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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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August 2, 2010


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Posted by Derek

I'm back from the Sci Foo meeting out at Google's HQ, having taking the jolly red-eye flight from San Jose. And since I'll doubtless be increasingly incoherent as the day goes on, I thought I'd better go ahead and post now.

There was a wide (and strange) variety of people at this meeting - tilted towards comp sci and theoretical physics, I'd say, with a fair number of biologists. Chemists were thin on the ground in comparison. But this wasn't a chemistry meeting by any means. It was more of a chance to meet a lot of people who are each doing very interesting work in their fields, including some who are probably doing the absolute most interesting work in their fields.

And there's something that I noticed about these folks. People working at that level, almost all of them, have something in common: they're extremely happy to be doing what they do. Listening to Giovanni Amelino-Camelia and Lee Smolin talk about quantum gravity theories (and the data that are now coming in from gamma-ray bursters which could start sorting these things out), you could see that they both feel as if they're doing what they're here on Earth to do. "It's like Christmas", Amelino-Camelia told me, grinning, when I asked him about the GRB data. Pete Worden sounds the same way when he talks about wanting to explore caves on Mars, Yves Rossy when he talks about strapping on a jet-powered wing to his back, and so on. There's nothing they'd rather be doing.

I have some days like that, but I should try to have more. The conference was a good reminder to try to work at the limits of your capabilities, to take on the hardest problems that you can stand to face. It's worth it. You can see it in the faces of people who live that way. Melville was right - "Genius, round the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round."

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. imarx on August 2, 2010 8:39 AM writes...

The thoughts expressed in this post are very similar to those expressed by Malcolm Gladwell in the latest episode of Radiolab. He basically said that one of the crucial elements of genius is to have an inordinate love for what you do. He thought this was more important than the idea most people have of genius as some sort of innate talent. I can see where he's coming from - as much as I like chemistry, I can't say I like it enough to be a genius at it.

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2. anon on August 2, 2010 8:48 AM writes...

I don't know... there is a bit of a disconnect in chemistry. As an underling (graduate student / postdoc) I'm always working for someone else and there is a lot of drudgery. Even if it's my own ideas in somebody else's system, they get all the glory and get to take a step back and go to conferences and no one remembers me, so joy is all I got to go on.

As a boss, you're really disconnected from the lab and the actual doing stuff. And I mean really writing grants all day, teaching disconnected. Plus you're forcing underlings to work on your systems that they might not care about.

After all this disconnect, you start to develop the attitude that there are other things in life that are important besides science, even if you have really exciting results (like I do now). And since I've got nothing else in my life besides science at this point, it's a really huge time and emotional sink. After all Derek, if things don't work out for you in the lab or with the job, you always have your family and partner. Grad school took that possibility away from me with the weekends and evenings spent in lab. Time to end this science bullshit for a few years.

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3. newnickname on August 2, 2010 8:57 AM writes...

A very famous and very successful PI I (and all of you) know said to me, "I LOVE chemistry!" I said, "So do I. But your love is requited."

I still love chemistry but I am not happy. Chemistry is no longer a profession; it is scut work. I am no longer a professional; I am a fungible commodity.

To make a physics comparison: I'm sure that Carlo Rubbia loves physics from his position at the top. He said about his underlings, "Physicists are like lemons. You squeeze them for all they're worth, and then you throw them away."

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4. ProteinChemist on August 2, 2010 9:33 AM writes...

I think that the above posters have a point. In my lab I am in a similar position where I am working for the glory of others. However, there comes a point where you need to just take pleasure in what you do or you won't be happy. I'd wager most of the geniuses out there had to jump through their PI's hoops at one point also. They just persevered till they were calling the shots...

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5. DrSmalls on August 2, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

Having a job/career that you love is a wonderful thing to shoot for. Attaining that goal can be difficult when the job you have, which you do not like, pays the bills.

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6. ronathan richardson on August 2, 2010 11:26 AM writes...

Of all the things non-scientists fail to understand about science, this is probably the most misunderstood. I can't tell you how much a joy it is to come to work most days. And there are required conditions for these feelings to sprout--you must be convinced of the significance of what you're doing, and you must have the freedom to pursue what you think is most amazing and powerful about it. My sense is that chemistry rarely operates this way--but I'm interested if, within chemistry, certain projects or types of labs give this joy, while others don't, and why...

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7. LAM on August 2, 2010 12:17 PM writes...

Indeed, a grand objective, when either looked down from the top or looking ahead as someone trying to start their career. But in both academics and industry, one's freedom to do what you like, in your style, with adequate funding introduces all sorts of obstacles for most scientists in today's world.

