Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No, that OTC drug won’t cure your cold or flu.

I admit that I am one of those people who hates to call in sick. I came down with a cold recently, and left to my own devices I would have gone to work anyways. But my wife talked me out of it, and it was the right thing to do.

This scenario plays out differently in a current radio advertising campaign for Vicks DayQuil and NyQuil: “The No Sick Days Medicine”.

You can hear some of spots here.

To summarize one ad, a father coughs and laments that he is feeling ill and will have to call in sick and also miss his daughter’s dance recital. But then it’s DayQuil to the rescue, and sick day begone.

Everyone wins.

Except the handful of people sitting around him in the office and in the auditorium at the dance recital for an extended period of time, who are highly vulnerable to contracting whatever is infecting his respiratory system.
You see, DayQuil may reduce congestion, Tylenol may reduce pain and fever, Ricola cough drops may numb your throat, and VapoRub may open your sinuses. But as the manufacturers of these products will admit, none of those OTC medicines will cure the common cold or help you recover any faster (for a more thorough examination of symptom relief, check out this article from the website Science Based Medicine).

We all have our remedies to help us feel better. But only the antibodies that your incredible immune system produces against the virus that is infecting you will neutralize that infection. And the best way to help your immune system do its job is to get some solid rest.
The most important point that I want to make is that regardless of what concoction you do or don’t take for your cold symptoms, you are still contagious. Even if you temporarily do feel a little better.

For all you know, your cold may actually be the flu. And if it is influenza, there are several thousand people in the U.S. every year, especially grandparents and young children, who would strongly prefer that you do stay home.

So instead of being patient zero, be a hero by taking that sick day. Survey data shows that in America, not enough of us do — a fact that is apparent in our culture.But let’s reverse this expectation. 

We all deserve it, right?

(Originally posted here on Medium).

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The chemical reaction that probably killed Kim Jong Nam

(Cross-posted from Medium here)

On February 13, a 45-year old man by the name of Kim Jong Nam was making his way through a Malaysian airport to catch his flight home to Macau. Without warning, two women approached him in succession and smeared an oily substance over his face. Within 20 minutes, the man was dead. The two women are alive, and in custody.

As you probably know by now, Kim Jong Nam was the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Being the eldest son of their father Kim Jong Il, he was the prince that could have been but never was, and instead lived a lonely and reasonably paranoid life of exile mostly outside of North Korea.

Motives and details regarding his assassination are murky, but it is reported that he was killed by a nerve agent called VX. This toxin is deadly in ridiculously small amounts, and classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

In terms of diabolical assassination schemes successfully executed, this incident is on par with the death of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by ricin delivered via umbrella, or the death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive polonium-210.

Among the questions raised by the Kim Jong Nam investigation currently underway, there are two that seem connected:

1. Why were two persons used to carry out this murder?
2. Why were neither of the two persons severely harmed or killed by the VX toxin they administered?

The most probable answer* to both questions is that the VX nerve agent was administered in a binary fashion. In other words, the two women each delivered a different chemical substance, and those two substances reacted on the spot (i.e., on the man’s face) to produce the VX toxin. Since both substances would be relatively harmless on their own, neither of the two women suffered Kim Jong Nam’s fate.

The hypothetical mode of VX poisoning that Nam suffered, via delivery of the precursor compound QL by one assailant, and the delivery of sulfur by the other assailant.

The first compound in this scenario would be an oily, colorless liquid called QL, or technically, N-[2-[ethoxy(methyl)phosphanyl]oxyethyl]-N-propan-2-ylpropan-2-amine. As you might guess from that name and can see from the diagram, it is a bit complex and would require some serious Walter White-like chemistry skillz to produce in a lab. It is a low-toxicity precursor to VX, only lacking a sulfur to make it deadly.

The second compound would be some form of sulfur, which is safe and easy to obtain. Sulfur reacts instantly with QL to form the VX nerve agent, or N-[2-[ethoxy(methyl)phosphoryl]sulfanylethyl]-N-propan-2-ylpropan-2-amine if you want to get technical.

In this scenario, the first assailant would be safe from any incidental exposure to VX, but not the second. And indeed, it was reported that one of the women had to vomit following the incident.
The binary form of chemical weapon delivery is not uncommon. Countries that have stockpiled large volumes of chemical weapons like VX usually store the precursors rather than the actual agent whenever possible. Obviously, it is much safer approach.

