Thursday, March 3, 2016

Homeless pharma chemist w/40+ patents in NYT today

The time had come for Gene to leave the ground-floor apartment, as he knew it would. The owner who let him stay there rent-free had been dead for more than a year, and the estate wanted it back. With the marshal at the door, Gene delivered his cats to a neighbor, then bundled blankets, pillows and some clothes. Parked right outside was his next home: a 1996 Ford Explorer. He moved into the back seat. That was Feb. 27, 2015. 
One year later, Gene still sleeps on a mildewing futon in that sport utility vehicle, parked on the same tree-lined street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He will turn 60 in May. An organic chemist who did postdoctoral research at Columbia University, Gene shares credit on more than 40 patents for work he did at a major pharmaceutical maker, a job he left 12 years ago. Gene is his middle name, and he asked not to be further identified. 
Although he has not physically moved, what has happened to him over the last year can be mapped as a journey, still in progress, from nameless menace to neighbor, a change both in his trajectory and in the esteem of those with whom he shares one small block of New York City....
His background, and how he lost his position:
A voracious reader as a child, he discovered chemistry in college, and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A grant from the National Institutes of Health paid for his postdoctoral work. At a large pharmaceutical company, he worked with a team on variations of an immunosuppressant, and compounds useful in treating diabetes. Records list him as a co-inventor on at least 44 “composition of matter” patents in the United States and Europe. 
Gene said he was married for three years in the late 1990s, and records show that he once owned a house in Princeton Junction, N.J. By 2004, he said, he was unhappy in his job and living on the East Side of Manhattan. When his mother, who was living in Arizona, had a stroke that year, he said, he took a three-month leave of absence, and never went back. Why not? Perhaps, he speculated, the trauma of 9/11 had affected him. And, he said, he had been unable to find a position close to his old rank. “They wanted someone cheap,” he said. “They weren’t going to pay $115,000 for a bench chemist.” 
He moved to Brooklyn and took a job with Barnes & Noble in Park Slope that paid about $10 an hour. He also managed to run up $40,000 in credit card debt. How? 
“Going out, eating,” he said. “Like I was still making $115,000.”
And the denouement of the story:
...He was let go by Barnes & Noble in late 2014, he said. While still covered under the company’s health insurance, he had gotten a new hip. His health problems continued: He developed severe arthritis in an ankle, and broke a toe. 
....Gene reported that his disability claim had been approved, and that he had been awarded about $2,500 a month. Though some people on Fifth Street are skeptical that he has righted himself, and a few friends worry that he has gotten too comfortable in the Explorer, he insisted that was not true. He plans to move to Wisconsin in the summer, he said, where he went to graduate school and where the money will go further. 
On a walk through the neighborhood, he passed the soup kitchen where he had often eaten. Was he going to stop for lunch? 
He shook his head. 
“I’m on the other side now,” he said.
If you read the whole article, it sounds to me like there are a number of factors contributing here.* That said, his difficulty in attempting to make the transition to caregiving for his mother and then his apparent inability in 2004 to find another position in chemistry that would make a sufficient amount of money and also make him happy is worth contemplating.

Best wishes to Gene, and to all of us.

*I really dislike amateur psychological diagnosis, but I suspect there is some untreated depression?


  1. And this is why you fully fund your 401(k) and also pile up some after-tax savings while you still have a job. No one can expect a lifetime career any more.

  2. Multiple issues (psych the most likely), no doubt, and but for good fortune any of us could easily be in the same situation.

    “They weren’t going to pay $115,000 for a bench chemist.”

    Desire is the root of sorrow.....or one could just blame the dern fureighners come here ta steel our jobs....

    1. Who love to play ice hockey....


      Though I'm hopefully (note, sarcasm...) that Ted Cruz can become the second Canadian President.....

    3. “They weren’t going to pay $115,000 for a bench chemist”... "when they could spend less on an H1-B" or "when they could ship the work overseas and manage everything remotely."

      Thanks for tossing out the ol' xenophobe stone, BTR! Guy must have had mental problems, thinking he was in a stable industry/society.

    4. I always think it ironic it when an immigrant mocks xenophobia.

  3. I don't think he made a single right choice in his adulthood. He worked for ~25 years and got nothing out of it. He certainly had some psychological issues, but he had no one to help him along the way suggesting that he probably didn't have any friends.

