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November 4, 2011
What's the Hardest Thing?
Here's a quick question for the crowd: when you're talking with people outside your field, or outside of science completely, what's the hardest thing in your area to explain? I end up doing a lot of explaining myself, and I find that a lot of key drug discovery concepts can be communicated pretty quickly.
But not all of them, and perhaps not all at the same time. I can talk about PK and absorption, metabolism, etc., and I can talk about molecular properties and selectivity, and toxicology. Keeping all of those in mind at the same time, though, seems to be difficult if you're not used to doing it, thus the trouble with explaining Paracelsus' remark that "the dose makes the poison". Selenium is a good place to experience that: try getting across to someone that there's an essential nutritional element that's also poisonous. It's like trying to say that cyanide is a vitamin - but then again, if carbon monoxide is a neurotransmitter, maybe it is.
I think that the other broad issue that's hard to communicate is the amount that we don't know. That specifically comes up in discussions of toxicology - people want to know if this drug, this compound, is toxic or not. And if it is, how do we know that the next one isn't like that? Those are all questions that do a sort of reverse origami trick: they start off in a neat, comprehensible shape, but unfold to heaps of crumpled paper as soon as you really start pulling on them. How can we know so much, yet know so little? Why have we been studying some of these systems for decades and still not understand them? That probably gets back to the repeated point that living biological systems are simply more complex - much more complex - than anything that anyone has ever dealt with in everyday life. And what's more, they're complex in different ways than we're ever used to dealing with; it's not just differences in degree (although those certainly apply) but differences in kind.
But don't confine yourself to the big meta-issues. There are plenty of smaller concepts and ideas that don't lend themselves to fast explanations. A meaningful one-paragraph (or one-sentence!) explanation of NMR imaging for someone with no background, for example, is no small undertaking. (My attempt: "We're all full of water molecules, in all sorts of environments in the body. And they behave differently when you put them in a strong magnetic field, which lets us pick up different signals from them and turn them into images.") How about hydrogen bonding? Or chirality? What are your sticking points when you try to explain what you do?
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