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Life in the Drug Labs

Let’s Check This Blank Page, Here

I think that most of the large (and some of the small) drug companies have by now made the switch to electronic lab notebooks. It couldn’t have come too soon for me. My merits as a scientist are up for debate, but my virtues as a record keeper are inarguable: I stink.
And have stunk, for some time. Back to graduate school, actually, which is the first time I seriously had to keep a notebook. Looking back at my first-year books by the time I left, I could see the decline in promptness and experimental detail. Man, were those first few months of experiments ever well-documented! Too bad none of them were worth anything, but that’s the sort of joke that science plays on us.
My first years in industry were fair to good, but I tended to backslide. Setting up experiments is fun, as chemists know, much more fun than writing them down, and certainly a lot more fun than working them up and purifying the products. So I’d go the post-it-note route – writing down the amounts and a brief structural scribble to remind me, and put that on the appropriate notebook page. To remind me, you know, when I got around to writing it up, which would be Real Soon Now. Need I add that some of these things were as intelligible to me as Hittite tablets by the time that day arrived?
It got to the point at my former job that I once took a lab notebook home to Tennessee over Christmas. That, of course, is a mighty violation of good sense and legal protocol, and if I’d lost the thing, who knows what they would have done to me. Do not try this, if you’re still using hard-copy notebooks. But there I was, back at my parent’s kitchen table, writing up reductive amination reactions, one after the other.
The electronic notebook has kept me honest. I type much faster than I can write by hand, for one thing, so I actually put a few more details into my experimental procedures. All the analytical data is tied to the procedure, so I can’t manage to lose that, either. The structures are all done with chemical drawing software, bless it, which means that you cut, copy, and paste ’em when you’re working in a related series of compounds. A far, far superior system. Now I just have to generate some results worthy of it. . .

9 comments on “Let’s Check This Blank Page, Here”

  1. pyrokinetics says:

    A lot of people in programming circles talk about how “we need to find the best people, the elite.”
    Do pharma actively try to find the cream of the crop?
    Also what percentage of medicinal chemists are successful in the sense of having developed at least one drug that has made it to market? Also at least one drug that has cured a disease. I would imagine the numbers would be really small.

  2. Clostridium says:

    How I wish university could provide electronic lab notebooks. Let me explain: Being a new grad student, I had to go through previous grad and some post docs lab book… let me tell its not a pretty sight!! (not that mine is any better… 😛 )

  3. CNSguy says:

    It’s amazing what kind of impact a strong management commitment can make on notebook work. I’d be lying if I said I was more disciplined than Clostridium or Derek, but I get a lot better when the boss decrees a weekly deadline for entry and countersigning.
    By the way… I’ve never worked with electronic notebooks. How do you do signatures on them? Are there kinds of data that are particularly hard to get in?

  4. NYC_Chemist says:

    Derek, you might want to think again about who’s using electronic notebooks. At Wyeth, we don’t use them and the biotech I was at until a few months ago didn’t use them either. The only problem with an electronic notebook that I can see is that it’s not out there in the lab with me — so I really can’t write the proceedure (and make modifications) as I am doing it. It seems like the gap in time between doing the reaction and recording the reaction could cause problems. No?

  5. Richard says:

    Derek said ‘electronic lab notebook’ so I assume it is in the lab with him.

  6. Derek Lowe says:

    Actually, it’s on the desktop computer in my office, so there is that lag. But since I wasn’t too good at getting the details down while my notebook was right there, that isn’t much of a disadvantage.
    As for signatures, well, most lawyers would say that you do eventually need a hard copy. Many places that use software notebooks have people print out the finished experiment and give it a real signature (and countersignature.) Now that’s something I can find a way to delay, unfortunately.

  7. Kay says:

    Pyrokinetics: Although your question is way off topic, the resultant silence is your answer. There won’t be much left of legacy pharmas going forward except for the marketing part. Because of low productivity (probably because innovation is not scalable), this is one of the best ‘big hat, sterile cattle’ stories around.

  8. jsinger says:

    A lot of people in programming circles talk about how “we need to find the best people, the elite.” Do pharma actively try to find the cream of the crop?

    The barrier to entry for professional programmers is a lot lower than that for PhD-level pharma and biotech jobs. Some are better than others, obviously, but when you start with people who have managed a PhD, a postdoc and a reasonable publication record, you’ve strongly selected against complete losers.

    There are plenty of masterful programmers, but the overall workforce has a much broader spread, which I think is why there’s much more talk of “only hiring the best” in that context.

  9. Dr. lab-grunt says:

    I work at a site that has recently made the e-notebook jump. They simply installed computers in lab for everyone. An added benefit is that people spend much more time in lab when they can check email and do searches from their bench. We use Synthematix software and I can not say enough good things about it. I was skeptical at first (like most), but I don’t know how I would get by without it. In fact I find that I tend to set up more reactions now, just because it is so much faster to write the experimental. One last thing that I could not stand to lose now is the ability to view spectra from my (and my colleagues) simply by clicking a link in the experimental. Talk about a time saver.

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