Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Long time no see.

I took something of a hiatus from the hootacular environs of the Refuge due to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year at DOPI:* performance reviews for 2006 and objectives setting for 2007. I know. I shouldn’t whine and bitch about this, seeing how much work you academics put into the grant writing process in the unending effort to suck at the NIH/NCI/NSF/IYAH** teat, and I can appreciate how difficult that is. After seeing my grad advisor lose a significant grant (since regained) during the heyday of Ronnie Reagan years when 0.0000037% of all NIH grants were funded, I was utterly convinced there was no f’ing way I would be hippity hopping down the academic trail.

But working in Korporate Amerika has its drawbacks, too, especially if one works in the first-, second- or at best, third-most reviled industry in the USA. Just where Big Bad Pharma falls in this unholy trio relative to Big Oil and Big Tobacco depends on who you ask. One of my jobs as a manager of scientists is to measure their productivity. Now this doesn’t involve counting the number of peer-reviewed publications my group produces or the number of conferences they attend as invited speakers. Productivity in our larger division, the Big Pond as it were in which my small fry of a department swims, is measured by sheer massive numbers of compounds which have been screened and have gone through what I call “Characterization Lite.” With the advent of sophisticated robotics, lead discovery groups in Big Pharma can screen millions of compounds, and that’s sort of a benchmark in my division. Those numbers make for fabulous bar graphs.

However, my department is an eccentric little outlier in this massive numbers generator. We focus on deep understanding of the mechanism of how ligands and such bind to receptors and enzymes. These kinds of studies are often very low throughput and painstaking. We’re looking at stuff like kinetics of binding, transient state kinetics, ex vivo assays, and sometimes isotope effects. It sounds esoteric, but my group has produced work which has major impact on clinical candidates through elucidation of their biochemical mechanism, something which the FDA really likes. At earlier stages, our work can shift the course of entire programs.

Our idiosynchrasies are appreciated as I found out when the VP in charge of a clutch of therapuetic areas described my colleague’s group, which uses a lot of automation, and my group to visiting profs from Duke and Harvard. “Susan’s department generates numbers for structure-activity relationships, and is based largely on automation and robotics, but Doc Bushwell’s group works on mechanism; their assets are their I.Q.’s” Booyah!

Egotistical preening aside (and it’s my staff who are the smarties, not me), my group’s metrics are not sheer numbers, but rather “impact” on programs, something which is not quite as easy to quantify and put in a bar graph or a pie chart. We are all about quality, not quantity, so how does one measure that? It’s possible, but not easy.

Then, for the performance review process, and because pharma research is not funded as luxuriously as one might be given to believe, I have to find ways of cutting down some highly creative people so that they sit in the middle of the bell shaped curve for merit increases. Bleh.

Once I was done with performance reviews, including my own which entailed a lively bout of roo-roo from my boss (I done good on accomplishments, and was obnoxious in behaviors – feedback included “arrogant and condescending” to describe my communication style – wheee!), I had to set our group’s objectives. Now these can’t be vague according to Korporate Policy. No, the must be specific and measureable. Never mind that DOPI’s overarching company goals for 2007 are a) try not to tank in sales; b) shove some more clinical candidates into the Colon of the Pipeline then poop others out into the market; and ) don’t f*ck up and do unethical crap. Yeah, real specific.

Fortunately, my staff has a good handle on writing these yearly goals, so it wasn’t so bad this year. I wince when I write mine, since as a middling managerial toady, I have to write words like “energize” and “leverage” with a straight face. I restrained myself from writing in a goal of “Objective: Attain Divine Status in PowerPointery; Metric: Ability to Levitate for 45 seconds During Presentation; Timeline, 3rd Quarter, 2007.”

Great Baal, I miss bench work.

When cleaning my desk off, well, sort of, yesterday, I unearthed a cartoon I drew back in 1996. High throughput screening (see aforementioned bitchery on robotics and massive numbers of data points) was a real buzzword. Now me, I was, and still am, very much a rational drug design kind of gal.

Granted, this isn’t particularly funny nor well-executed technically, but you bench monkeys who study mechanism and use cuvettes, or at least know what a cuvette is, might appreciate it.

The dialogue may be difficult to read, and since it is ever so witty, I will replicate it here:


Panel 1: Director – I have your new assignment. Congratulations!

Panel 2: Director – After years of research on the mechanism of drug action and rational drug design, here you are at the apex of your careeer, poised to use all that knowledge to come up with that breakthrough cure…

Panel 3: Sr. staff scientist – “High-throuhgput screening!?”
Director – You must be so proud!

DOPI = Dark Overlords Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
IYAH = Insert Your Acronym Here.


  1. #1 Rugosa
    March 16, 2007

    I have to find ways of cutting down some highly creative people so that they sit in the middle of the bell shaped curve for merit increases

    This is why I hate performance reviews and merit raises. The company has already rigged the outcome, so why bother?