30 April 2013

Being Settled Can Be Unsettling

A recent find while hiking in tropical Central America
I have one lab bench that's always a bit messy. Dirty. And I mean dirty. But not dirt, per se. An old greenhouse manager friend would scoff and call it "soil." Anyway, this particular corner of my lab has some makeshift supports thrown together to support some fluorescent light arrangements for starting seeds and nurturing along various tropical plants that make it into my lab during the cold months. It's one of the joys of being a natural products chemist and having my own lab.

Some 15 years ago, I went to talk to Michael Balick at the NYBG when I was thinking about going back to school to study Ethnobotany. I told him what I was thinking about, and I think he was looking for all kinds of ways to discourage me from the field. One question he did ask that has stuck with me was, "Imagine yourself in 10-15 years, and where you'd like to be working and what you could see yourself doing."

Interestingly, my first though was that I wanted to have a lab and greenhouses and gardens.

I had decided that I wanted to study Ethnobotany because I loved plants, the tropics, and was fascinated by the use of plant chemistry. Later as I got into school, I came to realize that I was less keen on being an anthropologist. Around the same time, I became a father and got an NIH award for a phytochemisty project - both those things made it harder to take of for months at a time to the forests of the Western Ghats (where I wanted to do fieldwork).  And so that secured my place behind the bench, running columns, HPLC, doing MS/MS experiments, and trying to get the best shim out of our 300 MHz NMR so that I could try to get carbons on a couple mgs of sample.

But I also worked in the greenhouse as a grad student. I think about Balick's question at the time, but I had my lab and my greenhouse. And many years later, after a molecular pharmacology postdoc, I've got my industry job as a phytochemist. I like to say I'm the only botanist in the company. And one of the few who might claim some sort of natural products chemistry background. And again I have my own lab (I wish I had postdocs or other help) and a large garden plot on site. No greenhouse (yet), but I do have lights set
up in my lab to start seeds and keep some tropical plants happy through the winter months. A little soil on the counter top of one bench isn't going to bother anyone but me, after all.

So here I am, with what should be a dream job. And in a lot of ways it is. But there's still something unsettling about being "settled" for me. My wanderlust is always there, the attraction to the field, the place where all that botany and chemistry originates. It's the set and setting that makes the magic of science come to life, I think.