"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Science

a revelation . . .

cherry blossomI just realized that I grew up in a household in which science and truth were important. My father was a research scientist in geology that led him to discover minerals from asteroid impact on the earth at a time when astronauts gathered specimens from the moon. That seems like so long ago.

Being the eldest, I think the search for truth that permeated our household was something I absorbed under my skin, and which has both helped and haunted me all my life. Being rational and wanting to be the smartest brain in the room has both helped me in a late-blooming biotech career to, well, being avoided in order for me not to pronounce some direct “truth” that people may have preferred not hearing.

Be that as it may, I realized today that my bias, if you could call it that, was to reflect and ponder things in order to understand in my own way, what’s happened in my life. Little did I know that sometimes I’m right and often, I’m not and furthermore, that some things are just unfathomable: like why family dynamics were what they were without the benefit of being able to ask and having the departed weigh in from the grave.

Today, by chance, while surfing channels to see what was playing live from the Olympics, I came across Woody Allen’s movie, “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I’m not a Woody Allen fan as I tire of listening to his nostalgic jazz soundtracks and even more, dislike hearing about his personality quirks and life history that seem to have to be included in every one of his movies ad nauseum.

The reason I’m talking about him, though, is a scene in which Allen accidently shoots a mirror while contemplating killing himself in a low moment and in which he then realizes that “life is to be enjoyed, not to be understood.”


Okay, so you mean I don’t have to understand things in order to move on? I no longer have to ferret out what accounted for something happening and why people behaved the way that they have in order to live? This may sound like an exaggeration but honestly, it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to understand things in order to process them in my life. That’s a lot of hours, days, weeks, months and years spent pondering things when I could have been doing something else!

Now, because of a dumb Woody Allen phrase, I can give myself permission to enjoy life rather than understand it? Who knew?

I didn’t. And today I’m glad to begin experimenting with an alternative reality. Better late than never!

P.S.  There’s nothing like puttering around in the kitchen on a snowy day. Here’s a photo of the peach crostata that I just took out of the oven for tonight’s dessert. Threw together some thawed peaches I had in the freezer for smoothies with a little flour, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, dotted with butter–combined with a Pillsbury pie crust, unrolled and patted into a small springform pan sprayed with Pam. Fold crust over peaches, sprinkle with coarse sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Leave in heated oven and serve warm pie with vanilla ice cream.

Peach Crostata

hijiki & carrots; teriyaki tofu and cucumber salad for dinner. . .

hijiki & carrots; teriyaki tofu and cucumber salad for dinner. . .

stirring the pot. . .

cream of tomato soup

Although I sometimes think of myself as being quiet and solitary, (“a taoist hermit”), in my professional working life, I was anything but. Although I tried very hard each time I was the “newest kid on the block,” to keep my mouth shut and not challenge anybody, it was hard for me to do any of these things longer than for the first week or two. It’s actually amazing that I had a professional career at all, all things considered.

I was a late starter getting into the workforce because my first husband didn’t want me to work (“life is long”). When my kids were in high school, I talked my way into a project management job at one of the two premier biotechnology start-up companies in the U.S. at the time. In those days, cloning was an art, carried out by molecular biologists who were treated and paid like rock stars. Nowadays, there are machines that clone while people are on their coffee break. Before I was hired, I was asked to interview with the “Senior Scientists” of the start-up company. They were very nice and very distracted by this waste of their time. In other ways, they behaved like Knights of the Round Table, coming to work at 2 a.m. and leaving whenever, or vice-versa. They purposely didn’t want anyone with a Ph.D. in science to be a project manager, which is why they were interviewing me, a liberal arts history and music major. What they wanted, it seemed, was to hire a nice “nanny” to find their notes and to run meetings that they didn’t want to attend.

Long story short, I was hired and in two years was promoted over a young Harvard MBA to Director of Project Management. I hired and trained young MBAs from Wharton and other business schools because that’s what senior management said they wanted (even though I wasn’t one.) There were four divisions in the company at the time: pharmaceuticals, agriculture, diagnostics and biocatalysis. The project managers covered projects in all four groups; there were over 25 projects with global business partners in the pharmaceutical division alone. I also managed my own projects, the most important one being recombinant Erythropoietin (EPO). Simply put, it is a glycoprotein that stimulates production of erythrocytes (red blood cells).

I remember one company-wide meeting when the CEO said, “Our number one priority is EPO; our number two priority is EPO and our number three priority is EPO.” It was a crazy time. Once the VP of manufacturing and I flew to Frankfurt for an emergency meeting and met our business partners in the airport lounge after 8 hours in the air. We then turned around and flew back a day later without leaving the airport! When I boarded the American Airlines plane the crew recognized me from the flight two days earlier. It was right before Christmas and everyone was in a festive mood. The stewardess put me in First Class and served glasses of champagne on a tray with red roses. Then, I was offered (I’ll never forget this) an unopened jar of Sevruga cavier the size of a softball–just for me. There were perks that went with all the pressure and this one beat them all.

Back to the grind, I led a global development team with business partners who succeeded under great duress to obtain EPO regulatory approval in Germany and Japan. Amgen won the U.S. patent rights over the company I worked for and built its company from its early success with EPO. During the patent litigation phase, I travelled to New York for depositions and testified on behalf of my company’s claims. Today, you might recognize EPO under its marketed name,”Procrit.” Athletes are accused of using it to stimulate performance. To this day, it is still the single most successful product ever developed by recombinant technology, generating over a billion dollars of revenue a year.

Wow, you might say. . .how did you survive that? Well, I read huge textbooks about Molecular Biology and Protein Chemistry without understanding or at least retaining much of what I read. The first year, I walked around the garden and cried a lot on weekends. Understanding a research scientist’s mentality, having grown up with my father (“my father, myself”) gave me a leg up towards coaxing them to do what management needed them to do. It was a privilege to be on this ride in the early years of biotechnology. The work was exhilarating and very, very stressful. I virtually disappeared from my family. I told my first husband that from then on, he would have to go to all the school meetings for the kids and to carry on at home as though I had left the planet. Which is also how it felt sometimes.

Anyway, that’s how I started working. They thought they had hired someone they could ignore. I managed to stir the pot enough to get things done. It was a lot of fun working with such intelligent people for such a long time. After the bloom of biotech faded, it got a lot harder to raise money, it was a lot more stressful and a lot less fun. But I had a good run. I lucked out. I worked very hard. And I’m glad that a product like EPO made it across the finish line.