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Thursday, December 31, 2009

An element of dread

Time has gone by quickly, and my long year end vacation ends, seemingly abruptly. I have spent three days traveling, three days unpacking boxes in my new US base, two days getting ready for Christmas and two days getting ready to return to China. Few days relaxing. This time, return to China feels different. I don't want to go back.

I identify the feeling, hesitancy tinged with dread. Even with my short time off, I enjoyed good, healthy, safe food, sunshine and blue skies, clean air and happy polite people. I know, waiting for me in Shanghai, pollution, construction, cold grey skies and mountains of work. But the core is the food. Note the two pictures of what people would consider good food in respective locations. One is hairy crab, a fresh water crab, seasonal delicacy in Shanghai. It looks like its staring at me. The other is a plate of tex-mex style, lightly fried chicken breast, grilled green beans, twice fried potatoes and ripe, chopped roma tomatoes with ranch dressing on the side. Yum.

I am still not used to much about the Chinese style of eating. Much more emphasis on freshness, combined with overt acceptance of place in the food chain encourages closeness to the killing process, brutal and maybe cruel to Western eyes. Live fish brought to the table, still flapping, as proof of freshness. Creatures' whole bodies brought to the table to show the fresh kill.
I know I will frequent Wagas, Element Fresh, Gourmet Café, Whisk. Maybe by the end of the year I will want more feet, eyes and heads.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Xiuxi yi xia

You have been working hard, intellectually, physically and emotionally, all engines, all tanks are drained and in need of recharging, flux capacitors have been fluxed. Time to take a break. So you run out to the local DVD shop and buy a $1 DVD and duck through open, active construction areas that make crossing the street akin to Indiana Jones exiting a tomb, then duck out of the damp Shanghai chill into local convenience store for a bottle of $0.50 Tsing Tao. But what to your wondering eyes should appear but this little glass not of beer, for $0.75. Some bai jiu (an unappealling Chinese version of sake)...ALREADY IN THE GLASS! Nothing says class like buying bai jiu in a glass. Why isn’t this little marvel available in the US yet? Jim, Johnny, Malibu, Captain..I’m looking at you...我没有买了

Monday, November 23, 2009

Measuring a Chemist

My boss stands in front of the group of 40 chemists, speaking Chinese. A visionary speaking with passion. I can follow only a little of his speech, but the tone in unmistakable. Serious problems have surfaced, the client grows frustrated, our productivity lags the competition, storm clouds loom and danger gathers. Our widgets too slowly move off the assembly line. He changes to English to say “And this is entirely Paul’s fault.”

Medicinal chemistry projects are difficult to measure. Many properties of a single compound must be optimized simultaneously, though it only takes one compound to make a program a success. But progress on properties comes in fits and starts, an art more than a science, difficult to measure, unsatisfyingly fuzzy metrics. What can be easily measured are more concrete, but perhaps less useful areas, such as number of reactions run, number of compounds completed. Production numbers. The chemist as factory worker.

In big pharma, producing one compound a week is an acceptable production number. Enough to evade scrutiny of effort. Free from questioning of work ethic, one could focus more on intelligent design. Design creatively, thoughtfully, methodically to achieve all the properties you seek in a single compound.

Now, in the CRO a different standard applies. Perhaps legacy from the not so distant past when targets were given and progress towards specific known objectives was tracked with anxious energy. Much focus still zeros in on production. “We are paying for chemists well outside of our direct control, across the globe, on whose work our career depends” goes the potential thought process of the anxious manager. Crank and crank harder! We are expected to crank and design, judged by both metrics simultaneously.

Our group has taken a one year old project from a major big pharma site, taken the lead compound and reduced MW by 40%, increased potency by 2x, reduced off target liability by 60x in less than six months with significant cost savings. Now that we have improved properties, hopefullly cranking is easy. Perhaps communication is harder.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Seeking Validation

I’m usually the first one in the office, so I’m alone when I boot up the computer. Scanning the inbox, an unusual name stands out from the dozens of unread emails. There is nothing particularly unusual about the name, a common spelling, and I know him as an affable intellectual and brilliant scientist, sitting high atop the org chart at the client company. But I should not be getting messages from him. I open it, quickly scan the contents…and I don’t believe it.

In my previous meiguo (american) job, there appeared little room for advancement. In a developmental conversation with my boss, he gave me honesty – one of his best characteristics. ‘Span of control’ emerged as the new re-organizational principle, no more scientific tract for career progression. Even a great scientist could not be promoted unless his managerial responsibilities increased commensurately, unless he had more people under his direction. In an era of decreasing head count, layoffs and mergers, reaching the next level would require doubling the size of my group…a dubious prospect at best.

At the same time, my peers possessed talent and I had access to the whole institutional knowledge of pre-eminent big pharma. I had good friends, a home I loved that I designed myself, a beautiful 20min walk for my commute and family in the area, a nice life. Was it the right decision the leave that good life behind?

