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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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Team building, in media res

He is coming on Monday, the last group leader. With his arrival the whole team will be fully staffed and focus shift from assembly to production. His resume boasts drug discovery experience and excellent English ability. Both of which are scarce in China and doubly important for me. Of the almost thirty people on the team, I’m the only native English speaker (and only non-Chinese speaker for that matter) and the only one with drug discovery experience. Having another that can both foster communication and bring med chem. experience will be invaluable. It could halve my routine work load and allow more time for strategic planning…cool!

Despite not having drug discovery experience, the team impresses. Seven PhD’s, three with US academic experience, over ten MS all with Chinese industry experience and over 5 BS also all with Chinese industry experience. Then there are the ‘freshmen’. With have over 5 ‘freshmen’ in the group – fresh, untested graduates. The raw synthesis experience of the group compares well with most US groups. They have made difficult custom synthesis compounds, they have scaled up and they are good at efficiency/economical chemistry. None have ever looked at biological data. None have faced weekly assay deadlines or have tracked compounds through a screening funnel

So, we have talented chemists in need of a second source of med chem training. And its coming, and it speaks Chinese! Three days before he starts, I receive a reply to my email. He says he is not coming. I’m shocked. Not coming? He informs us three days before his start date? Would he have even told us if I had not emailed him?

In the US such behavior would be scandalous and cause harm to future employment opportunities. But we are not in the US, I contact HR and we begin hunting for another group leader.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Great Chinese Firewall

When routines break, confusion follows.

It's 5am and I'm wide awake. In the summer here, the sun rises at 430. I go to quickly check my email (5pm east coast time, can still catch people at work)...and I'm blocked. Stunned, and unsure what else to do I keep trying, to no avail. I cannot check email, I cannot communicate with friends stateside, I cannot post, I cannot find information. Who did this and why? Must be come anniversary of something that happened about 20yrs ago or so, not sure.

Hotmail will be blocked for 48hrs. Google, Gmail have been temporarily blocked as well. has been blocked since May15th…

Proxy time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just an Egg

It’s 730 in the morning on a Saturday. The sun has been up for two hours and I’ve been up for three, still slightly jet lagged. I’m standing in the Carrefour, with a cart containing Coke and a few expensive western items, but all I really want is an egg. But I will end up leaving without it.

The contrast between diverse places appears sharpest at the borders of experience. My first few days back in Boston made me realize breathing clean air, relaxing in uncrowded green spaces and easy completion of daily tasks does wonders for the soul. Likewise, returning to Shanghai and feeling the vibe, learning new ways to live here forces one to grow. It is almost too easy to perform daily tasks in your native language, where’s the challenge in that?

In the store, I’m on a mission and a scouting expedition. The mission relates to breakfast. I have boutique pancake mix and premium New England maple syrup at home. All I need is one egg. The scouting expedition for future reference. Looking at the mini-fridges, fans, cell phones, books, office supplies, linens, toilet paper, basketballs, electric bikes. My stomach growls as I wander up and down the aisles on the second floor looking at the strange packaging of the food products. I grab some expensive familiar western items, pasta, sauce, cookies, cheese, Coke. Then I look for eggs.

I walk past the produce section where there a tremendous crowd of old Chinese people gather. Strange to see a line to select produce. I walk past the live turtles and fish, and the meat cleavers chopping hunks of flesh to what appears to be the dairy refrigeration section. There is a queue of more old Chinese people here as well. They are waiting for eggs.

The line, just to pick up the eggs, is enormous. The line to pay even longer. There are no egg cartons. My stomach growls angrily, I forgo the egg queue and get in the pay queue. It takes 30min to get through the register. No pancakes today.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Back Home, (sort of...)

I’m sitting in the airport restaurant in Chicago, weary and hungry after a 14 hour flight, but excited to be back in Meiguo (America) – in Chinese literally “beautiful country”. The view of the city enchants when landing/departing…the great lakes, the neat grid suburbs, the gleaming high rises, the green space, the clean air. It is beautiful.

The waitress calls me ‘hun’ even though I’m likely older than her, and smiles broadly. I ask for water and it arrives brimming with ice. I open the menu and there are no pictures, all in English. I order, eat and smile to myself. I actually understand the conversations going on around me. This little 15min encounter convinces me that I will never be able to pass for anything else but a meiguoren (American).

I like when strangers are friendly to me and smile, I like lots and lots of ice. I like that the food looks nothing like the animal that was killed for my meal, there are no eyes, no heads no skin or fins or bones on my plate. The salad does not have thousand island dressing and the meal does not end with watermelon. The dessert is very very good. I’m probably gaining weight already.

Using a knife and fork feels so clunky now. Is it weird that I want to bring chopsticks with me? And why do I have to tip? I put down the green, colorless money in odd demoninations and head off for my connecting flight to my old home.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

It's Made Out of People

I’m on the phone with my boss, trying to remain calm. He is agitated. Speaking quickly and using intense directive managerial tones. He asks the impossible, with painful consequences for failure. I cannot return to meiguo (US) unless I have hired my team, 24 people, in the next five days. An ultimatum. I say “No problem, I’m on it.” – trying to match his action tone. Not a chance in hell can I hire 24 people in five days, it’s impossible, I think as I put the phone down.

