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I don’t really know what to say about this morning. There are large number of suicides on the suburban trains around Paris every year and it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting caught in a transportation disaster when one happens on the line. They tend to close up to six stations and trains running on the rest of the line are often disturbed. It happens enough that people have a pretty blasé attitude about it, maybe even being angry that their day was so drastically disrupted.

I can’t ever quite seem to muster up that level of indignation because it mostly just makes me sad. I’ve dealt with depression before and I feel fortunate that I have had the resources and support to get help while I struggle through my dark times.

This morning it was closer than ever. The train moved slowly away from the station where I board and eventually pulled slowly to a stop two stations later. Something was wrong. They announced over the loudspeaker that there had been an incident and we would wait. A minute later they ordered us all out of the train and started evacuating the station. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a fellow passenger point something out to an RATP agent. It didn’t click what they were referring to and as I walked past the gap between the cars on my way out I glanced down and saw her lying there.

I couldn’t see her whole body, but what I could see was broken and unmistakably lifeless. She had olive skin and was wearing jeans. She was either wearing gray knit boots over her jeans or socks pulled up over her jeans. I can’t get over that I don’t understand her footwear. Maybe they were socks and her shoes came off? They must have been boots. I also won’t forget how the line of her boots (I’ll go with boots) was broken by where the train had run her over. Her tibia had punctured her skin. Either this was a later injury or she had been moved down the track; probably both.

The humanity of her life and struggle was gone. What I was looking at was basically a pile of meat. Someone’s broken body after life that had been so hard. There really isn’t anything left and there’s no meaning except what the people she left behind assign to it. There’s a tragedy in that, because it seems like our struggles should mean something more.

I didn’t know her. I don’t know what happened. But I will spend today mourning her, because life is senseless and sometimes cruel. Because we all do our best with what we have. Because you never know what someone else is going through. Just because.

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Cross-posted at ACS Chemical Biology

I often get asked, “what is Chemical Biology, anyways?” I’m sure we all get asked this question as it’s a relatively new field. The University of Michigan’s program in Chemical Biology is the first or one of the first free-standing programs in Chemical Biology and it was influenced by U of M being one of the first recipients of the NIH’s Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program. 

 

One of my favorite things about my doctoral program (and the NIH training program) is how cohesive we are, despite our research diversity. We have people who do small molecule inhibitors, FRET on ribosomes, protein NMR, and even bioinorganic chemistry (like me!). I’ve often felt like an outlier in my program not only because I am probably the only person who spends any time thinking about inorganic chemistry the way an inorganic chemist would, but also working on some of the most basic research. But aside from that, I think one the things that brings us all together is the interdisciplinary techniques and training we have. Take me: I am academically-trained as a bio(inorganic)chemist, lab-trained as a microbiologist, but my current research requires not only biochemistry, but small molecule synthesis and a not insignificant amount of inorganic chemistry and spectroscopy. I’m practically the definition of a “jack of all traides, master of none.” And, perhaps I’m projecting here, but I feel like many of the pioneers of this field have felt that at one time or another, since many trained in one field and then crossed into another as they straddled the line and defined a new discipline. In fact, I’ve heard both Laura Kiessling and Dennis Dougherty say these types of things in talking about how they went from total organic synthesis to carbohydrate biosynthesis or physical organic chemistry to neuroreceptors. Now, we are beginning to see a new group of scientists, one who looked specifically for “Chemical Biology” programs when they applied for graduate school. How will this new generation of scientists change the field wither their thinking? I look forward to see how the field develops as people who explicitly trained in it for their PhDs graduate and begin their own research programs. I think people like these will bring a very different perspective, they will reside intellectually in the interdisciplinary rather create it. 

