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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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« Making the Adjustment to Smallness | Main | Extractions: A Way of Life »

January 24, 2008

Cheap Happiness

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Posted by Derek

There are some well-known expensive ways to make scientists happy: buy them lots of equipment and put it in fancy new buildings, pay them lots of money to work there. Come to think of it, that works on just about anyone. But there are some cheap ways to make them happy, too, and companies are really hurting themselves if they don’t pick up on them.

Recognizing what the people in the lab do doesn’t cost very much. Odds are excellent (odds are downright overwhelming) that the people downstream in regulatory affairs and marketing have no idea of who the people were that came up with the latest drug they’re trying to get over the top. Some of them, in a large company, may have only a rough idea of where it came from at all.

Let ‘em know, but do it the right way. Company newsletters get thrown away, mass e-mail get deleted. No, next time there’s a department-wide meeting over there, give ten minutes or so to bring up some of the people who discovered and worked on the current hot compound. If one of them is up for it, have them say a few words. Seeing the hordes of people working on their compound will cheer up the scientists, and seeing where the compounds came from will be a new experience for marketing. Human contact is good; it’s harder to let people down after you’ve met them and seen them.

You can run this in a negative sense, too, naturally, if you’re so inclined. Get one of the higher-ups in the company to mispronounce the name of a discovery project or two during a big speech, and watch what happens. I’ve seen it myself – it works like bug spray on morale, and one of the reasons is that everyone knows that it’s such an easy mistake to avoid.

Not being a hard case about time is another one. You’d think that this would cost money, as people abuse your generous spirit, but for the most part, it’s the opposite. I knew a lab at a former company where the lab head immediately swiveled to look at the wall clock whenever an associate arrived in the morning, or left in the afternoon. This person couldn’t seem to help it. They had to check to make sure they were getting their full day’s work out of the underlings. Morning, evening, check that clock. What did this buy them? A lab full of people who made sure to never set anything up that would take them one minute past Official Quitting Time, and who made the absolute most out of any sanctioned opportunity to not be in the lab with their boss. Not the outcome you want. The same goes, on a larger scale, for vacation days. Slip people a day here and there when they need it, and they’ll work when they’re there.

Keeping people informed isn’t that expensive either. I’ve worked in places where, once a compound went off to the clinic, it vanished off the edge of the earth as far as the people in the discovery labs could see. There was one time when a drug that had been years in development was canned, and chemists who had spent many of those years only heard about it by third-hand rumor. That’s just not right, and it sure didn’t improve anyone’s mood. Losing a drug from the clinic is never a happy occasion, for sure, but you don’t want to add to the pain. . .

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Life in the Drug Labs


1. Kay on January 24, 2008 9:03 AM writes...

The city or province names of Chinese discovery sites are hard to pronounce too.

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2. milkshake on January 24, 2008 9:06 AM writes...

mid-sized companies are better in this respect - if somebody cancels the project on which you pinned your hopes for two years, at least you will learn his name and could walk into his office.

The motivation speech from CEO praising the chemists - I have seen this frequently abused at a small company. They could not pay us much so at least they sung the praise. It started to feel little cheezy after a while especially once you figured it was an acquired act for the boss so he would prize the daily mediocrity just as much as real achievents.

Friday night keg of beer and some sandwiches are quite effective. When I was at SUGEN we had lots of Chinese chemists and biologists - and the Chinese New Year was especially festive. You would be amazed how many goodies one bring for the whole company for about $200 at Costco/

Taking a group of chemist out for a free lunch into some friendly pub also helps/

The thing is that a common display of generosity and respect from the management, concern for the well-being and careful defusing of intra-departmental rivalries management can turn the company into a decent place and people start acting civil on their own. But you can have just the opposite spiral: one pompous troll who enjoys pushing others around (safety, HR etc) and people start being defensive and grumpy and the bad mood will progressively spread out like a mildew.

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3. TNC on January 24, 2008 9:38 AM writes...

