Derek Lowe is perhaps America’s best-known medicinal chemist. That may not sound like much, but in a quiet field where most people go through their entire careers without discovering a marketable drug, it’s tough to make a name for yourself.
In 2002, Lowe became the first industry insider to start a blog — and he’s been enthusiastically at it ever since, writing on his blog In the Pipeline between experiments at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston. STAT spoke with Lowe about Internet trolls, his love for chemical reactions, and his new book on the history of chemistry.
Do you make a living from the blog?
If I were trying to make a living off the blog, I’d be eating weeds out of the backyard.
Why did you start writing it 14 years ago?
Reading other people’s blogs, I realized the barrier to doing this was minimal, so I kind of jumped into it.
Has the blog helped you professionally?
The blog has forced me to keep up with the scientific literature, both in drug discovery and associated areas. That helped me scientifically, and of course, it’s given me a lot of visibility, which has been no harm, either.
But you can’t blog about your own research?
My current scientific interests are mostly proprietary. I’m doing a lot of really interesting work that, most frustratingly, I cannot say a word about.
Were you the typical chemistry kid blowing things up in the basement?
I did have some chemicals that were in a higher oxidation state than an 8- or 9-year-old should have, yes.
What appeals to you about chemistry?
I like being the first to find this stuff out. When I make a compound no one else has ever made, even these days, I think, “There it is, never in the universe before, until I did it with my hands.” It’s ego partly, and it’s just sheer curiosity.
But it requires tremendous patience, no?
I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I have never once put a drug into a pharmacy. I tell people: “If you want to know why your prescriptions cost so much, it’s me.” I’ve done nothing but spend money the entire time.
In addition to writing about chemistry, you’ve included recipes on your blog for pecan pie, lime sorbet, cornbread, and other foods. Do you see a lot of overlap between cooking and chemistry?
Never trust an organic chemist who can’t cook.
Your blog is now on Science Translational Medicine’s website. Has your audience shifted?
It’s the same motley crowd as ever. It gives me more visibility, so the motley crowd grows larger.
Do you get a lot of trolls?
The comments section has always been a point of pride to me, even though I had nothing to do with it. The people who show up and comment a lot are very knowledgeable. They don’t go around making comments about each others’ mothers.
Do you ever get tired of writing about failure in drug development?
I’ve seen people who couldn’t stand their ideas not working. If you can’t stand your ideas not working, you shouldn’t be in science.
Are you leaving a legacy for science?
I’m leaving a huge pile of stuff on the Internet for free. Now I have a book out and I wouldn’t mind writing another one. I would love to leave a scientific legacy. I’ll try the best I can, but the universe has a big say in this, too.