But I’m forgetting we are in China. Things are different here. If there exists a single source, one causal reason from which other vast differences flow, it’s the people. Sheer quantity of people. The ‘parks’ here brim with crowds. The metro jammed with bodies. Competition boils fiercely. I used to wonder at my Chinese collogues in the US, sitting close together speaking loudly at lunch…maybe to recreate the feeling of the crowds at home? It’s hard to keep western style personal space here sometimes. But with so many people, vast resources can be mobilized quickly.

I go to HR, there are 300 (yes, three hundred!!) new chemists starting this summer, but tamen mei yong, They are useless to me. My project is special. Critical. A new paradigm so only experienced people will be hired. In the US, I would contact friends, read recommendation letters, get personal referrals. LORs are not done here. If the new hire does not work out, just pluck a new one from the vast sea of raw talent. Easy peasy.

I meet with other department leaders, they give me some experienced people. I have no way of knowing whether they are the wheat or the chaff. I hire some from the ready pool HR has on file. Things move quickly. 24 hours after being directed to begin hiring, I have 12 people.

I may get to go to a little girl’s birthday party after all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Snap Crackle Pop

It happened for the first time today and I’m shaken. Standing in the small American grocery store, I look at a familiar label of microwave popcorn, it costs $10. I snap. Instantly the thought flashes momentarily through my consciousness, undeniable and frightening. I think… "I want to go home, I’m not going to make it."

A tough week, with the newness loosing it’s edge a bit and the difficulties not receding as quickly as anticipated. All the challenges suddenly seemed much larger, and my capacity for dealing shrinking. Eating expensive middle quality western style food, and haphazard Chinese food affetcts my mood. Getting around, knowing where to buy things, basic communication on top of regular adjustments begins to wear on the soul. Am I going to learn enough of the language to be independent? Am I going to adjust enough to the new work culture?

I knew this was coming, a nice american expat descibed the highs and lows that new arrivals typically go through. The first flush of excitement at the unknown, the slow drain of constant incompentence at basic sustainence, and finally the equilibrium. I knew it was coming and it still felt achy.

The next day I figure out that the text message from China Mobile tells me that my pre-paid minutes are disappearing with alacrity. Weekend calls await and I will have to purchase time without the aid of the helpful company bilingual admin. I go to the convenience store and say something equivalent to “do you or don’t you have sell hand phone money?” After a few rounds of confused looks, I get the China mobile minute coupon and call in to activate. It worked. It worked!!! I did it! Another baby step closer to being independent. I txt the company admin on the weekend, a tinge of guilt for bothering her but feeling like a kid that just tied his own shoes, I have to share it with someone who really knows how helpless I have been. She responds immediately, graciously acknowledging my mini-feat. I needed that metaphorical pat on the back.

Maybe I will make it a little bit longer.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pictures - 70kuai shopping trip and the Apt


Rock Star for the Morning

I’m sitting in a comfortable high back leather chair. Two beautiful women stand to either side of me, attentive, and intervene on my behalf with the helpful man on the other side of the counter, I don’t even have to talk. They carry all my paperwork. The driver waits for us behind me. The room sparkles with newness, no lines, no impatient chatter, there is no airport style security to go through. My forms are stamped, my picture taken, my passport held temporarily. In five days I’ll have my Chinese business visa. I wish this encounter had lasted longer. It’s a pleasant, quick experience and I’m back at my desk in under 30min. This was much easier than getting a notary at the US Consulate.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Patent Protection

Many large guards in smart uniforms direct people….and me. They are well cut men and women with proficient, but accented business English. They speak as if they are used to dealing with foreigners. Their blazers sport official looking government seals upon the lapel. Some operate behind thick glass. I show my documents and am allowed into the security screening queue. I have an appointment, but that fails to save me from more bureaucracy, more standing in line as many people chatter impatiently in Chinese around me. I’m here on official business. I need an official seal of approval. I need a notary. I’m in the citizens section of the American Consulate. And at the end of the encounter, I will realize the danger I’m in.

A notary officially witnesses a signing of a document – like patents. Drug discovery centers on intellectual property and patents protect those ideas developed by pharma firms. Patent applications take time to generate and employees move. I’ve signed dozens of rights over to my former employers, common practice. Usually, however, I’ve had access to a notary with my current company. In China, the only US Notary stands behind thick glass walls, and layers of bilingual Chinese office workers at the US Consulate. I pay first, $30. The Chinese office workers efficiently fill out everything but the signature and seal. I wait.

The notary comes. He is young. A foreign service worker, and seems to be unfamiliar with patent applications. He looks at me and makes me swear an oath that the affirmation in the document is true. “I do” I say….odd, never have done that before. The notary should only witness the person signing, not the content.

