Fragments of life

March 16, 2010

“Fragments of Life” is a name trademarked by Emerald Biostructures (formerly deCODE). It refers to Emerald’s library of very small molecules that can be tested for their ability to bind to proteins. The general idea is that if a couple of molecules are found to bind to adjacent regions of a protein, their chemical structures can be combined to form larger, tighter-binding compounds that could be further modified to create new drugs. It’s a cool concept, though the phrase “Fragments of Life” strikes me as vaguely macabre. I wonder what alternatives were considered and discarded — “Building Blocks of Life”? “Minuscule Subcomponents of Life”? I suppose “Ingredients for Life” was already taken….

Below are a few other fragments of life that I’ve been meaning to write about.

A New Running Injury

Two weekends ago I was at Lincoln Park with Phil. He wanted to chase me around the jungle gym area, so off I went, swooping and spinning, dodging and darting — a sort of “Muhammad Ali meets the Flight of the Bumblebee” routine. We were having so much fun that another boy whom we didn’t even know joined in the chase. After 10 or 15 minutes of this, I paused next to a play structure, whirled around to start my next maneuver, and — WHAM! — smacked my head right into a metal pole. I dropped to the sandy ground. Phil and Christian ran over and jumped on top of me, celebrating their sudden victory while I moaned softly and felt my forehead start to swell. Nobody had actually seen me bonk my head, but I was embarrassed anyway, as though my I’m-still-a-kid act had abruptly been exposed as a lie.

The F Word

“Is it bad to use the word ‘fetish’ in a grant application?” I asked a colleague yesterday while editing a proposal that I was about to submit.

“Um, yes,” was the response. “It makes me think of foot fetishes.”

She was probably right, and yet I was so tired of this proposal that I felt a need to make it interesting to myself again. So “fetish” made the cut, for better or worse:

We believe strongly in the importance of the central goal of this proposal, i.e., linking antibacterial compounds to Burkholderia proteins in a manner that will facilitate validation of new drug targets. This interest in compound-target links is not simply a fetish of the investigators involved in this project; within some pharmaceutical firms, knowing the target of a compound with activity against cells is considered absolutely vital for progressing compounds to leads.

This desire to insert slightly bizarre language into mundane contexts could itself be considered a fetish, I suppose. But I like to think that it gives my writing a certain freewheeling charm.

The Awesomeness of Whiteboards

When I was in college, one of my heroes was math professor Frank Morgan, for the simple reason that he had a whiteboard in his dining room. I considered that the zenith of geeky coolness and vowed that I too would have a whiteboard in my dining room someday.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I was reminded of that long-dormant dream by a recent blog entry (Creative Process #1: Why Whiteboard?) by Greg Meyer, an old college dorm-mate of mine. This, in turn, reminded me of something I read in the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Garr says that most people — most scientists, for example — begin work on a presentation simply by opening PowerPoint and trying to create the first slide, and then the second one, and so on. In contrast, design professionals — people who create compelling visuals (e.g., advertisements) for a living — begin with a low-tech medium such as a notepad or a whiteboard because it’s more conducive to spontaneity and creativity.

My parents have promised us some money to buy shades for the windows in our kitchen. I wonder if they’d be upset if we bought a whiteboard instead.

The Clear Thinker

When I visited my aunt and uncle in Houston last month, I noticed a framed certificate on the wall from my uncle’s employer, General Electric, which congratulated him for being a “Clear Thinker.” This award initially struck me as amusing, and my sense is that my uncle has endured considerable teasing because of it. (His son was the one who mounted it on the wall, apparently to ensure that its hilarity would not be forgotten anytime soon.)

The more I thought about this award, though, the less comfortable I felt in mocking it. Isn’t clear thinking a trait worthy of praise? In fact, why am I successful as a scientist (to the extent that I am)? I’m not great at using or fixing equipment, I’m not tremendously creative, I don’t have a fantastic memory for details, I don’t have an insatiable curiosity, and I’m not fanatically devoted to my work.

I do think clearly, however. And if someone gave me an award for that, I think I’d be entitled to be happy about it.


  1. While there is indeed scope for individual style in science writing, your labmate is right: "fetish" is a bridge too far. My advice: don't make a fetish of your style. ;-)I would've thought running into a pole would *validate* your "I'm-still-a-kid" act. ;-)If "we" bought a whiteboard for the dining room? Who's "we"? You and Phil? Or is it the royal "we"? 'Cause I'm betting it's not you and Liz. 😉

  2. Jem:You are logically correct that hurting oneself while playing is a fundamental part of being a kid (or at least it was in my case). I was reporting my immediate, not-necessarily-logical reaction to the incident, which was that I felt as though I had been caught playing a role that I had no business playing and that, if I continued in that role, I'd only succeed in injuring myself.The money was designated for me and Liz, so I guess that's the "we."

  3. Maybe you should also buy Liz something *she* wants, along with the whiteboard. Like a second house that doesn't have a whiteboard in the dining room. ;-)Sorry for all the kidding–Brinsley's domesticated me sufficiently that the whole whiteboard-in-the-dining-room idea now seems to me like the sort of thing one would have in a geeky bachelor pad. It's like a brainy version of a pyramid of beer cans on the mantle, or a poster of a woman in a bikini lounging on a sports car.

  4. @ fetish…A friend who writes for USA Today is always trying to slip "moist" into a front page headline. His editors keep yanking it, but he is the persistant type, so we shall see.

  5. RE clear thinking, I've always told people that this is the key to good writing. Not a big vocabulary. Not some kind of "style," be it Hemingway or Faulkner. But clear thinking that's joined with clear writing. Gets me every time, while fuzziness and bloat are an instant turnoff.

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