    1. Surely "a single right choice" is too narrow, no?

    2. How many patents do you have, Anon 6:01? Happy to hear you have a whole host of friends who have your back if you lose your home. How nice for you.

  4. Please where is that good soup kitchen he is talking about? I may need to move somewhere within a walking distance after the layoffs at our company last Friday....

    1. Hoping the best for you milkshake!

  5. While we are thinking about it, it is probably best to move close to a church that lets you take a weekly shower, too.

  6. Very sorry to hear of layoffs, Milkshake. Hope that you were not affected and that those that were will be okay.

  7. Good luck Milkshake.

  8. I can easily see how this happened, but perhaps it's less outlandish to someone who is currently unemployed. Gene probably lived a comfortable lifestyle while making $115k, then lost his job. Denial can be comforting, so he continued to spend at a level consistent with his former salary, either believing that the next job was right around the corner or not thinking about the possible consequences. He is overqualified for a technician job, and either was not taught how to market himself to do something different or completely fell through the cracks in the unemployment system. He is probably a loner, and not really great at networking. Money ran out, and he ended up living out of his car. Once the downward spiral reached that point, he was probably labelled as unemployable.

    Lessons for the newly laid off: don't delay in getting your LinkedIn/Resume/etc. sorted out.

    Be persistent and take some of the unemployment office workshops that you may have labelled as fluff before. (You may only learn one thing, but it could be something critical to your job search. I learned yesterday that I was filtering jobs based on salary on Indeed, and that information isn't necessarily accurate so I was probably eliminating some interesting opportunities. You will also meet others in the same situation to network with.)

    Volunteer if you can. It is inexpensive stress relief, a potential networking opportunity, and you are helping others.

  9. Chemjobber, thank you for this post! I've followed the link, read the story and the comments to it (at the time I read the article, ~400 comments were posted). What struck me is thinking along the lines of "it is all his fault". Frankly, I think folks who wrote that were not even mean; people were simply scared s...less. Like, "oh, he's got cancer because of his unhealthy lifestyle; this would never happen to me".
    Others (I really wonder who they are), although quite compassionate, sounded like Gene's story is something outlandish, and doesn't really happen in their world. Somebody suggested in deadly earnest that Gene could have easily obtained a teaching position at any of the local universities. And why did he not increase his chances of being hired by posting about chemistry on the Internet? I really would have liked to inhabit the world where I could just easily get a teaching position in case my pharma job folds... People really do not get the "overqualified" part, too; they somehow thought he rejected lower paying jobs (despite the fact that he ended up at Borders for $10/hour).
    I am the same age as Gene was when he quit his job. I think he was terribly burnt out. (Witnessing 9/11 and being with his mother in the last months of her life could not have helped). Assuming he went from college to grad school, Gene must have held Ph.D-level jobs for ~ 20 years. I had Ph.D. level industrial jobs for a comparable period of time. According to a financial professional, I have more savings than most people in my income bracket. If I lose my job tomorrow, my savings will last for ~3 -5 years. At that time I'll be past 50 and, well, likely not employable (with my Big Name U degree, excellent references from co-workers and bosses etc etc). Then I'll have to raid my 401K - which may last for another 4 years or so, with penalties and all. At that time, I'll be not yet 60, let alone 67, with SSI out of question. Then what? This system simply isn't designed for survival.
    People who made it through need to understand that they've got lucky. And those who are not comfortably retired yet should not assume smooth sailing. If I remember correctly, there was an "In the Pipeline" thread about an unemployed Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (a US winner) - please correct me if I'm wrong.

    1. You're thinking of Doug Prasher, whose work in GFP lead to the Tsien/Chalfie (sp?) Nobel. When the Prize was awarded, Dr. Prasher was driving a shuttle bus in Alabama.

    2. Both statements "this is his fault" and "this is the fault of the society" are true and false at the same time. Life and it's scientific version (sociology) are messy that way.

      "This is his fault" assumes that Gene was able to take action (like Internet posts) and that blogging actually resulted in an offer a sustainable job. Gene may not be able to create/sustain a blog. Or, his putative blog may be seen as an obstacle to employment. Have you seen blogs that look like a wadi and you are dead sure that out there must be the writer's desiccated corpse hanging on to the Enter key?

