Monday, May 7, 2012

Cultural Differences

There was an interesting post over at In The Pipeline last week about the differences between chemists and biologists, in particular the nature of how chemists and biologists conduct research presentations in mixed company. As the vast majority of my experience is in academic environments, I will not claim that any of the following observations necessarily extends beyond the weed-ridden walls of academe.

1.) Biochemists do aspire to make details of individual preparations something that can be avoided. Certainly, for those of us who are not working with wretchedly ill-behaved proteins (at least on occasion), we can basically just describe the protocol in broad terms (overexpression, cell lysis, clarifying the lysate, and the chromatographic methods/other procedures). I've done that without specifying buffer compositions in exacting detail before. Also, we are trying to make things as routine and unexciting as possible - preparing protein constructs with cleavable affinity tags; expressing eukaryotic in bacterial cell strains that compensate in various ways for not having all of the innate eukaryotic metabolic machinery; using multi-well plates for spectrophotometric assays of various sorts. We would like for things to be boringly reliable, rest assured.

2.) One fundamental problem with presenting material to mixed audiences is that your own people are in attendance waiting to pick your stuff apart. Not necessarily in a malicious manner, of course - well, at least not always. In short, you might decide to go light on the detailed mechanistic enzymology (say, for sake of example, you are an enzymologist) in your latest talk, but what then happens in the Q&A session? Your fellow enzymologists pepper you with a dozen intricate mechanistically oriented questions in no time at all. Six months later, you present again in front of this mixed audience. You have included adequate enzymological detail in your talk and slides. The cell biologists and analytical chemists yawn, and the synthetic chemists wonder why you're boring them with this information. And now you'll never break the chain.

3.) Biology fundamentally means working with living organisms. I sometimes have the impression that chemists who haven't ever done any substantive biochemistry or biology research don't fully appreciate this distinction in the visceral way that those of us who have fallen to the Dark Side do. If it takes a week for something to grow up, then that is what we do. We can't just toss it on a hot plate to speed things up. Conversely, not everything can be stashed in a freezer to wait until tomorrow (although when it can, we do appreciate it). There's also the price of doing interesting biology/biochemistry, where the efforts to make things boringly reliable in point 1 are nowhere near being implemented.

There's certainly more I could eventually think of, but these were the major points I wished to mention. I, personally, do my level best to make my points as understandable and transparent as possible when giving a talk. Of course, given that some of my ideas involve slaughter by spin Hamiltonian, it can be easier said than done......

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