Look, I’m just a biochemist, part 2

Continued from Look, I’m just a biochemist, part 1*…
Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who is concerned about how he is perceived in discovery research. The guy is a sr. scientist in DOPI’s leads discovery department which assays something in the order of a gazillion compounds in screening “campaigns.” He and his group are able to miniaturize assays to volumes the size of fly’s tears and make the robots dance like St. Vitus on rye bread. He fits massive numbers of data points to mathematical models, and has a keen eye for what constitutes a lovely and seductive concentration response curve versus the crapola generated by compounds with horrible physical properties . Yet he was troubled. He said he felt increasingly pegged as a “technologist, and not a biologist.” I gesticulated with my fork, in mid-bite of a garlicky shrimp and sputtered, bits of crustacean flying, “You, sir…you are not a biologist. You are a biochemist!”

I’m working at my third company, DOPI, and at this one, more than the other two, discovery research scientists are herded into binary bins: chemists and biologists. This wasn’t the case at the previous druggie hives in which I toiled. At the first, I was part of a chemistry department, and at the second, I was a biochemist in a company whose CEO trained as an organic chemist then post-doc’ed with a well known biochemist. It was taken for granted at each company that we biochemists had one foot firmly planted in the world of biology and the other in a parallel universe of chemistry. A former colleague made a telling assessment of biochemistry. We had been hired as experienced scientists to crack an especially tough proteolytic nut. After we had been working together for a few months, he stated in wonderment that I knew “a lot about structure-activity relationships (SAR) for a biologist.” I gently (!) corrected him. I am a biochemist. That’s three parts “bio” and nine parts “chemistry” as one of my old mentors said.
I am not a hardcore chemist by any means. I can’t set up a reaction in a hood as part of an elaborate synthesis. I know where aromatic protons fall on a NMR spectrum, and I understand the principles of NOESY and COSY, but damned if I can decipher the proton NMR spectrum of an unknown 350 MW organic molecule. I do not have the complete library of name reactions stored away in my head although a few like the Claisen condensation, Diels-Alder and Mitsunobu reactions rattle around in there. I can kinda sorta push electrons around on the white board but not on the hood sash. I’m not bad with synthesis on paper. What I am good at is chemical kinetics and visualization of molecules in three dimensions. That latter ability has served me well when working with the medicinal chemists, the computational chemists and the crystallographers.
These days, I find myself in a division with a lot of technocrats who are enamored of churning out mega-metrics of data points, some of high quality and some smacking of cigarette butts and used syringes on the sidewalks of Times Square. I have somewhat less of a connection with DOPI’s medicinal chemists than I would like. Fortunately, my staff scientists have strong ties to DOPI med. chem. My group is not about massive data streams but in depth probing of mechanism and occasionally lending a helping hand when various formats of assays disconnect across other departments. The chemists appreciate this, and we have educated many of them to think beyond the IC50. A most gratifying moment of ego-stroking occurred when the head of a combined set of therapeutic areas described my fab group and me to visiting faculty from Duke and Penn as “invested in I.Q., not robotics.” I felt that it is pretty much OK to be “just a biochemist.”
*Lifted from Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage) in The Rock.

  1. #1 by Sandra Porter on November 2, 2006 - 8:48 pm

    Nice post! I almost double-majored in biochem + micro – but I was too lazy to take German. It came in handy though when I spent 10 years teaching biotech students how to make solutions and follow GMPs.

  2. #2 by Doc Bushwell on November 3, 2006 - 7:38 am

    Thanks, Sandy. I can’t help but think that your biochem/micro background is mighty handy in the bioinformatics field.

  3. #3 by Sandra Porter on November 4, 2006 - 2:45 pm

    Totally! It’s really nice to be able to look at a protein structure or an amino acid sequence and immediately know why a mutation, say from a D to an R in a zinc binding site, is likely to cause problems.

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