Thoughts at the end of a long day.

Yesterday, I was grooving to music, I was feeling energized and OK about the week. There was a picture of a weasel that jumped on top of a flying woodpecker. I was exhausted, but not bad.

Then today.

It was a long day in the lab. I talked about the science and safety behind GMOs and how possibly, a corporation that makes GMO plants could be compatible with a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system (assuming not all of us are going back to growing all our own food again in the world). I had to help an undergrad, my experiment that I needed for a deadline I’m trying to meet didn’t work out. This in light of Bill Nye’s apparent change of mind about GM technology and how it may not spell environmental doom (he always struck me as one suspicious of a for-profit business being in charge of food…not that it was inherently unsafe). I am a bit jealous that Bill Nye got to visit Monsanto…if I could have a job where I get to visit biotech companies for a living, I’d take it. I loved my tour of New England Biolabs last year.

I listened to Cara Santa Maria’s Talk Nerdy podcast eps from the last two weeks. Indre Viskontes and Joe Palca were the guests talking about their careers, science communication, and paying for it. Dr. Viskontes made the point that in a competitive world it makes sense to do the thing your’e great at…because then you’re competitive. And especially in underfunded fields like science communication, that’s probably true. What am I great at, though? Have I gotten good at something in my life? What do I passionately care about? I still feel disconnected from a sense of that. Is it a vestige of depression, or am I just one of those passionless people?

I read Terry McGlynn’s post about Moneyball and what it might teach academia. How best to measure academics? Efficiency, effectiveness, results, papers? How much pressure do we put on one person to do all the things? What if you’re better at some things than others? How does it all balance out? And how do you figure out if you’re a good fit?

And then I heard Sweet Briar University was shutting it’s doors at the end of this semester. I know many alumnae of Sweet Briar, though am not very familiar with the institution other than it’s a small liberal arts college in Virginia. And that it’s an institution a little like the one I went to in Salem, OR, Willamette University (I donate what I can to them…but I’m a poor postdoc still). The SLAC or PUI is the kind of institution I would like to work, if I were to become a faculty person. And due to economic strains I was not fully aware that some at least (perhaps many?) have been under.

I feel sad for my friends losing the site of their alma mater (they’ll at least always have their memories of the place together), the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar, but also am mourning what seems like a loss to higher education and perhaps realizing more strongly than ever that my place doesn’t feel like it’s in the academy anymore, but I don’t know where my place is. I still have a hard time articulating why I’m valuable to myself, let alone to a place where I’d work. Because fundamentally, that’s what we do in work, ideally, add value (or at least reduce costs). And hopefully we solve people’s problems without resorting to trickery/deception/bad business practices. I like to write. And maybe there’s a career in that somewhere. Or marketing…I love spreading ideas, but a good product is worthwhile too.

Mostly, I want time to be able to think and process. And to integrate a life outside of work into my schedule of work (not balance, exactly, but you know, it’d be nice to try dating again…maybe see friends on a regular basis; maybe the only way that happens is if you work with your friends now).

We are nowhere close to equitably spreading resources around. And it seems increasingly true that there are a few winners, and the rest lose out. There will always be hard choices to make in resource allocation, but I hope teaching, spreading knowledge, and pursuit of the intellectual things that enrich and advance our society (including science & humanities) don’t go away from the world completely.

I still need to figure out a plan. And a long day in lab didn’t feel like I was moving towards it.

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New England Biolabs.

New England Biolabs sign.
New England Biolabs sign.

I had opportunity to visit a company I’ve been a fan of since I started my Ph.D., New England Biolabs (NEB). Their support is pretty much responsible for teaching me the ropes of molecular biology and cloning generally. I’ve liked their support systems because they were the most intuitive to learn. They were one of the first companies to devote a part of their catalog to a technical reference guide for how to do molecular biology, devise cloning strategies and otherwise manipulating DNA.

My Ph.D. advisor used the NEB catalog as a textbook for an undergrad lab course on DNA manipulation and cloning, and the students did indeed like having it as a reference. Teaching people hands-on science is complicated and expensive. NEB made it simpler, without a doubt. Their markers for DNA, RNA and protein are some of the most useful and easily useable ones out there.

I also appreciate that NEB thinks about sustainability and environmentalism. They prominently talk about conservation and preserving our environment on their website, as well as devoting pages of their catalog to it. And in the last 5 years, they have recently moved to a much greener campus in Ipswich, MA.

My first impressions driving in were that I was driving into a whole other world. It’s offset from the highway a bit, and you drive through a windy drive that then opens up onto the campus:

As soon as you drive in, I noticed the art installations outside that are somewhat odd, but also seem to fit well. My favorites were all the statues of ravens they have around as well as a bronze rhino that sits behind some brush in the distance.

