Sunday, April 12, 2009

family, chemistry, skype :)

I was asked by my mother-in-law during an Easter skype session today to describe my research in 'ten words' to an assembled family audience in front of her computer in Grimsby, Ontario. I've answered similar questions before. I think a reasonable answer goes something like this:

1. We
2. make
3. new
4. molecules
5. that
6. might
7. become
8. medicines
9. for
10. Cancer

There's not much point in describing 'how' we make these molecules unless you have some time because the process is complicated. I sometimes say it's: 'kinda like cooking' or 'mix and stirr' and these statements are essentially the truth. Some chemists favour the non-specific term: 'standard synthetic methods' but I consider that phrase about as useful as: "blahblah blahblahblah blahblah".

But Sandy's question sounded a bit too good to be true. Could a room full non-scientists watching me on their computer from Canadia actually be interested in the specifics of my research work? Even in just ten words? Nope :) I started my careful answer and was interrupted with a barrage of laughter when Kate's uncle Ronny cut me off after just three (of ten) words with:

"Okay, we've heard enough Jake!"

I have always appreciated a qood quick joke, no matter if I'm the butt of it. I certainly liked this one. My wife's family hails form the very quickest of the quick-witted parts of Great Britain. They constantly laugh at themselves and each other and they don't hesitate for a second to include other victims. I appreciate the humour. I can't even pretend that my 'organic chemistry research' is the least bit interesting to the average person when compared with... lets say Indiana Jones (Raider's of the Lost Ark) or a playoff game in ANY sport. Maybe even a regular season game.

Nonetheless, I like what I do more and more as I get older. That has to be a good sign. I think I would prefer to read a good synthetic chemistry journal article than re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark.
You might be glad to hear that I think that most of the responsibility for the fact that you might find organic chemistry incomprehensible and boring lies not with you but with me. Almost any topic can be simplified and appreciated even if it is not completely understood. But in this century it is we 'scientists' who have been responsible for allowing ourselves to be branded as 'incomprehensible and boring' or even 'mad'. I think every researcher has an enormous responsibility to communicate effectively; and not just to his fellow academics. We should make an effort to simplify and teach anyone who wants to learn without putting them to sleep.

So.... I make new molecules that might become medicines for cancer. It's kinda like cooking. If you want to know more, I can certainly try in person.

I've been working on a book that explains some of the details without much confusion or sedation... but it's no easy task and I'm pretty busy.
For now, here I am with my lovely assistant at a recent costume party ;)

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