Skip to Content

Back To It

Welcome to 2017, and as usual, it seems like a number for a year in a science-fiction story rather than on everyone’s calendar. I console myself with realizing that I’ve been thinking that way since about 1980, which probably comes from reading a heck of a lot of old science fiction stories while growing up – someone writing in (say) 1948 felt perfectly safe in setting their tale in far-off 1980, and likewise some of the SF books and movies of the 1980s are set right around now.

I will be engaged this morning in the futuristic activity of trying to figure out what I was doing before the vacation .That, at least, has not changed; I’ve been doing that every January since grad school. At least I could leave things sitting around, in one form or another, to await my return. The biologists (some of them, anyway) were in over the break washing cells and feeding animals, and there’s one of the biggest differences between biologists and chemists. Our stuff isn’t alive, and thus tends not to die.

Oh, we have tricky reactions and sensitive reagents, that’s for sure. No one’s going to leave a -78 degree reaction going for two weeks while they go out of town. Some of the things we do, you can’t turn your back on them at all. The guy who hired me to my first job in the industry used to do some pretty serious physical organic chemistry in his grad school work, some of which involved whipping up molten sodium (under hot toluene) to what he described as “silvery shaving cream”. He left one of those going one day while he went over to get some lunch, and returned to fire trucks and billowing smoke, so it’s true that we can’t just treat everything like a pile of gravel. But compared to the biologists, that’s pretty much what we do, because cells and rodents need constant, mindful attention if they’re not going to die. They need to eat, they need to drink, their living quarters need to be cleaned out, and after a while they will probably have to be moved to new ones entirely, because they can outgrow the current situation, to bad effect. My chemistry experiments, on the other hand, do not reproduce. I admit that a transcript of what I’ve said to them over the years would make it sound like I regularly accuse them of procreating, but that’s different. I left a whole suite of slow reactions going over the break, and two weeks of sitting around without me messing with them is probably just what they needed (I’ll find out in a little while).

All this leads to a completely different outlook on research on the part of chemists and biologists. In general, I’d say that chemists tend more to think that we can start reactions pretty much any time we think about them (given the starting materials), and that we can let them go as long as we need to get the desired products. Biologists, on the other hand, are more constrained. How many times have those cells been passaged? Have they reached confluence yet? How old are the mice? There are certain windows when the experiments can be run, and other periods where they most definitely can’t, and you have to adjust yourself to a calendar that you can’t do much about.

This might be a source of what seems to strike some biologists as unseemly self-confidence on the part of some chemists. We chemists may feel (rightly or not) that we’re more the masters of our own fate, since there are so many ways to get from point A to point B that there’s bound to be one that works. And hey, if we have to, we’ll just invent one, if we have the time. Biologists, in my experience, don’t have quite that same attitude towards their own research, and I can understand why. The moving finger writes for them, and having writ moves on, and if you didn’t passage those cells last week you’re not going to be setting anything up with them today. In a broader sense, if there’s no enzyme or cellular system that does the process that you want to do, you’re probably not going to do it any time soon, either. It’s not like chemists can just invent anything they want, either (I want something the size of fluorine that’s electron-donating!), but we do have a lot more latitude, since we’re working with more fundamental building blocks.

Time to go see what happened over two weeks, and to figure out what happens next!

24 comments on “Back To It”

  1. Me says:

    Happy New Year Derek!

  2. Isidore says:

    “Our stuff isn’t alive, and thus tends not to die.” – I must find occasions to use this line.
    Happy new year!

    1. Cymantrene says:

      “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”
      I’m OK with the first part. The second gave me some interesting moments…

  3. John Tucker says:

    I’d say a lot of it is sociological. Most biologists have semi-unique roles within the company. In vitro metabolic diseases, antiviral infectious disease design, genetic bioinformatics, etc. The word “biologist” encompasses many discretely recognizable roles, and most biologists are in direct competition with only a handful of others in the same company.

    In contrast, the average medicinal chemist shares largely the same expertise and responsibilities with 100 others at the same company, and competes with all of them for that next Associate Director opening. The relentless expression of confidence in one’s own abilities and expertise, along with broad claims of responsibility for the success of any successful program one is associated with is pretty much an absolute requirement to hold one’s own, let alone advance, within this competitive environment.

