Repost: Culture gap: synthetic chemists and learning biology

Apologies for more reposting... I'm still trying to get out from the vacation backlog of life. New thoughts to come soon!

I started responding to this comment:

Now that you have invested so long to transform in to a ‘chemicalbiologist’, would you mind suggesting some quick tips from your journey for the people ho want to take the same path? Are there any books or some crash courses etc?

And got so in depth that I decided to make it a post of its own. So here are my thoughts about where to start to develop better flexibility as a synthetic chemist who wants to work on bilogical problems.

The best crash course I got was weekly lab meetings in a lively, rigorous yeast genetics/molecular biology/kinase signaling lab (one of my postdoc labs). I started out so clueless that I felt like I was on Mars for the first year and a half or so. But because the people in that lab were so open and helpful, and the PI is an engaged, active teacher, they helped me learn the “language” of biology-type ways of thinking and data/information representation.

It’s that language that you really need as a chemist moving into biology. And by “language,” I mean more than just terminology (although that is a big part of it). It’s also a change in visualization of information and getting better at logic puzzles. Imagine a multi-step synthesis with a blank at step 2, where 4-5 possibilities (which you have assumed based on either mechanism or other times people have done similar things) could fit in there to result in the product (or mixture thereof). In biology, you have to come up with ways to test *which* of those possibilities comes from the retrosynthetic direction (for which you are only postulating a route) and will result in the product(s).

In all of this you also have to accept that: a) your only measurement techniques are indirect, i.e. you usually can’t just analyze the structures with some direct spectroscopic technique and figure out what they are; and b) your assumptions might be wrong. So you have to do lots of control experiments where you also assume some certain set of reagents should DEFINITELY give the products, and some other set should DEFINITELY NOT. That gives you yet another indirect way to make you feel more comfortable with your assumptions. The hardest part for many chemists is having to be okay with indirect information. The second hardest part is having to remember that if your “result” gives you something analogous to “75% yield of the product,” you still have to think a lot about WHAT molecules/interactions are represented in that other 25%. You can’t just purify it away and pretend it didn’t exist.

Getting used to reading gel electrophoresis/Western blot (antibody detection) data, as well as biological “cartoon” format (where you mostly worry about conceptual connections, and not so much molecular mechanism and byproducts etc.), are some great ways to start. But you’ll probably need a coach to guide you through it and translate how the experiments work and what the results mean. Finding friendly, sharp biologists (whether faculty, postdoc or grad student–it doesn’t pay to be snobby about this, sometimes the trainees are gonna be WAY better at teaching you! Just make sure to credit them or repay them somehow!) can be the difference between this working vs. not working.

2 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    At my university, a music major would likely take a General Education biology course. A chemist, physicist or engineer probably would not. Interesting that a music major would have more formal education in biology than a chemist.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Indeed! I was a chem major in college and I never took biology. Ever. I could have as an elective, but with all the classes required for my major and all the other ones I wanted to take (like music, pottery, etc.) there wasn't a lot of room and I never realized how much I would need it as a chemist.

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