Particularly in the current poor economy, where even in academics job offers are being withdrawn, where in industry people are told "you should be glad you have a job" all too often as an acceptable management style, the objective of carving out a life-long career that is "fun" turns to having a job, sticking things out until time for a good exit, or being told you no longer are needed.

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8. Chemjobber on August 2, 2010 12:19 PM writes...

@newnickname: That's quite the witticism. I like it.

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9. BZ on August 2, 2010 1:41 PM writes...

There are some of us who like what we are doing at work, but follow our loves outside of work. Like many of you much of what I do is drudgery, the rest is paperwork. Sure there is some work stuff I love to think about and try, but ultimately those things take a back seat to the everyday stuff.

~10 years ago I decided that the late nights and weekends just were not cutting it for me anymore, I missed time with my spouse, and time doing other things. Now I try to work normal hours, and I spend my free time doing what I love. I want to stress that I do like my job, and I enjoy what I do, but when it is time to leave at the end of the day I leave.

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10. hn on August 2, 2010 2:02 PM writes...

I love science too, but my current job is also mostly scut work. I try to maintain my passion and "edge" by regularly reading papers in other areas and pursuing small computational non-work related projects at home that don't require more than a PC. Hope to have something publishable one of these days!

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11. David P on August 2, 2010 2:39 PM writes...

Sometimes there are days when the reactions are not working and everything is turning to brown sludge. It is not so much fun. But there is little to compare to the euphoria when that reaction finally works.

We do science for a living and so we don't often see what others in other professions have to do all day. OK, so lawyers get paid more, but the sheer monotony, the brain-freezing tedium. And if you think about it in that way, working in a lab running reactions and solving problems is a pretty cool job.

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12. okemist on August 2, 2010 3:18 PM writes...

I love to make drugs, I'm not the genious that most of you guys are, I will never discover a drug or know enough chemistry to even come up with an original process. But for 25 yrs now I have always loved doing this. And No.2: I look forward to Mondays, I wrather be in the lab trying to figure out why the chemistry is not working than be with my 'loved ones' any day.Make it, prove it, do it on time, in Spec, the pressure, the medical need, I think its an exhilarating way to make a living; and I feel blessed and spoiled that I have been able to do it.

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13. Shane on August 2, 2010 5:03 PM writes...

The tedium of the lab, only to be rewarded by being turned into a bureaucrat later on, drove me out. The short funding cycle, the puffed up spun out papers to meet publication quotas, the need to plan and justify every "discovery" in advance. This isn't science, it isn't productive and it isn't important.

I wonder if the rise of open source science is going to go somewhere. I now work for myself, but find time to do computational maths, plus a bit of plant breeding and soil science experimentation too, and I find it very fun to have absolute freedom.

The open source genetics community setting up labs in their garages is very interesting too. Probably not so compatible with the costs and hazards of chemistry and physics though, but with instruments like mass specs becoming cheaper every year it might become possible.

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14. non-pharma chemist on August 2, 2010 5:46 PM writes...

Derek, don't compare your levels of happiness at work to those of *tenured* professors. They win every time.

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15. srp on August 2, 2010 8:00 PM writes...

Derek's point is abundantly clear when you read popular accounts of fields like astronomy, taxonomy, etc that have little 'practical" application in view. All the big shots are people who managed to be successful pursuing what they love and/or are obsessed with. Motivations swing between puzzle-solving and point-scoring but a lot of these people make no distinction between work and non-work hours.

It doesn't follow, of course, that everyone with the passion is going to be able to successfully follow that passion. It's just that it's hard to be great without it. Necessary but not sufficient, I guess.

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16. Anonymous on August 3, 2010 3:37 PM writes...

@srp: I think a great many more scientists could be very successful if we could pursue the ideas we are most interested in rather than cranking stuff out for the boss. The hard part is persuading someone else to pay you for your hobby.

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17. cliffintokyo on August 4, 2010 12:26 AM writes...

Some big companies (Bayer and Ciba for sure, there were others) used to give their scientists a mandate to spend 10% or so (1/2-day per week?) of their worktime pursuing their own chemistry projects.
This always seemed like a great idea to me. I wonder if this practice has survived the pharma business shake-out/lab hazard risk management campaign?

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18. Carmen on August 4, 2010 2:06 PM writes...

This conversation reminds me of a book I glanced at (but admittedly never made it through) called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. When these folks are doing what they're doing best, they reach this state of happiness the author (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) calls "flow", which is a sort of special satisfaction you derive from something challenging and rewarding. I can say with certainty that I never experienced flow in the lab, so I'm glad I moved away from that line of work.

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