  4. Blabl says:

    Yup, you’ve hit the hammer on the head there, biology is way more difficult to plan and organise. Takes a way more organised person to do.

    (Also, it’s maths, not math, damn it!)

  5. anonymous says:

    PS, If you need to run a -40C reaction over a week or two without tending it, shove it with a magnetic stir bar and top into an appropriate size Dewar flask filled with liquid ammonia. Place it on a magnetic stirrer and gently cork the flask with a cork (not rubber)stopper. Use to do this in grad school and it worked very well

    1. nitrosonium says:

      that makes no sense at all

  6. Project Osprey says:

    …which involved whipping up molten sodium (under hot toluene) to what he described as “silvery shaving cream”…

    Sodium sand? My old PhD supervisor had stories about making that, and other stuff, for Schlenk-type chemistry. I think of them as stories which are funny second-hand but not first-hand.

  7. John Campbell says:

    Even worse for crop scientists. My brother had his results eaten by rabbits. Hard frosts, torrential rainfall, drought, heat wave, all hard to plan for and mitigate.

  8. Physick says:

    “My chemistry experiments, on the other hand, do not reproduce.”

    Is that due to the reproducibility crisis that is often mentioned on this blog ?

    Thanks for the great blog, and happy new year.

    1. Boot says:

      Knowing Derek’s liking for a turn of phrase, I was wondering the same.

      Welcome back to the day job all!

  9. Semichemist says:

    That “Chemical Wish List” article was a great read! But only one entry… perhaps a new recurring category is in order?

  10. Daniel Barkalow says:

    Chemistry does seem to consist of things you have to watch constantly and things you never have to look at again, whereas biology seems to pretty much lack both of these categories in favor of things you have to look at sometime tomorrow (or, worse, any time between 10 and 14 hours from now).

  11. Eric says:

    Biologists can’t leave their experiments unattended for long periods of time, but they can usually schedule it to avoid weekends or major holidays. Cells don’t need to be split every day, which adds a little flexibility.

    Unless of course you are studying something like diurnal variations in an in vivo model. Sitting in the vivarium under red lights at 3 AM to collect that all important blood sample makes one question why they didn’t choose another field.

    1. A says:

      There’s plenty of cells that really need tending every day, such as embryonic stem cells.

  12. anon says:

    I think that’s the funniest oblique reference to the F-word that I’ve ever heard!

  13. RHCanChem says:

    There’s also the advantage that synthetic chemistry is not, for the most part, an analytical science. As long as there’s pure product in a vial at the end of the day, you can be as sloppy or as rigorous as you want (within reason). Contrast that to biology, where even a small mistake sends you back to step 1 of your 3-day experiment because the results wouldn’t be meaningful.

    1. Boot says:

      Try process development. (I did. It’s why I didn’t pick it for a career 🙂

  14. JSR says:

    As an ex-chemist biologist, I think the “unseemly self-confidence on the part of some chemists” comes from their insistence that they know where each and every proton is!

  15. Ken says:

    “No one’s going to leave a -78 degree reaction going for two weeks while they go out of town.”

    Always excepting those TIWWW reactions where being out of town is absolutely the best place to be while the thing is running.

  16. AForZebra says:

    It didnt hurt that old geezer near me home who left his dirty dishes in da sink and came back with a cure for pus nodules. Cant cho put your reactions in da deep freeze then go party?

    Dats what science is about, superfluicidity!

  17. schinderhannes says:

    Hi Derek,

    happy new year to you as well.
    You know what is worse than waking up in the real 1984 after reading Orwell ages ago:
    Waking up in say 2010 and remembering the “Agenda 2010” (German politics) and the equivalents of it within large companies.
    All those plans for the future of big pharma were at least as off as those famous novels 🙂

  18. Anon says:

    Just think, if biology wasn’t so fragile then most chemists would be out of work.

  19. NC says:

    ‘I want something the size of fluorine that’s electron-donating’, Lithium comes close, and I’ll buy you a crate of beer to propose organolitihium compounds as new interesting lead compounds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.