VX is has its origins in insecticide research, and is molecularly similar to what you would find in common yard pesticides containing malathion or other organophosphates. It is literally a human pesticide that goes straight to the nervous system and locks muscles into their contracted state, eventually asphyxiating the victim. It is death by torture.

Although the U.S. claims to have eliminated its massive stockpiles of VX manufactured during the 1960s, it is believed to be on hand in other countries including Russia, and possibly Syria and North Korea. Hopefully, if nothing else, this incident can arouse awareness of the potential terror of mass chemical warfare, and urge us toward global action in eliminating its influence on the planet we share.

*There are, of course, other possible explanations. See here, for instance.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Antiquities Act, Graphed

(Cross-posted in Medium herewhere a higher quality rendering of the graphic can be seen.)

In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, giving executive authority to U.S. Presidents to designate National Monuments on federal lands. Those lands are then provided additional protections from looting, grazing, mining and fossil fuel excavations.

During the past 111 years, the Antiquities Act has been used by 16 Presidents to establish or expand 157 National Monuments in 39 states and U.S. territories, preserving over 843 million acres of federal land. The fate of those monuments has varied: some have become National Parks and some have become state parks, while many remain as National Monuments managed by various federal agencies.

Shown here are two bar graphs, illustrated with pertinent details about each of the 157 National Monuments. Data was taken primarily from a National Parks Service website, found here. This data does not include the 45 National Monuments established by Congress, as they are not products of the Antiquities Act.

The first graph presents the monuments in chronological order, from Roosevelt’s first monument in 1906 to the final three monuments established by Obama a week before he left office.

The second graph presents the monuments in order of smallest to largest, from New York’s Old Fort Niagara at a few thousandths of an acre to Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea, which lives up to its long name and covers a few hundred million acres of ocean reefs.

Because of this huge range in sizes among the monuments, a logarithmic scale was used to plot the data. This is important to note because that means that the size values increase exponentially along the x-axis rather than in the linear fashion that most people would be accustomed to seeing when looking at graphs. Using a linear scale to compare this range of data would unfortunately be futile for every monument that isn’t on the same scale as Papahanaumokuakea, and very few of them are.

If you look closely, a few things may stand out. For instance, marine monuments are among the largest and are a recent phenomenon; use of the Antiquities Act has become somewhat partisan in recent decades just like so many other issues; and, no President established more monuments than Obama.

For a focused look at how different Presidents have used the Antiquities Act, please see my recent article in Catalyst Magazine.


National Monuments established under the Antiquities Act, from first to most recent.
National Monuments established under the Antiquities Act, from smallest in size to largest.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Confessions of a Postdoc on Leaving the Ivory Towers

Like many before me, I have followed the grad school and postdoc path fully toward its uncertain destination. I gathered some data along the way. This is my story.

1. Prologue
Right now, there are over 40,000 post-doctoral ("postdoc") scientific researchers working at universities and research institutions in the U.S. These are the primary authors of the large majority of peer-reviewed research papers, often working 50 to 60 hours/week for an average salary of about $45,000/year. They usually have experience teaching at universities, and they have been mentored in the finest methods of research by the most brilliant minds in academia.

2. Fluid Mechanics
Although the postdoc position was once intended to be the bridge of training between earning a PhD and becoming a professor, that scenario does not play out for most PhD graduates these days. In the sciences, the flow of PhD graduates pumped out from academia has become increasingly greater than the trickle of new tenure-track professors hired into academia, leaving about 90% of PhDs to spill over into some other form of employment. This is especially true for those who did not attend one of the more prestigious universities.

I am among those 90%. As I began my 5th year as a postdoc and accepted that the odds of a future faculty position were not in my favor, I took inventory of my skills and interests, identified and cultivated transferable job skills, and began considering careers beyond the ivory towers of academia.

3. Priorities and Realities
When the scales of academia fell from my eyes, I came to realize that many of the other career paths may pay better, have more job security, require less travel or demand fewer hours of work on evenings and weekends in comparison to faculty positions. These factors are all more important to me (and my wife) now than they were when I began graduate school as an untethered bachelor.

