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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Douglas Prasher and Science Careers

One of the most perplexing thought experiments that I engage in here involves employment. You can't experience the joy and the power of science by working in a Cargo Cult. Real scientific thought involves that understanding illustrated in Feynmans CCS speech. You must appreciate Feynmans Wesson oil example. Wesson oil doesn't sink into food as advertised. But neither does any other brand of vegetable oil when applied to food above a certain temperature. A scientific mind will find such marketing tactics disdainful. The disdain towards this kind of dishonesty will lead you into a career in science. You discover that your personality is best suited for utter-bend-over-backwards honesty. Scientific progress will be your revenge on the higher paid marketing execs and the child molesting priests who wish to influence those around you. You have faith that you can succeed by harnessing that power and providing the world with new and better products or services. You've had an epiphany, that science is a way of thinking that leads to things that change our world.

Then comes earning a living in a world that has not had that science epiphany.

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.  - Niccolo Machiavelli

In my last post I discussed the career of Gertrude Ellion.

"I would just go ahead and make the compounds, and then the question was, well what do we do with these compounds?" How do we find out if they really do anything?"

She had to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. What did that involve? She first had to succeed at making the molecules. She had to provide evidence that she had succeeded. Then she had to find out if they did anything.

That brings me up to modern times and the career of Douglas Prasher. Douglas Prasher cloned GFP. It is a great tool for conducting research. Like Gertrude Ellion, he just went ahead and completed the first step. Gertrude made her compounds through chemistry. Douglas cloned his genes through molecular biology. When it came time to find out what could be done with it, Douglas Prasher had a difficult time. He had envisioned that the gene could be inserted into the end of the hemoglobin gene. When hemoglobin was being made by the cell it would have a green glow. GFP was a small protein that could possible by expressed without disrupting the normal function of the gene into which it was cloned. Unfortunately, he ran out of funding before he could express his GFP clone in the manner he had envisioned.

Since then many others have taken the baton and sprinted on. GFP was a huge success. D. Prasher ended up driving a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership in Huntsville Alabama for $8.50 an hour.  Two of the scientists, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, took the baton sprinted on to win the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It's not their fault however that the Nobel committee left D. Prasher out. They were working outside of the Cargo Cult. Dr. Prashers enemies were inside.
Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. 
- Niccolo Machiavelli
The enemies of innovation and lukewarm defenders are the many people one will meet along the way. Pursuing a career in science will not be a success if you only focus on the science. What we set out to accomplish is something new and in direct opposition to the goals of those who have done well under the old ways. Gertrude Ellion and Douglas Prasher both brought about new ways of conducting research. Only one however, succeeded in having a long career in science.  Both scientists had menial occupations mixed in with their science jobs. Gertrude was a secretary and a substitute teacher before taking an unpaid laboratory job. Dr. Prasher drove a shuttle bus. Gertrude is the success story. What did she do differently? It's hard to pinpoint. She lived in a different time and worked under different people. Did she have better Machiavellian skills? Perhaps she didn't need them. Perhaps there is a mixture of interpersonal skills and the need to apply them in your work environment. One thing is for sure, there is more to a successful career in science than simply being a good scientist.


Anonymous said...

A wise postdoc once told me that success in science is 50% science skills and 50% people skills.

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