Friday, March 9, 2012

Dry spells in the lab

After finishing Barry Werth's The Billion-Dollar Molecule for the second time in my life, this passage on a friendly-but-very-real rivalry between two of Vertex's earliest chemists during a tough time for one of them really rang emotionally true for me:
[Dave] Armistead and [Jeff] Saunders’ friendly competition set the tone for Vertex's chemistry program. Working across from each other at the bench and at adjoining hoods, they attacked neighboring sections of the molecule [FK-506].   
...As Vertex began making molecules, almost all its early successes belonged to Armistead, who quickly found a substitute for the sugarlike ring. Marveled Saunders: "It was probably a half hour in Aldrich: 'What's available' What can I buy? What will it do for me?"" Saunders, meanwhile, was becalmed. Nothing he did seemed to work. He was running as many reactions as Armistead but couldn't make the molecules he wanted. In almost a year of 12-hour days -- of coming in on weekend when only he, Thomson, Yamashita and Murcko were routinely in the labs, he submitted only 4 new compounds. None of them were successful. "It bothered me a lot," he recalled, "not only because of the image it was presenting, but I wasn’t producing... It was annoying, and it got to be frustrating and embarrassing. It threw me off the pace. After six or seven months, I got so caught up with it that I was ready to drop it, but Boger said, 'No, don't drop this. This is worth doing.'" 
Armistead also defended Saunders. They shared ideas, hung out together after work, drank, got into noisy arguments. In the lab, they razzed each other like mechanics at adjacent bays. But Armistead was no solace; he was cruising. In the company's formative days, he was establishing himself as one of its leaders... Saunders reacted painfully. "Dave's one of the best chemists I've known," he said. "Not the smartest. Not the best read. Not the easiest to get along with. But as far as being productive, there's no question. Unfortunately, I'm compared to him." 
To be stuck in this kind of rivalry, where both workers are both experienced, competitive and used to success in the lab must have been painful. That Saunders was friendly with Armistead (who are still with us and still in pharma) must have been even more bittersweet to Saunders. I think most of us in our research careers have been in a similar situation or have had a similar dry spell. They can really stink.

It speaks well of the young Saunders that he never resorted to any of the common outlets for lab frustration: rage, alcohol or both. (The book is revealing enough that it probably would have been reported.) While understanding coworkers and patient management can soothe the pain a little, in the end, we all know that only getting in the lab and working on the problem will pull us through our problems. 


  1. You know Saunders was far removed from academia because he didn't resort to sabotaging Armistead's reactions.

  2. As someone who's been in four different workplaces in 4 years, I can attest to the two-headed frustration dragon - on the one hand, you're behind the curve of starting out in a new environment, and on the other, you can't make things work like you did in the last job!

    Usually leads to headaches and late nights with literature. Eases a bit once you're a few months in.

  3. Nowadays if you make 4 compounds in one year, you've purchased your ticket to RIFville.