I had visions of an American Citizens section of the consulate on par with First Class airport lounges. A Ritz-Carlton-like ambiance in which Americans working there bond and share stories with those of us ex-pats working around the city. I worry my expectations are the first symptom of an ex-pat syndrome. We can be spoiled here, and get used to spoiling quickly. I would never have expected first class treatment at a US government office in the US, but do expect that here. I expected special treatment just because I’m an American in China. I’m in danger of becoming a jerk.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free Money

*note this is a call for grants, not the usual blog fare*
The Chinese government is handing out fistfulls of cash for research to be done in China. If you have a small molecule hit, or target concept and are willing to trade free research (and I can help set that up) in China for a portion of the Chinese (only) rights, please drop me a note. The further along the concept is, the more likely to get funding. ie lead opt > hit id.
Items of particular interest are third world diseases like TB, malaria etc...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Training Day

The last time I stood in front of my co-workers, the first time they saw me, my suit coat dripped beer and I held a broken baby bottle in my hand (read here). Now, standing on the raised platform in front of 200 scientists, I’m about to speak. The first scientific impression my co-workers will have of me, and at this point I have no idea that what I say next will make them gasp in shock. A stunning, unexpected collective involuntary reflex from the audience that stops me cold. And that is from the first two words of my scheduled 90min presentation.

Training a medicinal chemist takes time. Lots of time. Some rules of thumb state it takes a new chemist 6mos to produce on a project and up to 5yrs before making strategic decisions that push projects forward. New people take time, And this company brims with new people, growing by 50% a year. Many, many new chemists need training in basic aspects of industrial chemistry and medicinal chemistry. Few boast work experience, and fewer have western business exposure. To address the lack of experience, mentoring…teaching…training…forms a large part of the work load for those of us with both work experience and western business exposure. As my first task at my new company, I put together a short technical training seminar. And it’s this training presentation that evokes “the reaction”.

I think about what the scientists in the audience experience. They must come to the presentation. Attendance required and tracked, a graded quiz following. Pressing, important matters await them in the lab and they will likely be anxious about getting back to the bench. They acquired English as a second language and boast varying degrees of proficiency.

I cut the presentation to 30 min, one main idea per slide…which I will say slowly, twice. I don’t use slang and I stick to high level concepts which can be applied to their own work. I shy away from boring bulleted lists. I am not didactic. I speak slowly and try not to rush, de rigueur when the excitement of the presentation takes hold. That is the plan as I listen to the introduction of me and my presentation. The introduction is in Chinese, with the last word in English. “Paul?”. I alight the platform and take a moment to arrange myself. I look up and scan the crowd, look over at the host and say…

Xie Xie. Thank-you.

*gasp* from the audience. Then stunned silence.

Wow. Did I say it correctly? Did I just utter a horrible curse? Did I not use the right tones? I look at the audience looking at me for a few seconds, then press on. Later, I realize they did not expect to hear any Chinese from the laowai, the foreigner. Low expectations will be good for my language acquisition goals.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stranger in a Less Strange Land

He stares at me, blatantly, even walking sidewise with his head turned. His gaze fixed on me, the oddity in the hotel breakfast room. I hold his gaze for a moment to try to unlock his fixation, to no avail. He comes closer, still staring at the laowai, the foreigner.

I’m used to standing out. When I catch my reflection in the metro window, even I’m shocked at how different I look. Being surrounded by Chinese people all day changes my residual self image and to see evidence that conflicts with my self image jars my psyche. No wonder little kids on the metro sometimes stare, or wave or say ‘helllloooo’. Light skin, tall frame, blue eyes, different style clothes …. I could not stand out more if I was wearing a clown suit.

If my appearance jars my own psyche, my look must be very intriguing to even the more urbanite dwellers in this megalopolis. The less urbanite communities…small towns within a hour or two drive from here, and I would evoke reactions not much different than a UFO. I must admit my ego finds that a little thrilling. How cool is it to be special just by showing up?

But not now. Now it’s not cool. Now being different bothers me, makes me uncomfortable beneath the weight of the rude stare of this stranger. He must be recently arrived into the big city from a surrounding town. He stops in front of me and says “Paul”?

I recognize him as soon as he speaks. A former co-worker from the other side of the planet! Amazing. Later in the day, I meet another former co-worker in the local Starbucks. The world is getting smaller, and this place is globalizing quickly. Lilly, GSK, Novartis, BI all have large sites within a block of each other here. Several ‘small’ Chinese companies are here (each hiring about up to 1000 scientists).

Now, I expect the unusual event of happening upon an old co-worker from the other side of the planet on the streets of Shanghai to continue with increased frequency.

And it makes me smile.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Health Check and Feet

I'm nervous. The form asks for samples. Scary names in English, and that's IF it's translated correctly. Blood. Urine. Sputnum? Stool?!?! *gulp* How are they going to collect that?!

