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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 14, 2005

Blogging About Science Blogging

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Posted by Derek

There seem to be enough science bloggers around now that we're starting to wonder what it is that we're doing, and why. The recent article in The Scientist has started some of this, with its focus on why more scientists don't blog. Living the Scientific Life as well as Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles have weighed in, among others (and I'd like to thank both of them for the kind words they've said about this site, while I'm at it.)

GrrlScientist, in that first link, points out that the Scientist article seems to miss one of the reasons that scientists blog (or might want to): explaining just what it is that they do. That's an important point - it's a big reason why I started and a big reason why I continue. I had had several experiences over the years where people found out what I did and pumped me for all kinds of information. And it hit me that although few people had any idea about drug discovery, they tended to say "Wow, that sounds like a really neat job" once they did. (It was a big improvement from the usual response you get when you tell people that you're a professional chemist, I can tell you.)

Chad Orzel goes on to note that large numbers of people see science as something that's difficult, boring, and beyond them, so they just tune out. I'm afraid he's right. But I used to explain my experiments to the janitorial staff when I worked late at my first job, which showed me that this didn't have to be the situation. To be sure, none of my explanations started off with the phrase "Consider the Hamiltonian. . .", but none of my conversations with my colleagues start that way, either, not if I can help it.

Instead, we talk about how we're not getting good blood levels with our latest series of compounds, wonder about whether that's because they're not getting absorbed through the gut or are getting cleared from circulation too quickly, and outline some experiments that would tell us one way or another. Now, it's true that we use a lot of verbal and scientific shorthand to discuss these things - a conversation like that could go "See the screening PK yet?" "Yeah, what a rotten AUC. Do we have an i.v. tee-one-half on that stuff yet?" "No, but we could probably get a slot in the next cannulated rat run." And that wouldn't mean much to one of the Uruguayan janitors that used to ask about my work.

But with a few extra minutes to explain what we were trying to do and why, they could appreciate what was going on. And they could see that it wasn't easy, and that we often didn't know why things were happening, and that we had to wait a long time between chances to run around high-fiving each other. Considering how television and movies treat science (which, to be fair, could be the only way to treat it for the purposes of mass entertainment), knowing these things was a real step up.

So when I found out about blogging, I didn't hesitate very long before jumping in. Here was a chance to do just the kind of thing I did when talking to people one-on-one, but for as many visitors as cared to stop by. It sounded like just what I'd been waiting for, and it still is. The pharmaceutical industry has been taking a beating the last few years, some of it (not all!) deserved, and I think there's an ecological niche in the blog world for someone who can talk about it from personal experience.

The majority of my readers, as far as I can tell, are not involved in drug discovery themselves. I certainly enjoy having people from the field reading and commenting, and I try to pitch my posts to both levels at once, as much as possible. But I've never pictured my site being exclusively a peer-to-peer experience. Since I'm in the drug industry, it couldn't very well be, in any case. We drug-industry types obviously can't talk about the specifics of what we're doing, and I don't. (That's why the "Birth of an Idea" posts are so maddeningly vague, and even those don't apply to any specific drug or drug target.) There's just not much chance for blogging to help me out with any current problems in my research, because those problems are all proprietary. It can give me a broader perspective on my industry, which might come in handy, but it's going to do zilch for what's stirring in my fume hood.

(I should note that both of the posts I linked to in the first paragraph put the public-outreach issue in terms of the teaching-intelligent-design debate. More on that another day. . .)

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping


1. steve on August 14, 2005 10:59 PM writes...

"Considering how television and movies treat science (which, to be fair, could be the only way to treat it for the purposes of mass entertainment),"

true dat. I did three years of physics research. Nobody could make exciting entertainment of days on end of my staring at a computer screen, puzzled and frustrated. Once a week or so, I'd spin coat a few samples, put them in an oven for a day, put them under the scope, and curse a few times. Now in fact, what was going on was actually somewhat dramatic in a sense, but only to a very small fraction of physicists.

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2. NJ Biologist on August 15, 2005 7:30 AM writes...

The same thing holds for using animals in research. As a grad student, I had a couple of janitors ask about work; pretty much every time somebody would ask, they'd wind up saying that animal research sounded like a good idea. Either janitors are an untapped population of frustrated scientists or communication helps; I think it's the latter.

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3. jsinger on August 15, 2005 10:33 AM writes...

Not wholly unrelated: last night I walked in as a my wife was watching something on CNN about a new brain cancer trial at MD Anderson. They interviewed an oncologist who wore his white coat, tossed around a nude mouse (in a way the IRB probably wouldn't endorse) and held forth with some ludicrous explanation of how the drug work.

Now, I can't imagine anyone watching this and not thinking that this gentleman with the coat and mouse single-handedly created this treatment. As you've noted a number of times, for the huge amount of money the pharma industry spends on marketing, it does a godawful job of explaining what it is the industry actually does. (And it wouldn't kill academics to let the occasional postdoc or grad student near a journalist...)

I should note that both of the posts I linked to in the first paragraph put the public-outreach issue in terms of the teaching-intelligent-design debate.

I can't think of a worse way to make science more attractive than by a stepped-up attack on God, ghosts and the Loch Ness monster. People perceive (correctly) that "skeptic" types (a group which, in my experience, has minimal overlap with real scientists) use science as a club to attack the sensibilities of others and aggrandize themselves. I want people to think of science as something that makes the world richer and fuller, not thinner and bleaker.

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4. bryan kennedy on August 16, 2005 2:01 PM writes...

Thanks for this perspective on scientists blogging. I work at a science museum where our goal is essentially to facilitate the conversation between your proverbial janitor and scientists. We have recently found that blogging might be a useful way to speed up this process (See Science Buzz). It also can allow for a dialog that isn't always a part of science outreach.

However, I like the idea of directly featuring scientists who already blog. Based on this article I will try and track down some other science bloggers and see if we can possibly promote their voice on our website and exhibits. Rock on.

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5. Hoopman on August 17, 2005 11:55 AM writes...

I believe there are a lot of people like myself out here, peeking in at your blog and blogs of others in the scientific community. People who basically have zero science background, but appreciate that our world as we know it in the 21st century is largely defined by scientific achievements. Not all aspects of it, of course, but so much of our daily lives are affected by it that one need be intentionally "blind" not to appreciate and give due. Blogging is a great opportunity for us to enlighten ourselves to advances. While reading a lot of books, I still seem to get as much or more out of some blogs with much less expenditure of time. I thank you for the effort to keep things at a level that an outsider can deal with. One of the problems in our society is distance between science and culture - and it really need not be that way. Keep it up!

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