Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

04 Oct 2008, 12:30 p.m.

Subjects And Objects In Geek Careers

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I love reading Derek Lowe's In The Pipeline to glimpse the shape of the biochem industry: what's inherently hard, what's common, and what's revolutionary. The grammar is familiar if the nouns aren't. This came through quite clearly in his recent post, "Hard Times: A Manifesto".

The more I think about all the research layoffs that have been going on for the last year or two around the industry, the more I think that we really are seeing a change in the way drug discovery is being done....

Everyone knows - including the people in Shanghai and Hyderabad - that the difficult, high-level research is still not being done there. That'll change, as the human and physical infrastructure improves, but the bulk of the outsourced chemistry is methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile stuff. It's "Hey, make me a library based on this scaffold structure" or "Hey, make me fifty grams of this intermediate"....

So improve your skills. Learn new techniques, especially the ones that are just coming out and haven't percolated down to the crank-it-out shops in the low-wage countries. Stay on top of the latest stuff, take on tough assignments. Keeping your head down in times like these will move you into the crowd that looks like it can be safely let go.

The comment thread includes much sniping at US firms that hire immigrants. According to protectionists, there is some static number of jobs available for research chemists, forever, and the only effects of "allowing" a US-based organization to hire a chemist who was not born in the US are to drive down wages and deprive a native-born US citizen of that job. They also hold that long-term benefits to the industry and country from immigrants are a myth, unnecessary, slight, or past.

I find these sorts of attitudes astonishing, not just because they're angry and incoherent, but because in a software developer they would betray a complete lack of initiative. There is no way to simultaneously hold these views and to conduct one's career with the attitude of an entrepreneur. Analyzing opportunities, targeting positions and markets, networking, and generally taking initiative means viewing situations as dynamic, not static. What's growing? What's dying? How can I ride that wave? And if someone is thinking that way, then naturally she recognizes the likelihood that an immigrant's discovery or shoestring startup will create a new and profitable micro-industry, and that US universities gain tremendous value from being world capitals of science research.

I'm interested in constructing a software equivalent of srp's list of biochemistry dogmas ripe for profitable questioning:

1) Rational drug design is the best way to find good treatments. We should try to target precisely one receptor with one molecule.
2) We need to understand the mechanism of action of a drug in order for it to be successful.
3) Drugs that are safe and effective in humans are likely to also be safe and effective in animal models. (We know that the converse is false, which is why we use rigorous human testing.)
4) The incentives of the FDA and patients are very well aligned.
5) The discovery of new therapeutic regimes using combinations of existing off-patent drugs does not deserve to be rewarded.