At the government office, forms to stamp, lines to stand in and fees to pay. All the tedium of beauracracy combined with the discomfort and mild humiliation of the doctors office. And no breakfast before hand. My stomach growls angrily in protest. The little office brims with foreigners of all stripes. I had imagined a large group of mei guo ren, Americans, but in reality we make up the minority. I try to chat up the workers there, who must be bored dealing with confused lao wai all the time, they are uninterested, but pleasant. Chinese DMV? They take x-ray, a sonogram (no response at all when I asked the technician if I was having a boy or a girl), a weak eye test, and blood (and no other fluids) sample later and it's time to take the hour drive back to work.

Now I'm starving. Dinner arrives and here is what I see. No one ever tells you that the nails are still on the chicken feet, strange that's what kept me from eating the rest of it. Tonight, dinner will be a treat. Five. Five Dollar. Five Dollar Foot Lohong...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In Country - First Mission

The fog blocks all view from the window. Droplets streak past on the glass and the engines cycle down in preparation for landing. A slight bump marks the moment I'm back in country. I grab a cart and pick up my 100lbs of luggage, the driver waits for me with a sign, my name in English. Back to the same simple hotel, not enough room to unpack my things, so I continue to live out of my suitcase for a little bit longer.

There are projects waiting for my input, but first mission: find a place to live. The company labs stand in a very distant spot from the city center, so a choice must be made between convenience of a short commute to work, or a short distance to the fun of the city. People tell me that living close to the city costs too much, but compared with Boston or NY rents they are cheap. A 100sq m (~1000 sq ft) 2bd/2ba apt on the 23rd floor with river and city views, including fitness center, indoor outdoor pool, 5min from the metro will run about $1500/mo. International satelite TV and WiFi available, but extra. Living out of a suitcase drains the soul, makes thinking of higher order endeavors (PK, SAR, synthesis) difficult, hoping to have a home here shortly.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Change Time

I'm standing at the curb, 100lbs of luggage digging into my shoulder, all my worldly possessions. The bussle of the airport swirls around me as I wait for the shuttle to the hotel. The van stops with a screech of rusty brakes and the driver begins in broken english, then mandarin. It's dark and the lights of the unfamiliar city fill the windows as we drive. We arrive at the hotel and I am listening to the cleaning staff speak, trying to pick up their mandarin conversation. My pigeon-mandarin is even rustier than the brakes after 6 weeks of inactivity. I drop my bags with relief. I'm in San Francisco.

The eucalyptus trees, the water and mountains, dry air, sunshine and happy people - the west coast is truly wonderful. Not much free time to enjoy it, though. The meetings here brim with venture capital frims (VC), the gate-keepers of financing new ideas. They look into their financing crystal ball and see two years of darkness before the light begins to show. Even worse, most predict little to no hiring of new chemists once the recovery begins.

Take those predictions with a hearty grain of salt, though. Bright spots still shine, good ideas find funding and people that add value to an organization will find a place. Spring is coming, the days are getting longer and the time has changed (spring foward to DST in the US).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

China Castaway

Piles of clothes appear to be growing from the floor in clusters...shirts, pants, unmentionables. Several old suitcases are opened and placed sporadically around the room. It's a race to see if I can get the clothes into the suitcase before the cat pees in it. It's a race I end up winning for a change.

The planned one week in the US has stretched to six weeks. Now, only dozens of hours left before leaving home, and the ‘to do’ list remains long. Laundry, packing, shopping, errands…saying goodbye. So many action items - loose ends to tie up...but, I’m thinking of a tropical island prison.

Being back in the US long enough to re-establish a routine, comfort and familiarity makes returning to China as foreign as leaving the first time. Leaving a home here, and no home there to land in. Stressful. TV provides a temporary escape from stress of moving preparation. With much to do, I lose myself in sitcoms and movies, crossing off ‘to do’ items during commercials. I’m moved more than usual by Castaway.

If you are unfamiliar with this 2000 film, here’s the part I focus on…trapped on the island for four years, until by pure chance, the tide brings him flotsam usable as a ‘sail’. The marooned FedEx hero makes a desperate move to escape his tropical imprisonment. Fashioning a make-shift raft equipped with the newly encountered sail, he shoves off. At a critical juncture, he passes perilously breaking waves, thanks to the new found sail, and heads out to sea. Looking back as his island disappears, he is momentarily nostalgic.

Remarkable. This island was his prison, and yet he looks back on it, at least for the moment, fondly, as he heads into the unknown. Here is an example of the powerful pull of the familiar…that an island prison, remains in some ways, more appealing than setting off into uncertainty.

It’s a touching moment, and I can’t help but think of looking back at my home for the last four years as it begins to fade into the distance. I look back with more than a moments nostalgia…much more. If an island prison evokes a mere moment of sentimentality, how many more such moments will a home full of happy memories provide? Indeed, how are all those moments to be dealt with? I’m moving forward with some trepidation, remembering to breath, because tomorrow the sun will rise…and who knows what the tides in China will bring.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Virtual-ly Working

The sun hovers just above the horizon, the light and heat still coming, but fading. I relax on the second floor patio, sipping cheap beer, watching a hawk circle the golf course. Visiting family in temperate, southern suburbia. Savoring the real world, but contemplating a virtual one. A Pharma one.

