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

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« The Perils of Poor Equipment | Main | An Alternative Prescription From Chopra, Roy, and Weil »

January 9, 2009

Poor Equipment Revisited

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

A colleague came by a while ago and said "You know, the comments to that last post of yours are in danger of turning into Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch". At the moment, things are running about 50/50 between the "lack of equipment teaches you skills" and "lack of equipment wastes your time" camps. . .

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Life in the Drug Labs


1. davejac on January 9, 2009 4:28 PM writes...

"Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work."

Is it just me or does that sound like grad school in general?

Permalink to Comment

2. CMC Guy on January 9, 2009 5:07 PM writes...

Monty Python may be a good analogy for "lack of equipment teaches you skills" as don't think they had great budgets and certainly not all the sophisticated animation/special effects tools but they produced some wonderful (side splitting) work as evident from the long lasting nature of their comical skits. Nothing today compares and is mostly simple minded drivel.

Permalink to Comment

3. HelicalZz on January 9, 2009 5:20 PM writes...

How about 'lack of equipment teaches you to write grants in order to buy better equipment'.

Honestly, never wrote a grant

Permalink to Comment

4. NJBiologist on January 9, 2009 7:11 PM writes...

@davejac: No, it's not just you.

Permalink to Comment

5. Phon on January 10, 2009 2:49 PM writes...

Good article on gross mismanagement at the FDA.

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on January 10, 2009 4:00 PM writes...

Oh, what I would have given for a hearty cup of sulfuric acid!

Permalink to Comment

7. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 10, 2009 6:31 PM writes...

According to Wikipedia:

"As a result of the numerous Python performances and the comparative obscurity of At Last The 1948 Show, the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch is widely and incorrectly credited to Monty Python's Flying Circus."

Permalink to Comment

8. milkshake on January 10, 2009 9:29 PM writes...

Poverty teaches special technical skills, most of them obsolete. In Cuba, car mechanics learned how to keep Chevy cars (made in 1950) running, using just scrap metal. This makes them hardly qualified anywhere outside Cuba.

I can tell you exactly what its like doing research without NMR and HPLC and MS, just using TLCs and melting points: You can do some work but it is very difficult, and you cannot publish it. People get good despite hardship, not because of it.

The points Derek makes about self-censorship of ideas is completely accurate. You can't do much work in a lab where you worry how to dry your sample (because you lack a functioning oil pump), you are not sure if your solvents are still good (the anhydrous solvents are obtained before each experiment by fresh distillation of stuff stored over dessicants), where dry ice arrives once a week if your are lucky, barely enough to last for the next 3 days, and the mostly-empty stockroom is run by morose old man available only from 10:30am to 1:30 pm (unless he is out for lunch). It is quite easy to lose the enthusiasm under these conditions.

Permalink to Comment

9. Undergrad Researcher/Prof on January 11, 2009 8:30 AM writes...

I have a colleague who is interested in having us switch to electronic notebooks for our undergrads doing research. This seems to me to be a large expense, which in a corporate situation has a good ROI because the procedure/results are then readily accessible throughout the organization.

For those of us on a limited budget, is it worth the investment?

1) Will the students be better prepared for research in grad school and in industry (over 50% go directly to industry) for doing research?

2) Does using the e-notebook lead to sufficient prompting that the data is properly recorded, rather than, as now, my having to go through the spectra myself and decipher what is there?

3) Any other questions/points I should hear?

Thanks all!

Permalink to Comment

10. The Pharmacoepidemiologist on January 11, 2009 11:51 AM writes...

Ancient equipment isn't an aid to research, but it is ironic that many, if not most of the Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research which exemplars elegant simplicity rather than Big Science.

Permalink to Comment

11. RTW on January 11, 2009 2:38 PM writes...

9. Undergrad Researcher/Prof

I now work with a major supplier of ELN, and other informatics solutions (CambridgeSoft) after having spent a long time as a bench chemist in big pharma. As you should know we have a very good academic licencing program. ChemOffice Ultra I believe contains a single user desktop version of our E-Notebook product, geared mostly for general purpose note-booking in all sciences, and some specifics for organic chemistry (I am not in sales). The expense really isn't that great, I expect. Lots of universities have licences to our products already.