Milkshake beat me to it: free food! Donuts on Friday/Saturday is always a crowd pleaser.

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4. Russ on January 24, 2008 1:03 PM writes...

Recognition, as you say, is a great motivator. I once saw site director put up a photo of a long-term laboratory chemist at an all employee meeting. His comment was "this man has worked on every compound going into development". It motivated me into getting his job after he retired (the chemist, not the site director).

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5. Betsy on January 24, 2008 1:14 PM writes...

I'm with milkshake & TNC--free food & drinks are the key to a scientist's heart. We have lots of former SUGEN folks here, so we've continued the tradition of a weekly happy hour. It gives you something to look forward to in the middle of the week, and allows you some time to unwind and talk to the people who work on the other side of the building that you may not see in your everyday work. Plus, each group within the company is responsible for hosting the event every 6-7 weeks, so there's the additional benefit of getting your team together to work on something fun.

Our VP told us that at his old company they used to do a weekly happy hour that cost the company about $150/week. When money got tight, they cut out the happy hour, and he said that morale completely tanked. It's amazing how far such small gestures can go in making everyone happy.

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6. Anonymous on January 24, 2008 1:45 PM writes...

Back in the day there was a firm in the Bay Area called Neurex (since swalled up by Elan) and we used to have informal, under the radar happy hours with beer chilling in ice buckets. It was a great way for the chemists and biologists to get to know each other as people and it did a lot for morale and communication of goals/"issues".

Mind you, this event was not officially sanctioned by the President, but we kept it cool so he had no reason to bring it to our attention.

I never witnessed anything like this when I worked on the east coast. We did have happy hours--but they were never on company property.

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7. SRC on January 24, 2008 4:19 PM writes...

I have an even simpler and cheaper way: have the CEO walk around the labs, just saying "hello."

He doesn't need to say anything intelligent about the project (probably can't, in any case), but just show a) he can find the lab, and b) he cares enough to take a few minutes to prove it.

Ten minutes would work wonders. Never seen it done, though, (at least willingly) not even in a small company, although I did once drag a CEO to the lab to look at some protein crystals that had finally succumbed to extensive crystallization efforts.

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8. Moebius on January 24, 2008 5:38 PM writes...

VERY well said...

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9. NJBiologist on January 24, 2008 7:44 PM writes...

I like all of these ideas, but you have to know your environment (both your people and your company) before you do *any* of these things.

Most of my current reports are not so verbal as Derek, and would look at ten minutes in front of another group as torture. An introduction and laudatory statement would probably go over much better.

A VP I know of can't set foot in the lab without making people wonder what he's up to. Ironically, his predecessor was welcome pretty much everywhere he went.

I've worked at a place where I would have had a formal HR reprimand and moved a step toward firing if I brought alcohol onto company property. However, I was able to put happy hour on the corporate AmEx.

People with kids can be almost impossible to get to a happy hour. Sometimes, lunch is the way to go.

None of these things are guaranteed to work--you've got to think about it.

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10. TNC on January 25, 2008 1:02 AM writes...

I agree with all of the above, including NJBiologist's comments about introversion. Don't know what to do about that. Russ' comments on the "old salt" lab types is dead on -- I want to be that guy, too.

As for Derek's comments on recognition, don't just bring up the group leader for the compound, either. Get the lab associates and the like, especially at a larger company. It stuns me how credit for work seems to pool at the Ph.D. level, not that it's not deserved.

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11. thumperska on January 26, 2008 10:30 PM writes...

Biotech is rife with these happy hour type things. If alcohol is involved, even better. In Beantown there does not seem to be too much issue with having alcohol at these events at small or medium sized companies. Happy hours (called them WHIPS at Millennium, Why the Hell aren't we In the Pub) really create a sense of community for those who choose to participate. I believe people are more motivated to help out their friend than their unseen coworker.

Public recognition is also great, as long as its not too frequent (as Milkshake pointed out) and is for a truly outstanding effort.

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