The Big East coast BD stands freshly completed, still being digested, but the West coast road show will fire up soon. I'm joining...last minute.Flights to arrange, meetings to schedule, more time in the US and more time at 'old' home on the east coast, waiting. I'm ambivalent about the change in schedule. I feel the pull of the future in China, a restless horse in the starting gate, but nostalgic at the opportunity to visit 'older' home on the West coast, and see familiar faces there, and smell flowers in February. Taking advantage of the unexpected time in the US, I surprise family and pop in for the weekend to escape the bitter cold. Its 65F (18C) here.

The warmer temperature relaxes the body and allows the mind to ponder. Pondering about the snapshot of the industry I've been afforded in the past weeks. Tectonic scale forces are acting upon us. The view of so many companies response to these pressures remains in my mind. Some big pharmas streamline their bureaucracy, to become lean, yet large powerful discovery engines, others try to disperse themselves into small entrepreneurial bits. Almost all have begun some outsourcing in search of efficiency, chemistry at first. Screening, DMPK and Tox more frequently, and on the extreme...outsource everything. True virtual pharma. Seriously, a one person company, it's here. (One Man, One Company OMOCs?)

First impressions on one person companies, it's enabling. Perhaps wonderfully enabling. One person, one idea...lower cost to push it forward. More targets get investigated due to lower cost and benefits to all. Also, the CRO’s will become specialized…not just doing one kind of medchem, but industry wide medchem experts. Specialization. The downside could be the lack of brain storming, of many talented minds (with a vested interest) and perspectives around a table, debating, arguing, building new strategies on the structures of each other, synergizing. The experienced talent in the CRO's could mitigate this somewhat. Issues both detracting and enhancing are yet to be uncovered. I wonder if in ten years we’ll be kicking ourselves for not starting OMOCs sooner.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Big BD and the Universal Fire Code

It’s been a long week of Business Development meetings, four or five companies a day, five to ten people per company, for the past week. Stacks of business cards, handshakes and smiles. A great chance to see old acquaintances; meet smart and dynamic people championing new ideas, and a fascinating snapshot of the state of pharma. My role in the meetings is minimal, lots of time to observe and ponder. I keep thinking of the Universal Fire Code.

Back in the day, the weekend began after Saturday morning lab time with a Whole Foods sandwich in front of the Discovery Channel. One program that affected me deeply surprised me. It was about fire, a history of fire disasters…infamous, tragic, titillating, perfect to begin the weekend. A man appeared talking about the Universal Fire Code. A huge tome of building regulations, very boring and dry, facts and no heart, but something in his speech grabbed my attention. He talked with conviction and passion. I stopped eating. This book is holy, he explained, perhaps more holy than anything ever written in human history. Every line in this compendium has come at the cost of human suffering and death. Pages and pages of knowledge learned dearly.

This holy book is what I’m thinking of as we meet leaders of our industry. I see the people we are meeting with as authors of a new holy knowledge. Maybe the universal pharma code. They work hard, with dedication, on an important endeavor. To understand the rules and solutions of suffering caused by disease, and write the code for all of us.

Our industry suffers greatly now, it’s visible tangibly in the fading lobbies of big pharma, and in the faces of those facing layoffs. Fewer people will be working on our universal pharma code in the coming years. I worry. But I’m hopeful. I’ve just met over 50 talented people who are convinced they can add something to the code. After this week, I believe them. I'm happy to be associated with them, I hope I can help.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's Business Time

I am one of them now. One of those rep-like people who, knock on your office door and interrupt your work day. Vendors?! Most of the time, if I needed it, I’d already had it. Just Google it. Now I’m standing on the outside of the door. I knock.

The ‘big meetings’ scheduled by higher-ups come later this month, so no sense going back and forth around the globe, but what to do here and now? I’m in the US, when I want to be in China doing medchem. Here is my past, there is my future…and very anxious to continue there. But not yet. It’s business time. ‘BD’…business development, mysterious and new for scientists, but integral for a small company. Talk to current clients, make sure they are happy. Talk with new contacts, turn them into current clients. “What’s a client?!” asks the scientist. I’m not slick. I’m not persuasive. I’m probably borderline asocial. But having big pharma experience and native English ability, I can talk client language on two levels…eventually. Find out what they are doing and how to help them do it. That’s admirable, something to hang on to in this strange territory that feels as different as China.

I try to set things up online as much as possible. Linkedin is excellent. It’s fascinating to reconnect with past co-workers, and this part rocks. I remember faces, stories as I invite more and more former co-workers/friends. So strangely satisfying to see the connections count rise. Why didn’t I do this before? Soon, though, it’s time to venture into the brick and mortar world.

