Working at the peripheries of science

Its Friday, the first full week back at work for 2014 and I am already pondering, (well mulling really) why I still do what I do. And the constant media attention for youth and success just needles me, especially for those in science. Yes I said goodbye to 30 a longtime ago, 40 a few years ago! But honestly don’t dismiss us as over the hill just yet, I think I and many others still have something to contribute even though we might seem old and over the hill! So here goes my short essay in the hopes it will inspire someone else.

Since 1989 when I did my internship at a drug company in the UK (then it was called a Sandwich year), analyzing various lab animal and human excreta for the amount of various drugs excreted, I always wondered where it would lead me to in science. The short answer is after a HND, M.Sc, Ph.D and D.Sc (all pieces of paper) it lead to here. Well publications may not be the best descriptor but they are pretty useful way to track ones scientific path and growth (or stagnation). ‘Here’ is really some grey zone between forays into ADME/Tox,  neglected diseases (TB, Malaria etc), rare disease research and informatics. I think I really work at the peripheries of science and this is constantly reinforced when your “big ideas” have never made it into the top journals, yet you can still have impact. I am undeterred because I think there is something more important to learn from this journey and I will summarize below.

1. You can go from being a wet scientist to a computational scientist pretty much overnight now. Whereas I am sure colleagues felt I was crazy when I made the shift as a postdoc in 1996. Now all science is hooked on Big Data and how they can train people to mine it.

2. You do not have to work at a big pharmaceutical company or biotech or academia to do meaningful scientific research. I know I was told I was crazy to leave big pharma back in 2001, I was definitely crazy to leave small pharma in 2004. To work  from home – just nuts. But look at what has happened to the industry – decimated in a decade, a tragedy of epic proportions.

3. You can easily shift from working on different topics in a career. For example I shifted from ADME/Tox related modeling to modeling bioactivity, to working on a whole array of different computational algorithms and tools with different projects over the last decade. Now it is essential that scientists can multitask and cross boundaries.

4. You can work on TB projects in the morning then work on rare disease projects in the afternoon of the same day. You can be writing a grant for one company one day and a disease foundation the next. You can work on Chagas Disease then shift and work on TB (and all on a computer) and influence what collaborators in those fields do in academia. If one person could do this imagine what we could do if there were 100’s or 1000’s of scientists doing the same, do you think we could do things cheaper, faster and actually progress treatments to patients?

5. Who would have thought getting a smartphone could change how you do science and lead to more papers as well as bring you into a whole new scientific field. Thinking about and developing mobile apps for science with Alex Clark and Antony Williams has lead to apps like Green Solvents, TB Mobile and ODDT, and in many ways we have helped create a scientific field around mobile apps.  Who knows what scientific apps will come next but disruption is underway and that could be good for science education if a 3 year old can use and prefer apps like The Elements to game apps.

I think where this is leading is simple, and was just reiterated in discussions for recent interviews for scientific magazines. Who can predict what they will be working on in a year, a decade or even a whole career. I have noticed that change is important in science as I straddle so many areas and I bet many of those under 30 year old scientists will not be working on the same research in 5 years. Is there a danger of not going truly deep in a research topic, (maybe) is there a danger of not having credibility in a new area? Well from experience I can say I have been able to get NIH grants for ADME/Tox software, and neglected disease projects for Chagas Disease and TB in a pretty short time span.

I am ready for the next- challenge, technology, collaboration and idea, because it will take me somewhere else. Boy do I love being a peripheral scientist!


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