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On a giant leap for mankind
What were you doing when it happened? Last month as the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing arrived, the question came up often. That July, I was a chemistry graduate student putting in similar hours to astronauts, but with no convenient access to TV. NPR and the Sunday New York Times told me what had transpired. It was quickly back to reading, writing and experiments.
At the end of this July, I formally retired as a faculty member at Purdue University after 47 years in the academy. July was special for Purdue. We celebrated our late alumnus Neil Armstrong (aeronautical engineering), who left a famous footprint. The last person to walk on the moon was another Boilermaker, Gene Cernan (electrical engineering). Fifty years seemed a long time 50 years ago, but now I see it as having passed by rather quickly.
Teaching has been very good to me. I never applied for other positions. Why? I really liked the respect the title professor carried. My parents did as well but were not sure it was a real job. I liked the independence of deciding what sorts of experiments I could pursue. Finally, I liked teaching, having enjoyed it both as a graduate student and as a postdoc.
Given that I had no family distractions back then, I readily signed the vow of poverty (but not the vows associated with chastity or obedience) and accepted a $14,000 annual salary at Michigan State, doubling my postdoc pay. I had no confidence in achieving academic tenure, but given my relative youth, it seemed a safer bet than what moon walkers were doing. I was enamored with getting data to support science, particularly in neuropharmacology. Integrated circuits enabled low-cost measurements that had previously been inaccessible at any price. The then brand-new liquid chromatography instrumentation enabled separations in minutes that once took days. These were waves I could catch and did, not fully appreciating how large the benefits would be to instrumented science.
How did this now conclude? Were my assumptions right? Would I do this again?
I’ve long imagined being a “demeritus professor” for having so many commercial engagements. Emeritus status has nevertheless been granted. I had to look up the meaning. In the original Latin it meant a veteran soldier. I like that. It fits my retiring personality, but doesn’t come with the better benefits of Lt. Gen. USA Ret. I’ve just enrolled in Medicare for me, not for all. This will enable experiential learning as an embedded correspondent.
Five decades allows for some biased observations. What has changed? The U.S. population was 203 million in 1969 and now we have 330 million—50 percent growth. In the 1960s, post baccalaureate education accelerated with the facilities to support it. Grant money became more available, but the cost of research and the number of academic labs both multiplied faster. Today there are far more compliance inefficiencies. I don’t feel I’d have the temperament for today’s low funding rate for research grants. I’m dismayed by the struggles of freshly minted Ph.D.s, many enduring multiple postdoc positions. The better news includes the number of women who are now well established on chemistry faculties. As a graduate student and in my first faculty job, there were none. Progress continues.
When I began to teach, involvement with business was viewed with great skepticism. As a contrarian, I jumped right in and started my first firm in 1974. Today this is an encouraged option for faculty and a “translation” of academic inventions to commercial innovations. Few try it, but the possibility is no longer ambiguous. Yes, you can. There remains a healthy worry about conflicts of interest. Some are concerned whether taxpayers are getting a return on invested grant money. I argue for a confluence of interests. More taxpayers are created, and private capital takes over projects. The grants are just seeds, but private money is the fertilizer. Patients harvest the fruit.
In the 1970s, large firms mattered. Many of the largest of these are gone or greatly diminished. Small fry companies then, such as Apple, Microsoft and Genentech, now approach their own 50th anniversaries. Size didn’t continue to work well for drug discovery. The big names in pharma, several going back a century, were subject to endocytosis. Pfizer et al. had an appetite. Genentech hopefuls hatch each year. Some fail fast, others are absorbed via M&A, and a very few achieve independent sustainability. We feature many of them in DDNews. From the 50-year perspective, it is now a much more dynamic ecosystem. The turnover of research positions is very high, but so is the creation of new spots. Ever an exciting industry, Pfizer just announced an exocytosis to Mylan, including several of the best-known great-leap blockbusters since the millennium turned.
My team caught several good waves in electronics, personal computers, neuroscience, chemical separations, mass spectrometry and the new acceptance of translating academic science to practice. Our formal education included very little basic biology. I missed out on genetics, the proteome, stem cells, optogenetics and CRISPR. These topics came too late for me to practice in the lab.
In my youth, many then-senior faculty and industrial research leaders were stuck with vacuum tubes and mg/mL v. ng/mL concentrations. They were amazed by the possibilities we showed them. They tired of the conferences that excited freshly minted Ph.D.s who’d not yet seen San Fran or Boston. I now understand why many seniors then skipped these major conventions. Very little happens and less happens now. These heroes of mine, born just after WWI, knew two pan balances, tables of logarithms and manual pipetting. More than one also knew how to fly B-17s or navigate the ocean in an LST. It’s said that we become our parents and mentors. I’ve passed the baton.
As with the Apollo program, today there is some resistance to the cost of visiting the moon again. The cost of not going will be higher. We already have private enterprises investing heavily and competing. Capitalism is working. New things will be learned. Let’s go!
There will be plenty to celebrate in 2069, if social networking doesn’t keep crippling both civility and productivity. By then, drug costs will come down as more diseases are avoided or cured, not just chronically treated. My grandchildren will tell their children of a small step a century ago. Tweeting will have returned to the birds.