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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