That said, I have a huge amount of respect for the minority who are cut from the herd to become research professors, and how much they are capable of doing. Teaching, research, mentoring, writing, fund-raising, management, innovation -- they do it all. It is a prestigious position in society, and deservedly so.

After I began the process of updating my CV, converting it into a resume, polishing personal statements, creating a web portfolio and putting out applications, I learned how hard it is to get noticed. There are a lot of good positions out there, but there are also an increasing number PhD candidates competing for them. For what it's worth, LinkedIn will tell you how many people have applied for an advertised position, and that number can sometimes be in the triple digits. That may give you some idea of how many jobs on average you will need to apply for in order to get hired anywhere.

Earning a PhD trained me to think about the world around me in ways that are rare in a post-truth world, and I am forever grateful for that. However, it did not help me gain the experience that is desired for a lot of positions in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. My job searches gave me reason to believe that a bachelors or masters degree in the biological sciences with several years of cGMP industry experience would yield more opportunities on the job market than a PhD with postdoc experience. Thus, I am somewhat empathetic to the arguments raised by some who question the value of a PhD in today's economy.

4. Planting Seeds Beyond the Ivory Towers
During 2016 (my final year working as a postdoc), I applied for 38 different jobs over a 7 month period. 

Here's a graphic I made that illustrates the outcome. The positions are numbered, and the initial response to each of my applications is classified, along with how many days it took to receive that response. The pie chart shows the proportion of the various types of jobs that I applied for.

I ended up with one job offer, which I accepted. That's a 2.6% success rate, although accepting that offer meant that I had to withdraw from the searches for two other positions (#36 and #37) that potentially could have had positive outcomes for me. 

Mostly, I applied for openings in the U.S., but a few were abroad too. I applied for positions that did and did not require a PhD, inside and outside of academia, doing teaching, research, writing, or some combination of those things.

The responses to my applications varied widely. Aside from the occasional automated email confirmation, 23 of the 38 applications disappeared into the ether of forevermore with no response, positive or negative. Of the 15 that did respond, 9 were negative responses informing me that my application would not be considered, and 6 were positive responses requesting some type of interview, writing test or other follow up.

The amount of time it took for me to receive any kind of response generally ranged from a few days to a few weeks. But in one odd case, a company responded with a request for a brief phone chat 73 days after I had submitted the application (#37). They were hiring on a rolling basis, which was probably a factor.

I participated in a brief phone interview with one well known biotech supplier (#35). As it concluded, the interviewer explained that I would be contacted by so-and-so for a more thorough follow up interview over Skype the following week. I never heard from them again.

In another case (#36), I was received a rejection email 10 days after I applied. Then, 12 days later, they contacted me again to request a phone interview. I wondered if these HR idiosyncrasies could be some indication of how the broader organizations function, but I guess I'll never know.

It is hard to identify many clear trends from this data, given that my personal experience is only a small sample size. I can't say that one job type was more responsive in any particular way. The academic positions generally had a longer response time, which is expected given the amount of application materials that they requested and the Fall 2017 start date for those positions.

5. Projections and Reflections
Ultimately, the position I accepted (#38) was as a Public Health Scientist in the virology lab at my state's department of health services. It was one of the few local positions I applied for, and incidentally the only one that resulted in an in-person interview. 

I prepared for the interview by going over general job interview questions I found on the internet and writing out responses. This proved helpful. I showed up on time, in a suit and tie, and tried to remember to make eye contact with everyone on the interview panel. It turned out that one of the people working there that was on the interview panel was a person I had known previously from my department when he was a graduate student there. I don't know if that was a factor.

While it is not the highest salaried position that I pursued, it will be a modest increase in salary, and an improvement in benefits such as retirement plans. And, it should generally consume only 40 hours of my week unless there is a public health crisis. The value of more time on the evenings and weekends to spend on all the other things that I enjoy in life, like our newborn son, will not be insignificant.

I have loved the creative and scientific aspects of working in academic research, and feel very fortunate to have been able to do so for so many years with some of the smartest and most interesting people that I have known. But I am also eager to work in a more application driven environment that has important implications for public health in my state. I am eager to have stability, to know that my employment status is not ephemeral, and to know that I can put down roots if I want to. Plus, I am able to continue working in virology, my current and chosen field of interest. 

I hope that this information will be useful perhaps to others in my field who sometimes wonder where their PhD will take them.