I walked into the main building noting that there was a big greenhouse as you make your way to the main entrance. The main lobby opens up into a high-ceilinged room with the reception desk on one side, the multi-story greenhouse off to the other (that I learned was the NEB founder’s private green house). There was a cafeteria on the first floor along with other doors. Sunlight pours into the lobby. It was extremely bright in there.

Panorama of New England Biolabs lab building.
Panorama of New England Biolabs lab building.

I met my guide, Tanya Osterfield, their head of digital marketing and she first took me into their wastewater treatment facility that is state-of-the-art in terms of the kind and degree of water recycling in a sustainable way (using plants to help cultivate bacteria that process wastewater and sending things through lots of filters and then onto watering soccer fields that the community uses; my understanding is the goal of all of this is to reduce the amount of solid waste as much as possible and produce clean water after treatment that can be returned to the watershed).

Water treatment plant on New England Biolab's campus.
Water treatment plant on New England Biolab’s campus.

I got to see one of the labs, where I got to talk an NEB scientist a bit about NEB’s approach to discovering, designing, and modifying restriction enzymes. The only sort of remarkable thing: the labs at NEB look like the lab I work in. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, but I guess I expected something else from an industry lab? For obvious reasons, they don’t allow pictures within the labs, but I could put a picture of any bench in any academic life sciences lab and you’d get the picture.

I got to see beyond the labs into offices in a mansion that was already on the campus when they built their new building called Mostly Hall, where a lot of the accounting, marketing, and customer service offices exist, along with event space, conference rooms with old-style furniture, and a library.

Last, I was shown some of the shipping and production facilities. It’s impressive that a lot of their orders are processed by hand.

And last, I got to have lunch with Tanya and Andrew Bertera, their executive director of marketing and had a great discussion with them; both are interesting people to engage in conversation with. I think I was just trying to process everything I had seen/was seeing. Even though it’s not a large place, it was a lot of take in.

The thing that struck me the most about NEB were the contrasts. The fusion of the old and the new (a traditional New England estate with a modern biotech laboratory building, hand processed orders/shipping of modern DNA/RNA modifying enzymes), art and science (NEB does science and is also a rather large art gallery), between basic and applied science (Tanya told me about half the research NEB does is basic research, the rest is applied/product development), between the natural and synthetic (the campus itself is very natural and they do rational design of the enzymes they find in nature to make them better), and just how much they really do put sustainability and environmentalism upfront. It’s a company where I don’t question that they want to be part of the green future. It doesn’t strike me as ‘greenwashing’, but part of the DNA that is the template for NEB. They use and sell nature and are ecologically conscious as well; they are keenly aware that a world with less nature is one that means fewer potential products for them to derive. And so they’re trying to have as light a footprint as possible.

In my own world of plant science, I’m well aware of the controversy that can surround for-profit science (Monsanto is the embodiment of all evil according to some). The ‘evil’ interpretation is that I visited the lair of a Bond villain (think Drax from ‘Moonraker’ or Hank Scorpio from ‘The Simpsons’; representing change gone wrong/technology taken too far). I don’t fully believe that about Monsanto and I definitely don’t get that impression from NEB (it might also help that NEB is a smaller company). And of course, I’m never going to eat anything NEB makes because they don’t produce food other than what looked like a community garden on the campus.

The other way, the better way to interpret my visit, is that I saw a company that is trying to be a force for good in the world so that everyone possible wins (and that’s not always true in the business world). NEB customers get good products, NEB makes money, and the environment is not harmed and hopefully even helped by their being an NEB. Education, art, and culture are served as well, all as part of a company ecosystem. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the ideal conditions are for scientists to do their work. NEB struck me as a place designed to help scientists do just that (though it’s hard to say as 2 hours isn’t enough to fully get the grasp of a culture).

I’ve compared NEB to Apple in the past (in terms of user friendliness and quality of products), and in some ways, I’m more convinced of that comparison now; they have their ecosystem of products that if you use their system, will work well. Most labs combine the products of many different companies because some are just better (has anyone made a Reverse Transcriptase that can hold a candle to Life Tech’s Superscript? I haven’t found it yet). And if you’re a postdoc or grad student, you often go with whatever the lab has used in the past; and so don’t even explore alternative products until you have to.

I like NEB even more now that I’ve seen what it’s like and met a few of the people that work there. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes that many academic researchers don’t get to see or even think about (even many industry scientists probably don’t see other companies campuses): just where the products we use every day in the lab come from.

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