Now - That said the limitation to this notebook product is that members of a graduate lab can't share work as they could with the Enterprise or Work group versions of the application which cost a bit more. Additionally these enhanced versions allow connection to stockroom inventory, and perhaps ordering of materials, access to other data systems to import instrument data or to submit for analytical or other test services, things that would streamline or enhance productivity.

Additionally an ELN system might enhance compliance, and perhaps result in more complete record keeping. This would be particularly useful with work group or enterprise versions as the graduate advisor could keep a better eye on their students work, and maybe instill better work methods and habits.

At the undergraduate level, although I would like an ELN to be used. Some of its features might make for a situations where it may make it too easy to do the work without understanding the calculations needed behind setting up a reaction for example. On the other hand as a one time lab instructor the printed report from the ELN would be easier to grade, as there would not be such a hard time trying to read different peoples hand writing. Observations are still important to include, and to be honest industrial chemists become lazy and omit way too much material from their notebooks making them nearly useless in trying to reproduce work. So early indoctrination to good habits would be a useful goal perhaps in using an E-notebook in the undergraduate lab. Even with regards to things other than chemistry.

E-Notebook systems can prompt to be sure that data fields are properly filled out and not left empty. Again this is a function of an Enterprise system. As far as making sure all analytical data is there. Well we can make it easy to put it there, but its still up to the researcher/student to enter it into the system. We tightly couple the data to the experiment making it a part of what we call the experiment collection. We try to make that very easy. I know of no ELN system however that will interpret spectral data for you but again our application provides the ability to simulate NMR spectra to help aid that step.

Since I work for a vendor of such an application, I am of course most familiar with our product. There may be many more questions you would like to ask and get a non biased answer. I will refer you to the following Linked In discussion forums. We have a group devoted to ELN systems, made up of consultants, vendors and users. Perhaps you may want to join that. Take a look at:

You may need to join the group first but anyone that uses Linked In can. I don't beleive the manager of the forum, restricts it in any way.

Best regards,

Permalink to Comment

12. china bonding on January 12, 2009 12:43 AM writes...

I've seen many grad school labs that were ill fitted, but I am simply amazed at the chemistry done here in China with such limited capital. 200 cmpd libraries by prep plate anyone?

Permalink to Comment

13. Anonymous BIG Pharma Researcher on January 12, 2009 6:51 PM writes...

We are in the process of transition from paper notebooks to the CambridgeSoft electronic laboratory notebook. Very powerful, and I think it will be a good thing for us. However, it is HIGHLY nontrivial to install, administer, and configure. I for example have extensive computer experience (starting with FORTRAN on punch cards and progressing with technological changes since those days), and getting the ELN client to work properly on my computer took multiple calls to the Help Desk.

So I cannot recommend this product for academic use unless the institution in question has dramatically better IT support than I recall from my days in academia.

Permalink to Comment

14. RTW on January 13, 2009 1:13 PM writes...

13. Anonymous BIG Pharma Researcher

Sorry to hear that you initially has such problems. There could be any number of reasons for this not the least of which could be the method of deployment that your organization chose to use to install the client end of the application, and the sorts of controls your organization places on your desktop computer. I can't know for sure.

As you say academic institutions don't generally have good IT organizations to help, but on the other hand, they don't subject the client computer to many controls. We once had a client whos computers where so strictly controled, it would not let the ELN create MS Office documents. Wasn't a problem with our application. Security/virus protection was set so tight that it would only let the native application create these documents. Our application starts these applications, and the security system didn't like it. Took a long time to figure that one out and correct the issue with security.

We have client installations where installation is very easy, and pretty much error free. Our new Click Once system even makes updates to the software seamless, and painless.

BTW when I worked in Pharma - we called the help desk, the helpless desk, because unless it involved the most trivial business applications, they didn't have a clue. I would be interested to know what the problem turned out to be and how it was solved for you. Maybe put the issue in our own Knowledge base if it isn't already there.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry