Short version: I’ve worked in the biotech and medtech industries for 25 years as a bench scientist, a director of R&D and (briefly) a CEO. I’m appalled by most science journalism, particularly health news, which consists principally of credulous reporting of “breakthroughs” pushed by self-promoting academics and entrepreneurs. Here is what you should remember when reading these articles:
- Science is really hard.
- Translating science into treatments that improve health is even harder.
There is a need for science writing that distinguishes fluff from substance (Aaron Carroll does this well), and I think my experience and skills are a good fit for that need.
For the past couple of years I’ve been writing posts on Quora, comprising over 800 answers to questions posed, mostly about molecular biology and infectious diseases, but sometimes politics, extraterrestrial life and other subjects. Quora regularly sells these answers to publications like Forbes, Huff Post, Medical Daily, Apple News, Newsweek and others. Quora has been a great opportunity to practice my writing skills, but I want more control over my work and this blog provides that.
It also gives me an outlet for writing about hiking. Most hiking stories are just variations on the Hero’s Journey, or are vehicles for flogging gear. I’m much more interested in writing that conveys the experience of hiking. Carrot Quinn has done this spectacularly well – much better than I ever will – but I think I can still add something of value to the genre.
Long version: I was born in Tucson AZ in 1956. Tucson was then a small city in the process of becoming a large one. My parents, like so many Tucsonians, had arrived there to work for the military. My dad was a LA hot-rodder and high school dropout who became a flight instructor at Marana AFB. My mom was a Missouri farm girl teaching school at Davis-Monthan AFB.
They were also visible from my classroom window, and I spent a good deal of time in class looking out the window at them rather than paying attention to the lesson. I grew up at the height of the baby boom; classes were large, instruction was rote, corporal punishment was considered necessary, salutary, and unremarkable. A quick learner, I rarely needed the benefit of recitation or homework to master the work and saw no need to engage in busywork. My teachers saw matters differently. I was regularly called to the front of the class to be administered a paddling for my misdeeds and indolence. I knew better than to complain to my parents.
These pedagogical methods instilled a lifelong distrust of authority in me. I loved to read and to learn but hated school. I was much happier outdoors, where my friends and brother and I could roam the foothills looking for interesting rocks and snakes and lizards. My mother never betrayed any qualms about allowing grade-school boys to wander free in the desert all day long. She reasoned that we would show up by supper time and she was correct.
In addition to the desert near at hand, we took regular day trips to local attractions: Sabino Canyon, Gates Pass, Tanque Verde canyon, Saguaro National Monument (now Park), Mt. Lemmon. These were supplemented by camping trips to the Santa Ritas, Rincons, and Chiricahuas, as well as more-distant trips to Oak Creek Canyon, Marys Lake, Jacob Lake and the Grand Canyon. The 60s were a time that prized the freedom and mobility of the road, and we would pack up our station wagon on short notice and head out in a given direction with no particular destination in mind.
We moved to Southern California in 1967. My dad was from there, but I think the main motivation was better schooling for my sister, who is deaf. Tucson hosted the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, but my parents wanted Karen to be mainstreamed.
I hated the move, hated being torn away from the desert and mountains. California has these in abundance of course, but they were no longer outside my back door. School discipline was less strict – I only got the occasional paddling in the principal’s office for offenses such as fighting – but the curriculum was at least a year behind that of Tucson’s, and I was even more bored and alienated from classwork.
I had the good fortune to make friends with Brent Bradley, whose dad formed a Boy Scout troop dedicated to taking monthly camping and backpacking trips. Backpacking in those days was truly a fringe activity. Equipment was obtained at Army Surplus, and involved a lot of steel, canvas and leather. Mr. Bradley, a retired Marine Drill Instructor, managed to whip the troop into sufficient shape to hike a section of the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas. In July of 1968 we covered the 50 miles from Red’s Meadows to Yosemite Valley in seven days. We saw exactly zero other hikers in the backcountry. It was great.
High school deepened my disenchantment with the educational system. After graduation I wanted nothing to do with further schooling. I went from part- to full-time washing dishes at Knott’s Berry Farm Chicken Dinner Restaurant. I saved most of my money to buy the better gear that was becoming available by mail-order from REI and Eddie Bauer. After my brother Dave graduated from high school in 1976, we planned a trip on the rudimentary Pacific Crest Trail through the length of the Sierras, from Walker Pass to Lake Tahoe. It was not to be. I injured my knee early on and had to bail out at Onion Valley.