I’m at a new site. Everything is new and high end, furniture, décor, plasma monitors, new people. An old friend. He introduces me to a major mind there. The kind initiating multiple start-ups. He stands tall, with a pleasant demeanor and warm handshake, sharp quick eyes. We chat a bit, but I’m nervous. I’m not in the conversation. I’m too busy thinking. I should say something BD-like. I forget the names of people we probably both know. Awkward silence and it’s done. Business hours are over. I forget to give him a card. The next meetings are more fruitful. Since I’m not salesman, better to be myself, just a chemist. Meet intelligent interesting people working on cool projects and see what I can do back in China to help them make those projects successful. BD the science way.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Don't Go There

The sun shines brightly and feels warm, a nice respite from the cold damp air. I close my eyes to feel the warmth when I hear a voice. “Do you speak English?” asks one of two girls smiling at me. Why yes, I do. We chat for 10min. They are charming and I get up to walk with them. They are about to rob me.

I’m sitting in People’s Square, a vast expanse of people watching, a huge metro station with 10 (or more?) exits. I’m waiting for a friend to show me around, be my guide to some local attractions. There is shopping everywhere. Just an incredible amount of stores and merchandise, one cannot exit a metro station without walking through a mall. My friend is late, but I’m enjoying the spectacle. It’s Sunday afternoon, I’m done apartment hunting for the day, time to finally relax a little and explore my new city. It’s nice to just sit and be.

Living in a big city, one gets used to constant barage of selling. But nothing like this. I guess I’m a target, a foreigner, a lone foreigner. Shopping trip? Watches? DVDs? Bags? Hawkers abound. In a brief walk around People’s Square, I became an expert at saying ‘No’. I find a place where there seems to be fewer of them…but much sun. And sit down to enjoy the light and heat on a crisp winter day, watching people go about their lives. My eyes are closed, but I can sense someone approaching. I prepare my ‘No.’ but open my eyes and am pleasantly surprised.

Two cute, smiling faces asking me to speak with them. They are not selling. They are English students and would like to practice English, would I mind to speak with them for a few minutes? I would not mind at all. Speaking English here is one of the few things that I can do well. Makes me feel momentarily competent. And they are friendly, charming. But they have to leave, could I walk with them for a little bit longer? Why yes, of course I would like that.

They are college seniors, they walk fast. They are full of energy and its wonderful to think this city is full of such people. It’s sunny. Happy. We walk through another mall. All smiles, harmless flirting. We are in shadow now. We come to a stop in front of a Tea House and there are three people waiting for us, expectantly. Something is wrong. I don’t want to go in. I say I have to leave and they look lost, not sure what to do. I hurriedly walk away before they can charm me. I have escaped. Undamaged, but changed.

Other expats were not so lucky. Going into the tea house is nothing sinister, it’s as banal as a simple swindle. $200-$300 for a pot of cheap tea. Don’t go there.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Holiday and Food

It’s down time now, the middle of the CNY holiday and people are off to far flung destinations…Malaysia for the beaches and sun, Thailand for the fun, back to the US or within China to see family…and eat.

Not much is happening so I, too, am thinking about food. It’s strange to have to prepare my own food again. With the Chinese company, breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided to the employees. Of course the food is Chinese, and it is served industrial style in a large cafeteria, and if you go at the wrong time, the lines are long. The cafeteria serves about 3000 meals per day, it’s an amazing operation.

Breakfast is usually some form of pasty or Chinese dough (my fav has the red bean paste inside but often it’s just dough) with some really yummy little pickled peppers and warm rice soup thing. Its small and I have taken to having a small breakfast before company breakfast. I usually can find a group of English speaking seniors there to eat with in the left corner. That is at 8:15.

Lunch is like a collection of tapas plates, but to me this is the hardest meal. I have no idea what the little plates are, and I’m a little wary of the meat dishes so I often just get the vegetables and rice. A little company shop sells fruit, hot/cold/special drinks. The lady behind the counter there knows me, Ko-Le – a coke is liquid familiarity for me, but I miss ice. She gets it for me now before I even ask. Lunch is at 12:15…same area for the seniors.

Dinner gets delivered to my office. Here’s a typical meal in the picture. Usually it’s rice, some sort of clear noodle, cabbage and sometimes another vegetable with a meat dish. My fav has been the chicken thighs, my least fav was the fish head. Dessert is usually an orange or tangerine. Dinner comes at 4:45.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buttering the Salad

There are only two of us, in the very back of the plane. She is Chinese. It’s dinner time, and she is concentrating on the little square dish holding the salad. She looks puzzled. After several moments, she picks up the pad of butter and begins buttering the salad.

It’s time to come back to the US and finish packing. Real work has barely started and already I’m coming back to (not quite) home. I wish I wasn’t leaving now. There are meetings for me to attend in the US, client meetings. That’s something new, I’ve never had clients before. The flight is very very long, flying over the arctic. The snow capped mountains and valleys are breathtaking on a clear day. Fourteen hours is a lot of time to fill. I have books, food and my computer and naps to keep me occupied. Those things you can control. You cannot control who your neighbor will be for the duration.