 

But I digress. Going back to the original question: “What is Chemical Biology?” I think most people would say, “applying chemistry (or chemical principles) to problems of biology.” But I like to use a slightly different framing, perhaps because I worry that it sounds like we’re mostly talking about organic synthesis. So I usually say, “a bottom-up approach, based on chemical principles and tools, to questions in biology.” I like this framing because it talks more about the methods than the questions, which is a major distinction. All scientists want to figure out how the world we live in works; the difference is sometimes more in how we answer the questions that we have rather than what questions we have. 

As a trainee on the NIH’s Chemistry Biology Interface Training Grant, I recently had the opportunity to attend the 1st Annual Career Development conference, which was held in Urbana-Champaigne, Illinois, and featured representation from all the Midwestern CBI programs. Given the changing scientific environment, (training) programs in general need to focus more on the post-graduation outcomes of their students. To this end, conference organizers arranged for five panels focusing on  entrepreneurial, industrial, academic, post-doctoral, and non-traditional careers. Additionally, there were two keynote speakers, Laura Kiessling and Peter Senter, and two poster sessions. 

Probably the most important lesson I learned from the conference was not networking, but rather, that it’s never too early to start planning your career. For most post-docs and many jobs you need to start thinking as early as two years ahead, but more like a year and a half for most positions and places. And that’s where networking comes in. If you’re a graduate student–get yourself to conferences! Start meeting people and making connections. And if you’re an advisor of graduate students–get them to conferences! It’s hard for many of us to ask to go to conferences, but it’s the second-best thing you can do to help your students succeed (making sure they finish their Ph.D. being the first). 

But more on this conference: to put it bluntly, the conference was fantastic. I would consider myself to be relatively well-informed about the post-doc job search process. That being said there were a lot of things that I had no idea about, like industrial post-docs. However, for me the most informative and striking career panel was the non-traditional careers panel. I’ve always planned on a post-doc, but have been a bit agnostic about my career prospects after that. Or rather, not so much agnostic as closeted. I love science; it’s been a huge part of my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I read journals for fun and popular science magazines for light reading. But what I’m most passionate about is sharing that love–communicating science to non-scientists, advocating for more money for research, thinking about the best structure for our education and research systems, and encouraging as much diversity in science as possible. So I’m coming out of the closet: I want a non-traditional science career. Or at least to have these aspects be a large part of my professional life in the future. 

In part, this has spurred my participation in blogging. I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, but I need more practice actually writing them. Almost all of the writing I do these days is personal or scientific, and finding the sweet spot in between personal communication and scientific communication is a skill that most scientists (including myself) need to develop. I’m planning on using this medium to keep up to date with current events in these fields, do some background reading, and writing about it. Hopefully, I can learn a lot about myself in the process and make some good connections that will aid me in the future. 

Working on some more elaborated thoughts on the conference, but for now a few quick thoughts/highlights:

  • Anything Laura Kiessling has ever said. Seriously. She’s hilarious. And while she didn’t explicitly talk about it, she has an amazing story of being a high-powered woman in science at a time when there weren’t many. She went into an interview and actually said that she wanted a group of about 20 people and didn’t listen when people were incredulous.
  • Getting to be creative with my TED talk. A note on the student TED talks…they’re a fantastic idea. We put such a premium on being the MOST accurate, MOST precise, and MOST data-filled, but in an interdisciplinary conference this gets you almost nowhere. While we scientists should get familiar with other fields, we also need to take on the challenge of making our ideas more communicable. Forcing scientists, especially students, to think outside the box and focus on how to communicate their ideas is important and this idea of a TED talk is a way of doing that.
  • All the meals. And not just for the food, which was significantly above average, but also for the interesting conversations at the table. 
  • Non-traditional careers panel. Fantastic.
  • Miles Fabian. What a character.
  • Jeff Peng. If you are at Notre Dame, you should make an effort to get to know this guy. Totally irreverent for a professor (I have a soft spot for irreverent professors), which is refreshing, and with an interesting range of experience.
  • Peter Senter and pharmaco-economic distress.
  • Industrial post-docs are a thing. Yup. And you’re pre-cleared for publication.

What I cannot create, I do not understand.

Richard P. Feynman