After knee surgery I got a job building sailboats for Westsail Marine. If you ever watched “Miami Vice”, you’ve seen one of the boats I built – Sonny lived on a Westsail 32. The money was pretty good for a 20-year old. But I began to notice that the old guys – the ones in their 30s – lived a pretty monotonous life. They went to work, then went to the bar, got drunk and high, went home, and did it again the next day. They didn’t make a whole lot more money than I was making. I liked making boats well enough, but didn’t want to be stuck in that kind of rut the rest of my life.
I went to UC Santa Cruz because it had no fraternities or sports teams. And it was cheap. Tuition was $350 a quarter, and I could make that plus most of my rent and groceries by pounding nails weekends and summers. I was interested in writing and psychology, but much of psychology soon struck me as BS. I took a genetics course and it changed my life. The elegance of mid-20th century genetics – “elegance” being a term for simple principles that explain many important things – was stunning, and I believed I had found a path toward truth much more sure than the slippery concepts of psychology. Harry Noller‘s class in molecular biology sealed the deal for me, and began a fascination with the biochemistry of RNA. His class involved serious lab work. We isolated restriction enzymes from bacteria – cutting-edge science at the time – and I found that I had a taste and a talent for the lab, which I much preferred to the classroom.
I liked lab work so much that I decided to go to grad school and get a PhD. I was accepted at the University of Colorado, which had a number of top RNA scientists on its faculty and also has mountains nearby. I found one of my fellow classmates to be irresistibly beautiful and slyly charming. Over a series of cheap grad-student dates I learned that she was funny, smart, independent, liked to go backpacking, and most of all was someone I really loved talking to and being with. I still do.
My thesis work in Mike Yarus‘ lab was an overly clever scheme to deduce the arrangement of tRNAs on the ribosome. I got the right answer, but not in a way that other scientists found compelling. After getting married in 1987 and getting my PhD in 1988 we moved to Bloomington IN, where I did a post-doctoral fellowship with Norm Pace. I studied the role of metal ions in the catalytic mechanism of RNA enzymes and deduced a mechanism that requires two metal ions, a novel proposal at the time. I also gained a much deeper appreciation for the microbial world.
I expected to apply for jobs in academia, but Larry Gold, a professor who had been on my thesis committee in Colorado, was starting a biotech company based on test-tube evolution of RNA molecules to create new therapeutics and diagnostic agents. I didn’t think the company would last, but reasoned that it paid well and would take me back to Colorado. I could still apply for academic jobs once the startup failed, as most do. We – my very pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter – made the move in 1992. The company (NeXstar Pharma) stuck around, developed the first effective treatment for macular degeneration, and was sold to Gilead Sciences in 1999.
Larry kept the rights for diagnostic applications of aptamers (the evolved RNA molecules) and I helped him found SomaLogic in 2000 and served as director of R&D. But my management style and research approach were in conflict with Larry’s and I found myself sidelined and frustrated – making good money but unhappy. I left in 2004 to found a startup of my own. I learned that I am terrible at promoting myself; I also learned that this is an essential skill for would-be entrepreneurs. The startup never got off the ground.
In 2007 I joined MicroPhage as director of R&D. We eventually developed and got FDA clearance for the first same-day test that identifies Staph aureus bloodstream infections and detects antibiotic resistance. There was such an ungodly amount of drama associated with this process – lying, betrayal, apparent redemption followed by failure – that I wrote a book (as yet unpublished) about it. Despite creating a product that worked and would save lives, the company went bankrupt in 2013 and I was out of a job.
Raising a family and working at startups is not compatible with doing a lot of backpacking. But I started taking my girls on overnight pack trips when they were four, and continued until they were teenagers and could think of nothing worse than spending a weekend with Dad in the woods, cut off from raging parties and social drama.
I then started doing week-long section hikes of the Colorado Trail. Once MicroPhage went under, I had time to stretch these outings to 4-6 weeks. And that’s really long enough for me. I love being out on the trail, but spending 4-6 months away from my wife, my family, my dog and my home is just too much absence. It would turn hiking into a job, and I hate jobs.