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Sunday, February 26, 2017

One of My Heroes

Gary Taubes has a new book out. I love what he does. Here is an early piece he wrote on one of my old bosses.

Prusiner's proposition has been controversial from the get-go. The researcher who did Prusiner's lab work at the University of California at San Francisco quit over the publication of Prusiner's very first prion paper in 1982, arguing that Prusiner was overinterpreting the available data to push the prion hypothesis.

After three years in Prusiners lab I came to same conclusions as Gary and the above researcher. Prusiner and his minions were hammering a square peg through the round hole of the prion narrative. Only information supporting their narrative was offered up to the public. It was during my time at this laboratory I first read Feynmans Cargo Cult Science speech and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Quick story: To grow cells that express proteins, we sometimes use spinner flasks. The flasks hold media with growing cells. In the flask is a magnetic rod. The flasks sit on a spinner plate that spins the rod thus stirring the growing cell culture. One day the plate stopped spinning. I took it to the repair shop and had it fixed. When I brought it back the ladies using the plate complained that their cells were no longer growing as well. I suggested they adjust the speed at which the cells were spinning. My supervisor informed me that the plate was perfect before I put my hands on it. "Take it back and get it fixed right!" When I explained that the speed is adjustable and that it is up to us to set the proper speed, she doubled down. "Take it back!" I unplugged the plate and walked on down the hall with it. Down in the basement repair shop I told the guy what I was up against. He volunteered to explain the mechanics to the boss lady. I said no. I was defeated by then. I brought it back up, set the speed to where I knew it would work. I let her think we had fixed the problem in the repair shop. She has since been promoted to laboratory manager at Dr. Prusiners Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases. 

Gary Taubes pointed out in his opening remarks at the Seattle Town Hall (see video below), he was obsessed at how hard it is to do science right. How do we do it right? How do we know if the science we have been given is right? Experimentation? Reproducible results? Is that how professional scientists operate? That has not been my experience.

Gary Taubes went on to the most important work of his life, correcting the bad science behind nutrition. We have been handed a load of crap from nutrition science in the western world. Our diet is the leading cause of our poor health. Our health care professionals and their prescriptions are not the solution.

People believe what they want to believe however. What sets Gary Taubes apart is that he has let his research guide him to his beliefs. You can disagree with his message but not his method. The research leads, the scientist follows.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I Bought Amgen

I bought Amgen just before they won their lawsuit against Regeneron/Sanofi. I didn't know about the pending PCSK9 lawsuit though. I was betting on a comeback. They were down 10% from last year and they are winning the CGRP race (migraine headache medicine). That could be a big thing. So far it looks like I got lucky. I got in around 147 and today AMGN is around 167.

I had three close calls with working for Amgen. I had interviews and phone conversations. I was flown to Thousand Oaks. I interviewed in Seattle for what turned out to be an RNAi group. That was humorous because they didn't tell me that upfront. I went on a rant about how I wouldn't work with RNAi. I could see in their eyes that they were planning on using RNAi to achieve their goals. Long story short, I did not succeed at securing employment at Amgen. Had I done so there would be little chance I would still be there today. It would have been a bad investment of ones career. Amgen has more ex-employees than most biotech.

The way I see the world of work these days is in terms of value investment.  I would not want to work at Amgen nor any biotechnology company because they do not provide career value. The main reason is because they are in the biotechnology industry. I can go to my LinkedIn account and search through the ruined careers of many a smart charismatic scientist with fancy degrees, publications and patents. Where are they today? I don't know because when you lose your biotech career it is not wise to put your new job at Starbucks on your LinkedIn account. The value of those degrees, patents, publications, years building new skills, and associations with big players like Amgen, can all add up to a job at Starbucks.

Back to my stock portfolio.

My next pick was going to be General Electric. I want a solid dividend payer. In my research however I came across the fact that they are planning to add more women for the sake of diversity.

Today, GE announced its goal of having 20,000 women in STEM roles at the company by 2020, resulting in an impressive 50:50 gender balance in technical entry-level positions. Right now, GE has 14,700 women in engineering, manufacturing, IT, and product management positions. 
The value of a company that depends on science and engineering comes from the scientists and engineers. What makes for a good scientist or engineer? Apparently GE thinks that preference for those with vaginas will aid in their search. If they had a preference for those with penises I would also have a problem. You hire scientists and engineers based on their skill and knowledge.  A college degree from a good school is one indication that a person has what it takes. MIT, CalTech... Next I would seek value in candidates based on their work history. I would look for publications. I would speak with them about their work to find out how interested they are in what they do.

When it comes to a company like GE, the engineers matter. They, unlike biotech, make things that have to work. If my refrigerator conks out it's going back. Biotech on the other hand does not make products that work. They don't have to. See my post on Serepta. They only need to convince the FDA and the doctors that their statistics indicate some efficacy. I value Amgen, not for their science and technology prowess, but for how they will make investors feel.

The ruined careers of chemists, biochemists, biologists, molecular biologists are something that doesn't get media attention. The job losses that have occurred since the big recession of 2007 have not been given proper journalistic attention. Who lost their jobs/careers? Amgen, for example came to Seattle, started a huge campus, started a Masters Degree in Biotechnology at UW, embarked on a decade of research and then the left town. Expedia took over the campus. What did their ho hum hirelings go on to do? Do they have anything of value to share with the rest of us? Has their LinkedIn account stopped marking their progress?

I want to end this post with an example of finding value in things complicated versus complex. Mark Zuckerberg has done quite well with hiring strong scientists. Here is what he values in employees.

Then he gets a little full of himself and decides he can do anything. He is now going to cure all disease. Very noble but disease is not like a computer website. Zuckerberg may have spotted a place where computer science can add value to our lives. He may have found ways of making a ridiculous profit from that work. But now he is venturing into the world of the cargo cults. This stuff is not easy and the scientists are not as smart as the ones he currently employs. I won't be investing in this.