My group size here exceeds greatly my former responsibilities and I’m running multiple projects. To reach this level in the US would have taken me another 10-15yrs…if ever! Quite a step up and much rides on our success. From a bottom line business perspective the new company depends upon continuous growth to meet revenue goals and please Wall Street, my client needs to prove their new business model works, and I need to prove to myself that I can handle the job and validate my difficult choice to come here. I crave personal redemption.

I re-read the email, slowly. “In less than 6mos, your group has made excellent progress and will expand by 40%; we will have over 35 chemists, congratulations on your work. We look forward to building more with you.” The projects are far from complete, there is much challenge ahead, but I will celebrate tonight.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mini Mao

The movers have come and taken everything, all the touchstones of pleasant memories, connections and past adventures that created a home, packed away. Homeless now in the US, I’m carrying what I can to continue building a new life in China, but I’m especially worried about a single item. In the taxi on the seat beside me, my pet of 16yrs meows forlornly. We arrive at the airport on a grey cool morning in October, unsure of exactly where we are going.

At this hour, few souls roam the cargo area. The large warehouse, yellow taped areas, industrial shelving and equipment all hint at bustle but lie quietly now. Its three hours before the early return flight to Shanghai, and I’m carrying precious cargo. Cargo that requires special check-in. The woman behind the counter looks at my forms and frowns. “There’s a mark on the form, she says.. The date appears to have been changed. There’s a good chance the form will not be accepted and your pet will be turned back at the connection in New York. Do you want to continue or would you like to take her home now?”

Bringing a pet to China is not easy. One pet moving company would charge $3000 and one airline had a policy of limiting pet travel to 12hrs at a time. Making the trip … Boston to LA to Tokyo to Shanghai very expensive and over 24hrs of travel time. Isn’t extra time in kennel and extra take offs and landings harder on the pet? Paperwork also needs to be done.: a health certificate done within 10 days of arrival, a rabies certificate done between 6mos and 30days prior to arrival. One week of quarantine, paid for by the owner, awaits the cat once landing. Both forms subsequently certified by the US government. Forms that now are being called into question.

The only option is to press forward.. I’m hopeful that the subsequent paper handlers will favor approval as the easier, less fuss filled, option for their job. They take the cat, put her on the shelf and I pay the $700 cargo fee. I pet her and exit to the terminal area. I wonder if she will survive the stress of flight, the stress of quarantine and the scrutiny of the customs officials

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Roof...The Roof...The Roof is on Fire

I flinch reflexively from the sharp pain, intense enough to momentarily black out perception of surroundings, a tidal wave which sweeps away all sensory inputs. I blink, as my mind slowly begins to catch up with my body’s reflexes, struggling back, inch by inch, to comprehension. Looking down at my arm I see tiny bits of ash falling and sticking to me, curious. It smells like burning. A chair scrapes harshly on the floor next to me, pushed back in haste, and a friend stands over me, patting my head with a towel. I’m on fire.

It’s a farewell dinner for my American friend. A bitter-sweet occasion with Japanese teppanyaki, dinner with a cooking show. Nine of us seated around the grill and I’m the little brother of the group. These are Chinese survivors, in country for 10-15yrs. They have thrived in the environment I am only beginning to swim in, all potential mentors and new friends.

We share several stories starting with “Isn’t is strange that in China…”, active construction areas on busy sidewalks, slippery when wet tiles in high passage public walkways, local traffic rules which rarely consider threats to life and limb of either passengers or pedestrians. A green walk sign is only a suggestion. We are drinking and laughing like the danger is outside the walls.

The food tastes good, fresh off grill. The bai jiu flows like beer and I am feeling smug with having enough experience to know to sip it. The overt conversation and social/cultural inferences are all comfortably familiar and it’s nice to stretch my atrophied English skills. Talking with them I see the path to surviving here. A path that they have trail blazed and I’m more confidant of being able to endure and even thrive here.

Time for dessert, and the cooking finale. The chef makes a log cabin on the grill with bananas and holds a squirt bottle of oil in one hand and a lighter in the other. He squirts copious amounts of oil into the fruity structure and lights it…to no avail. It does not ignite.

A sigh of disappointment echoes from the group. Undaunted, and undoubtably under pressure to perform, he shoots more fuel onto the grill. And strikes the lighter again. The huge column of fire launches out, not up, lunging straight for me, and engulfs my head. I can do nothing but quickly flinch.

Shock fills the table. I don’t know how to react. My eyebrows and eyelashes are singed, shorter now than before. I feel the heat on parts of my face, a slight burn like a mild sunburn. I expected to be changed by my Chinese experience, but not like this.

A few minutes later the xiao jie brings the bill. I refuse to pay.