      "This is the fault of the society" assumes that the society (that would be us....) has the knowledge and tools to help. The society actually did what it knew best. Neighbors helped a lot, and Gene did get SSI. Beyond that there very little knowledge how to help people like Gene. Upsetting as it is, sociology and psychology don't have answers, mostly because there was very little research done in this area.

      Therapists informally talk about a group of clients commonly called "lost men". In a fraction of men above 45 the depression seems to be resistant to any therapy, medications, ECT, DBS, VNS... Nothing seems to work well or works only briefly. The depression seems to be a response to rather than the cause of their condition.

      Also, sociological research on adults with some autistic traits is in its infancy. No one knows how to advise, treat, or care for tens of thousands of teenagers graduating from high school special education. Even less is known about adults who may (or may not...) receive spectrum diagnosis later in life, a population of potentially 50-100 million worldwide.

      So, did Gene fail? Yes and no. He survived long enough to get noticed. Did the society failed Gene? Maybe or maybe not. Society helped and it feels like it wasn't enough. This may be one of those instances where life simply sucks because there are no good solutions. What is important for Gene now is that he has something going for him between the SSI and the move to Wisconsin.

    3. Chemjobber, thank you for the clarification about Dr. Prasher. I just Googled his story; it seems to go somewhat in hand with Gene's story, although the distance from a potential Nobel to driving a van for living strikes me as even more extreme that the distance from 41 patents to a $10/hr job.

      To SJ: When you say that society may or may not have tools to help, you concentrate specifically on people like Gene - presumably with issues related to depression etc. Take mental health out of equation. I know quite a number of highly qualified professionals who searched for jobs for years, and at best achieved temporary positions. Mental health was not an issue (or only became somewhat of an issue as a consequence of hitting the same brick wall for years).
      These are the people that the society has failed, in my opinion. What is a 55 year old or a 60 year old without a job to do? Notice that Gene did not get Social Security Income (he can't until he turns 65). He got Social Security Disability - for which you have to be in a pretty bad shape. Imagine a comparable situation, but without a debilitating handicap. What do you think would have happened to Gene, had he not been able to get SSDI? However much I value individual charity, it simply is not a solution. Every individual can hope to get lucky, and this hope is sometimes justified, but the entire system can't rely on luck alone.

    4. I do sympathize with these issues. Both the age/employment and SSI battles affect myself, my family, and many readers of this blog. I have different opinions about personal vs. society failures/shortcomings perhaps because I spent my life in two dramatically different countries. I can weigh the full employment and free market systems side-by-side.

      FYI, by "society" I mean the "hard society" - the nation with its laws and institutions. I equate the "soft society" - groups, networks, associations - with individuals.

      When I hear about 55/60 year olds or recovering patients not getting employment I see personal failure of hiring managers, HR heads, and CEOs. In so many cases this is a penny-wise pound-foolish mentality of doing what is safe in a short term. The myopic approach to management on big and small scale gave us the service economy, global quasi-competition and job losses, and the corrosion of workplace relationships. Individual emplyment beyond what the society can successfully regulate. The society can successfully provide much better safety net, but the results will always be secondary to return to productivity.

      Just like you, I see systemic individual charity as a problem, not a solution. Occasional charity is good, necessary, and must be welcome as it develops individual sensitivity to help with the point above. Systemic, state-sponsored charity has just the opposite effect and affords the individuals in control comfortable space to reject the efforts of the applicants in recovery.

      As to the systems, SSI/SSDI is not that hard to get. When you are in a bad shape (advanced cancer etc.) it is easy to get and SSA will start paying out at the moment the application is filed (before review/approval). In a situation where review is needed - like Gene's - SSDI application is no more complex than a CAPA system in a pharma company. The problem was, I think, that Gene was beyond a point where he lost the ability to deal with a system that complex.

      Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. It is just like with a bank loan, which you can get easily only when you don't need it. When Gene was at his top intellectual/social capacity he didn't need the SSDI. When he needed SSDI he wasn't able to file an effective application. What he needed was a big money sponsor to pay for a SSDI coach/adviser/lawyer. Excellent and effective help exists, but is very expensive.

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