 100% agree with you. I would not do it again either, and I got mine from an Ivy. I was fortunate to get a job right out of grad school without a post doc, which is an utter joke. I think it speaks to a certain timidity in scientists that we are willing to accept such an appalling state of affairs. Imagine an MBA having to toil for 40-50K/year after they get out? That's their BONUS!

If you want out of science, I suggest you don't finish your PhD. Get out with a MS, get a job at some pharma company (easy with an MS), work several years, go to b-school. You're done.

Career guidance? What's that? In grad school? Ha! Of course I have to take some of the blame for blindly going down this road without really thinking things through.

Japanese post-docs rule.

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20. haywarmi on October 22, 2007 12:10 PM writes...


I agree with much of what you said. A few years ago when I was looking for my first job out of my super post-doc (i.e., non-tenured faculty i.e., academic limbo) position I was very despondent. I look back now, a year and a half-later, and am so happy that I continued to get where I'm at... in industry making six figures (okay, barely) and running a lab the size of my mentor's. What's important is that if you don't think its going to be worth it then you shouldn't try to do it. There are plenty of occupations where the money and effort to get a "real job" are worse than science, so comparing a Ph.D. to an MBA implies that the Ph.D. isn't all that important to you and science doesn't appeal enough to you to make the sacrifice worth it. I mean, you wouldn't compare an MFA to an MBA, would you?

I agree that the system is set up to exploit cheap labor from those willing to put up with the expolitation with no guarantee that you're going to be justly rewarded. But then again, wasn't organic chemistry like that in college as well?

As far as the multilingual environment of the lab goes, I still say "Merde" when I screw up an experiment.

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21. Jonadab the Unsightly One on October 23, 2007 10:39 AM writes...

Speaking as someone who has lived my entire life in the midwestern US, the one accent I have the most trouble understanding is the Korean one. There are some others that take a bit of getting used to (Hindustani, Texan, Japanese, central African), but I've known several Koreans and have never figured out how to map their pronunciation of Enlish onto anything I can understand. I think the real show-stopper for me is the complete lack of stops. Most accents mess up the vowels in one way or another, and many of them combine or confuse certain consonants (e.g., the way a strong Japanese accent mixes up the liquids), but the Korean accent is the only one I've ever heard that, to my American ear, just plain doesn't pronounce any stops of any kind, period. Stops are pretty important in English (most syllables have one), and I just find the no-stops Korean accent impossibly hard to mentally translate into words. The Japanese accent, by comparision, is fairly intelligible, once you learn its peculiar idiosyncracies.

Of course, I've never been to Japan or Korea, so maybe it's just that of the people I've met from those places, the Koreans I've known had stronger accents.

Petros: I can't parse your sentence. I can't figure out whether the noun phrase "TA meetings" is the subject or the predicate nominative, or both in two different clauses (how, exactly?), and I can't make sense of the whole thing. I think maybe you left out some words.

MolecModeler, comparing salaries for fresh degree recipients across fields of study is pretty meaningless. Making a lot of money isn't the only consideration people take into account when choosing a field of study. You can make trainloads of cash and still be quite thoroughly miserable if you went info a field you aren't actually interested in at all. Without getting into too much macroeconomics, one of the things that can make a field pay higher than other fields is if it's something most people don't want to do. Plumbers, for instance, can make more with less education than workers in a *lot* of white-collar jobs. I don't begrudge them the money, because plumbing isn't something I'd want to do for a living. Similarly, if an accountant makes a billion dollars a year, I still don't want to be an accountant. I'd rather die that put myself through that kind of thralldom. I'd never make it through the first semester of their schooling without washing out from sheer boredom. So it doesn't matter to me what they can make from their degree. It's not relevant to my own choices.

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