I’m a bit under the weather today but I wanted to at least share with you an interesting career development consideration pointed out by the always-excellent medicinal chemist blogger, Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline.
In his post, What Should Non-Chemists Know About Medicinal Chemistry, Anyway?, Derek posits:
Here’s a topic that I was discussing with some colleagues not too long ago: how much do we need to know about each other’s specialties, anyway? I’m assuming that the answer is “more than nothing”, although if someone wants to make the zilch case, I’d be interested in hearing it done.
A nice comment thread has developed there. Lowe writes from the perspective of a chemist in a pharmaceutical company but I believe that his considerations extend to academic research as well, especially with the increased emphasis on interdisciplinary and translational research.
I consider myself fortunate to have been trained in pharmacology when “true” pharmacology departments were more abundant (i.e., not just a bunch of in vitro biochemists). Having to interact with chemists, stop-flow enzyme kineticists, physiologists using in vivo and organ bath systems, and physicians with research laboratories, I feel that I can be somewhat conversant on a variety of issues outside my immediate research area. Being able to explain the chemistry of glucuronidation sites or the clinical pharmacology relevance of high plasma protein drug binding are obvious extensions of what I should know. I’ve also learned to recognize when it may not be appropriate to ask a chemist colleague for more than a milligram or two of a new compound.
But knowledge beyond that, I think, is even more important for my research program and department. I tell students that you never know where you will end up working and a breadth of knowledge is important to develop even while pursuing the myopic drilldown of PhD dissertation research. Particularly if one ends up in a drug company, you will have to interact often with team members across the drug development pipeline and many go/no-go decisions will be made because of limitations outside your area, no matter how novel your pharmacological target may be. And yes, it is a problem in trying to make a drug out of a compound that only dissolves in DMSO.
So I’ll throw open Derek’s question to those of you in academia: How much chemistry do you expect biologists to know or how much biology should we expect chemists to know? Some of it is simple courtesy and helps develop mutual respect among research colleagues. But some of my colleagues think that the wider you can think, the more likely it is for your research program to make greater impact. (I can’t find it right now but I recall Brown and Goldstein holding forth somewhere on how a strong basis in chemistry is essential for physician-scientists). There’s no one right answer and I am certain there is no consensus, and I feel that the need for breadth will vary based on how far along one is in one’s career.
But in your area, how much do you expect yourself and your trainees to know in areas afield?