I’m so far back in the plane that the tail section narrows to allow only two seats on the side. My neighbor comes on the plane late in the boarding process. She has a carry-on and cannot reach the overhead compartment. I help her put the bag away and she says ‘thank-you’. She says it the way I speak chinese… tentatively, quietly, full of uncertainty. I ask her in my limited mandarin if she speaks English? Ni hui bu hui shuo yingwen? Bu hui. She does not, that is our entire conversation for the next 14hrs.

I would guess she has not flown before. She clutches her large purse on her lap as if unsure what to do with it, holding it for security. They come early with in the flight with the customs declaration cards and she hurriedly fills it out and tries to give it back to the flight attendant. She does not watch the movie or read. The drink cart comes, she points. The dinner comes and she looks at the salad.

I empathize with her situation completely. I see myself in her. To be in totally unfamiliar surroundings and not know the expected behavior/response/action. I say ‘excuse me’ in mandarin. I pick up the little container of salad dressing on my tray and pantomine applying it my salad. “Oh!” is the look on her face. I’m sure I am buttering the salad everyday in China.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chinese New Year - The Banquet

The stage is two feet high and the lights are hot. I’m in my casual brown suit, soaking wet with beer and holding an empty baby bottle. This is the first impression 1,200 of my co-workers have of me.

The company is hosting it’s annual banquet for Chinese New Year. The whole company eats, and drinks, and drinks, and drinks and puts on shows for four hours. There is nothing like this in the US. Employees here expect it. The Senior managers all must participate in some sort of skit. Some put on costumes that look like bastardized Saturday morning cartoon characters, some dance. There are two acts involving simply stunning women. Employees. Volunteers. One set does dance routines with bare midriffs and spandex and one show-casing traditional Chinese attire. They are huge hits with the crowd. My business spider-sense tingles…this is lawsuit territory in the US.

There are so many empty 755ml bottles on all the 135 tables. So many empty cases of beer as not to be believed. It’s hard to drop the business wariness and I’m a little on edge. Everyone is having a very good time. It’s easy to see the bonding happening. It’s an ocean of people. No spouses are present. There is so much special food, so unusual to my eyes...chicken feet, fish head, chicken presented with the head on the plate, cooked shrimp with head still attacheded. Someone explains that the moving parts are best.

I’m only able to understand bits of what the MC’s are saying, they are also employees. First skit is due up and it seems they are calling for volunteers. One of the seniors starts shouting my name. Um…What? Four hours before I was told I would have to make a short speech. I practiced two lines of Chinese for three hours. One hour before I was told the speech is off. My name is now being yelled from other tables, momentum builds and I am trapped, but also flattered. I start up to the stage and several others trickle out of the sea of people and line up under the hot lights. We are being video taped. Another senior takes pity, I think, and comes to stand next to me. I don’t understand what the MC’s are saying, but a tray comes up with baby bottles full of beer. Ah…crystal clear now. It’s a race to see who can finish the beer through the nipple first.

I have a few seconds to craft a strategy…venting will be important I think. San, Er, Yi…3, 2, 1…and I’m sucking to win! I realize I can squeeze the bottle for faster flow rate. I squeeze harder and the top bursts, soaking me. But it’s too late, I’m already out of the running.

Later, still sticky with beer, I float from table to table. From recognized face, to recognized face and the other seniors introduce me to their teams. The teams are happy, young and eager. My team will be like them. I hope I can reach them, train them, help them develop and be successful. Lead.

I say in spotty, recently learned mandarin "Wo yingwen shuo de hen hao, ke shi wo putonghua shuo de bu hao. Xin nian kuai le" ... I speak english very well, but I speak mandarin very badly. Happy New Year! I raise a very small glass and shout "kan pei!" We all drink together.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

‘Twas the weekend before new years…

…and I’m being as quiet as a mouse. Standing in the corner of a simply gorgeous apartment in a medium rise luxury building. You can tell this is a luxury building by the lack of three floors. No fourth floor (four sounds similar to ‘death’ in Chinese) and no fourteenth floor for the local well-to-do. And no thirteenth floor for the rich and superstitious expat community. I hold a piece of pizza in one hand and a coke in the other, comfort food. Boisterous conversation fills the high ceilings and resonates off tasteful décor. The pizza tastes good, I miss cheese. Surveying the scene, mentally trying to remember names and positions. I’m terrible with names. I’m terrible with names when they are one syllable in English. Did his name end in –eng or –ang or –en or -un? Was he PK or Biology or scale up or analyitcal? Was he the one who suggested the apartment broker or the one talking about the watertowns?

I’ve joined the company at a time that would be equilvalent to two weeks before Christmas in the states. Performance reviews have been written. Financial data is done and cannot be changed now. People are beginning to think of traveling…many back to families in the US. Feeling proud of the growth from the past year, a little sentimental and cautiously optimistic – even in this climate – of the coming year. Lots of parties and team building/bonding. The alcohol is flowing. No one is starting new projects now. I miss doing medchem. Talking medchem I feel comfortable, familiar, with the assurance of some experience. I know what I’m doing and if I don’t know, I know how to find out. Medchem will start later, after the holiday. Parties are different, parties are now.

