Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

My elder kid and I returned yesterday from Madison, Wisconsin where he spent a couple of days taking placement tests and becoming oriented and advised. Poor guy. He is in some danger of being pegged as a reviled “Coastie.” . Fortunately, he belongs to an uber-nerd species whose habits and nature are a far cry from the Westchester preppie ilk which has invaded Mad City like so much purple loosestrife in a Wisconsin wetland. He has legitimate claim to Cheesehead status by virtue of having been popped out of the ol’ womb at Madison General. However, he is known to wear New Zealand Ugg knock-offs around the house. Here’s a self- portrait of my spawn which he snapped when touring the campus in the fall. Guess what those machines are in the background. Hint: they are not lunar landing modules.


While my bright-eyed, bushy-haired son registered for his classes, I skipped the lectures for anxiety-ridden parents on cutting the apron strings but keeping the money ropes firmly tied. Instead, I spent a fair amount of time chatting with my former post-doctoral advisor and his lab manager, a longtime friend, then watched an impressive amount of rain fall on Campus Drive. As the Madison monsoon pounded against the windows of the break room, and we munched on Jimmy John hoagies, er, subs, I found myself surrounded by freshly minted PhDs and and near-PhDs who were eager to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to work for pharma and biotech. It was very apparent that these kids had little exposure to the experiences of scientists in the non-academic sector. I answered a lot of questions, extolled the benefits and the outright fun of working with interdisciplinary teams and various projects. I gave them a few buzzwords (“metrics of productivity,” “matrix management,” “objectives vs. results”) to use in future interviews. In my dotage, I forgot to recommend to them the following book which captures the growing pains of a start-up company and the exciting and highly competitive aspects drug discovery: The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug by Barry Werth.

I was kind of taken aback at their lack of information. What the heck are you academicians telling your grad students and post-docs? I mean, tenure track at Ivied-ivory or public-land-grant-proletarian red brick towers is not The Only Way.

OK, I’ll grant you that I might be indulging in a bit of faux-outraged hyperbole in my criticism. One academic mentor iin particular, a medicinal chemist who consulted for various pharmas, offered excellent guidance to me in my career path. My postdoctoral advisor had a number of friends in the Biz, and was not adverse to his students and post-docs choosing the non-academic path, but he knew little about what it’s like to work in the pharma/biotech milieu. That’s understandable. I guess it really falls to lab alumni like me to come back, dish the corporate dirt, and become a node in these students’ and post-docs’ nascent network. And it was enjoyable to hang out with the kids while University Ave became a temporary river.


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    August 1, 2006

    Agreed, as per usual. Perhaps it was due to my internship at one of them thar Delaware Valley CT/NY/NJ/PA/DE wonder drug factories, but as a prof running a grad class on drug development I would bring in all sorts of folks from pharma and biotech, big and small. It was a great class (especially for me!) and we always left time for a little career counseling, usually at the pub. I can’t tell you how many of our students went off to industry, some without doing a postdoc, starting off making more than most tenured associate profs. I even had one colleague go do a sabbatical with one of his recent grads.

    I so missed you at the NYC meet-up but, as a parent, I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything. Let me know when your spawn is looking for a graduate/medical program and/or postdoc!

  2. #2 Doc Bushwell
    August 1, 2006

    Yep, my impression is that schools of pharmacy which maintain strong pharmaceutical sciences departments, i.e., med. chem., pharmacology, “physical pharmaceutics” like dispersion, formulation, etc., provide the best advising as per your experience. Ditto for faculty at institutions in biotech/pharma hotbeds like Boston, the Bay Area, San Diego, the Pharm Country of NJ/PA and the Research Triangle area. Heck, in Boston, said faculty probably have their fingers in a start-up.

    I hope to attend the next NYC meet-up, work and family needs allowing, or see you on your next trip to Jersey. But, yeah, as good as the dinner in Chinatown might have been, nothing could beat a brat and Rathskeller ale at the Memorial Union Terrace!

  3. #3 Suesquatch
    August 1, 2006

    Hey, cute kid!

    What *are* those things in the background? Cyclotrons? Super toilets for Shrek?

  4. #4 Jim
    August 3, 2006

    Mmmmm…high tech microbrewery kettles… mmmmmm.. slobber slobber…


  5. #5 Doc Bushwell
    August 3, 2006

    Nope, those things are neither Shrek’s commodes nor fermentors. They are nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, and integral components of the National Magentic Resonance Facility at Madison. I belive that is “Fleckvieh,” the Varian 900 MHz NMR, over my spawn’s right shoulder with “Gelbvieh” (800 MHz) next to it. The Dairy State based NMR specs are fittingly named after breeds of cows. Strictly speaking, breeds of cattle is the more accurate descriptor, but as noted in the little blurb in the link, “cows” is a real friendly word.

  6. #6 keithneun
    August 3, 2006

    Very cool. A foray just now to familiarize my feeble brain with NMR spectrometry also introduced me to Buckminsterfullerene. Wacky science nerds… 🙂

  7. #7 Jim
    August 3, 2006

    No beer??? Ahhhh!!!

    All work and no beer makes Homer something something…

  8. #8 xBarry31
    August 3, 2006

    He’s going to have a great time. I went to a small college in Ohio. We made a lot of fun of the kids from the East Coast for a while. They were different, they dressed and talked funny. And they made fun of those of us from the sticks. Then we all got over it after a few months.

    As for your point about academia not preparing people for the “real world,” I learned very little in college that helped me at work. Everything from writing style on down was thrown out the window as soon as I got my first job.

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