Friday, March 2, 2012

Work hard = play hard?

After an offline conversation with a friend, I ended up ordering a copy of "The Billion-Dollar Molecule". I read it when I was a young undergrad and I walked away from it basically realizing that X-ray crystallography sounded really hard and crystallographers seemed a little crazy... and that life at a biotech sounded fun and cool.

Reading it last night, I was struck by the description of John Thomson, one of the protein biochemists that was working close to 24 hours a day in the lab, isolating the protein crucial to the company's success, FKBP:
Thomson came to Vertex "in a very angry sort of situation" and "determined to make a new start." But after a smooth beginning, his troubles resumed. He met another woman, but she left him for Jeff Saunders, a Vertex chemist who had become Thomson's closest friend, in a reversal that many others at Vertex apparently knew about before Thomson did. Blaming himself for the breakup of his marriage and his stalled career and now feeling mocked and betrayed, Thomson began drinking heavily. On a night in early November, he got drunk, climbed on his motorcycle, and roared off from an east Cambridge bar on his way back to Vertex. He went most of a block on one wheel before skidding on a puddle and careening out of control. 
Thomson totaled the bike and tore up his hands, but his rage was undiminished. Three weeks later he went out drinking again with another chemist, John Duffy. This time Thomson drove his car. "I got s--tfaced," he recalls, "real rip-roaring drunk. I don't remember leaving. I don't remember the accident at all. I just smashed into another car head on. I went through the windscreen, smashed my face up, and totaled the car. I was looking through my eyelid."  
Thomson was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, then to the neighboring Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where doctors sewed up his eye and removed dozens of glass slivers from his face. "I remember waking up," he says, "and saying, 'I need to call someone at work and tell them I'm not coming.'" Two days later he was back at the bench, resuming his pursuit of FKBP and seeking redemption, as Faust had, in the one thing he hadn't destroyed -- his work. His right eye was swollen and bandaged behind his Ray-Bans, and his vision was blurred. For months afterward, through his ever-longer sieges in the lab, he continued to pick pieces of glass from the stigmata on his face. He avoided all but perfunctory contact with most others in the lab, keeping to himself. 
After reading that, one wonders how Dr. Thomson escaped issues with the law. (I assume he did not, and that wasn't covered by Barry Werth.) I'm happy to read that Dr. Thomson is still with us, and still with Vertex, it sounds like.

But we all know someone who is brilliant, who works really, really hard and "lives life on the edge." I wonder if there's something about science that drives us to these releases or people who become scientists are just drawn to really crazy challenges, like isolating milligrams of protein from 25 lbs of calf thymus.

Well, it's the weekend. Take an afternoon off, would you? Readers, how did you blow off steam in grad school? How do you do it now? 

9 comments:

  1. Dr. Thompson is maybe a brilliant scientist but he does not appreciate that the best way to keep them faithful is to keep them pregnant.

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  2. There is no such thing as "work hard, play hard". If you think there is, then you're not working hard enough. I'll know you're working hard for my company when you get home barely conscious and only able to turn on the TV and stare into vacuous-eyed for a few hours before dragging yourself into bed.

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  3. The University I went to had an indoor rifle range (22 only) on campus. Shootings things really felt good! In all seriousness the concentration, regulated breathing, and overall focus of being a good shot, being able to quickly adjust what you were doing wrong and seeing results almost immediately was very rewarding after a bad week in the lab. It is something I still enjoy doing!

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  4. Thomson sounds a lot like my grad school classmates - the only thing keeping us from DUI arrests was the college town parking ticket/towing racket that encouraged a lot of bus or bike riding. We used to get rip-roaring drunk all the time, and I recall coming to lab on weekday mornings with a hangover many times after going to the bar with my fellow chemists the night before. My desire to drink subsided quite a bit after I left grad school and the pressure was off.

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  5. I've read BDM a few times over the last decade, feeling inadequate each time...

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    1. Who do you compare yourself to? Of course, I found Saunders/Armistead the most relatable, but Yamashita's frustrations are so compelling.

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    2. Also, why do you feel inadequate compared to BDM? (said the shrink)

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    3. Being a modeler I could of course relate to Murcko the most. One thing that struck me was how closely he worked with the experimentalists, how well-versed he was with their science and how receptive they were to his ideas. I thought there was a lesson there both for young modelers as well for the work culture of a company.

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  6. I found, as things got higher and higher pressure, that lifting weights for about an hour, followed by a few episodes of something funny (The Office, Sealab 2021, MST3K) usually worked for me.

    If not, a long drive out into the middle of nowhere (it was easy to drive away from my grad school only ~30 minutes, and be somewhere with fields and trees, and no people...)

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