Everyone is relaxed, having a good time. Speaking mandarin. Except for me. I’m eating Pizza Hut in the corner. I’m hesitating, being a little asocial. For me to approach any of the conversation groups, they will have to switch to their second language to include me. I feel bad. This is their time to relax not have to speak English for the new guy. Here is the big challenge in microcosm. I’m going to have to push to be included. No one is keeping me out. No one is being impolite. It’s purely my own issue and it’s critical to conquer if I’m going to be of use here.

I finish the pizza, the crust has a little cone shaped well that includes a shrimp. Must be the nod to local tastes. I see a group with names I remember, find a space in the circle and am greeted with warm smiles and English.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

End of First Week

Starting at a new position poses challenges. The familiar systems and processes that used to serve so well now are useless. Previously simple tasks become an exercise in zen emotional control. How do you order a paper? Who do you call for computer help? How do I get reagents? Where can I find a pen? Where’s the ISIS base raf? These are typical problems in any new work place. Add to this the layer of social unfamiliarity and language barriers and these small issues can grow.

Having moved a few times, usually the quickest way through these issues is a human solution. If you know the people, you know who can help you. That’s my strategy here. There are a lot of smart, helpful people here, and all the management team speaks English. They’ve assigned me a very helpful and sharp admin who speaks basic English to take me to the bank, help find and apartment, etc…

I’ve spent the last week meeting people almost non-stop. These hour long meetings are taking on a tone much different than the meet and greets typical stateside. At least so far, my co-workers here seem much friendlier, more helpful, eager to connect. Guanxi, guanxi, guanxi. Building a relationship for trusted business contacts is vital, maybe more so here because circumstances are so fluid the only constant are people you can trust. Almost everyone I’ve met has given me their personal cell phone number. I’m not sure how much special attention I’m getting as a laowai, maybe they are scared for me, maybe they are remembering how difficult their return to China was, and they are Chinese. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the de rigueur of a smaller company.

The day after my first working dinner I’m invited for my welcome dinner. Still groggy from jet lag, the big easy chair with padded sides at the restaurant proves inviting. I skipped the bronchial tubes and stick to the thinly sliced beef and vegetables. Dinner was cordial, friendly, with only a touch of alcohol to facilitate social interactions. The steam from the hot pot felt good. They spoke English for me, it was nice.

After dinner, two departed back while I went with two other of my co-workers to the store. They are acting like my aunts. Insisting on me buying warmer clothing. We go to the Chinese equivalent of Target and the purchase is easy, no mandarin required. As we are heading out, Auntie Two says “That’s where I get my hair done, would you like a hair wash?”. It’s 930 on Friday night. No. Thinking she means sometime in the distant future, I assume it’s safe to say Yes. To my dismay, she leads us into the salon. Uh..what? All I really want to do is be warm and fall asleep. The hair wash lasts 45min. The woman speaks passable English and is good with customers. The hair wash includes a scalp and shoulder massage. I fall asleep multiple times. I feel so relaxed. Total cost= $10. Score one for China.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Contact

Today I'm sitting on the other side of the table, on the other side of the world. It's 12 time zones away from what used to be home. Four hours ago I was walking off the plane into stark newness. Now, I'm eating dinner with representatives of my former employer. I feel like one of them. I know how they are thinking. Large amounts of well prepared, but odd-looking food circles in front of us on a giant lazy Susan. They, like me, are jet lagged and have weak stomachs for the food so joyfully being described by our hosts. "Oh, this jellyfish is a specialty. Look, the head is still on the duck, fresh! That's hairy crab. Be careful of all the little bones near the fish head".

They suffer quietly with a polite business like demeanor, but I know they, like me, and not nearly as excited as my new compatriots. I'm trying not to think of this as a foreshadowing of the future. East meets West with best of intentions, but someone still goes to bed a little hungry. The beer is good. Still feels like I should be on THAT side of the round table. Surreal. I'm sure I'll wake up at any moment from this dream of the unfamiliar and return to cozy well known surroundings.

I've engaged in self-inflicted outsourcing. Several factors have pushed me here. Adventure, career opportunities, financial gain, networking. This may be the first time during my career that taking a position outside the US is a decent career move. A first for me, living away. Outsourcing is big business for research, something like US$10billion plus in the next year, and likely growing. It seems like any expansion in the drug discovery world will disproportionately happen here, in my new city, and now I'll experience the growing pains up close and personal.

This company is still private, full of start-up-going-public-wind-fall hopes. Hard not to think about that, but no way to predict the vagaries of the market, or management. And working at a CRO, I'll have a privileged industry wide a luxury box at the big pharma arena. Getting to shake hands without regard to company letterhead does have an appeal. I've given up my low-probability of being laid off big pharma job, comfortable if staid lifestyle for the above.

But I'm not concerned about that trade-off. I've made career decisions which have resulted in both great and terrible financial outcomes, no sense fretting about that. I'm more afraid that the benefits will not come, that what I've ventured and lost, at the expense of striving, is the loss of comfort and security, of time missed with close friends and family that cannot ever be replaced.