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Drug Discovery Today  Volume 18, Numbers 3/4  February 2013

EDITORIAL

editorial
Luigi Anastasia

Being a Scientist
today: are you still
having fun?
Being a Scientist in the 21st century is a real challenge: too many things
are distracting us from our true goals. It feels like we are loosing the
excitement and fun that has driven us here. It is time to take a look to
the past to find a way to move forward in the right direction: there are still so
many crucial issues, especially in Medicine and Drug Discovery that only
genuine Scientists can solve.
It seems like only yesterday, but exactly ten years have passed
since I got my PhD in Organic Chemistry. I am sure that many of
you have had a similar experience, when it feels the right time to
take a moment and look back, to see how the Scientific World has
changed over the years, to better understand where we are and
where we should go next.
The first question I asked myself, which Id like you to answer as
well, is rather simple: are you still having fun in doing research?
Dont answer yet, please take a deep breath and look around
you. If you are a University Professor like me, you are probably
sitting in your office, in front of a computer, with fifty or more
emails lingering in your inbox waiting for an answer, one important grant proposal deadline getting closer and closer, a couple of

papers to review, at least one paper to send back for the third round
of revision (because five different experiments supporting your
hypothesis are still not enough for the referees), the thesis of one of
your PhD students that needs to be completely re-written,
and. . .oh, damn, I have to leave you, I almost forgot, in five
minutes I have my third meeting of the day, this time about
the totally unnecessary new Departmental reorganization. I will
be back.
Yes, this is our life today. Our lab coat is there in a corner,
hanging on the wall, white and clean. Well, not completely true, it
has some dust on it, but thats ok, it is still ready for the next
picture for an interview with some local newspaper, celebrating
our latest breakthrough discovery, if it ever happens again.
Am I totally wrong? Do you still have time to go back to your
beloved bench? Well, whether you like it or not, this is our life as a
Scientist in the 21st Century.
So, let me ask you again: are you still having fun? Dont answer yet,
lets take a closer look.
Being a researcher today has become a completely different job
compared with that of our mentors. Yes, probably the Internet has
made the biggest change, we all know that. We heavily depend on
it for our research, as much as we do in our lives. This revolution
has made dramatic changes in everything, in the way we work, the
way we communicate, the way we make new discoveries. But all
good things often come with drawbacks, and while we surely feel
that we can do more things in the same amount of time, we also
deeply feel that something is going really wrong in our lives, and
nobody seems to have time to try to fix it.
I was lucky enough to start my undergraduate degree in
chemistry when scientific journals where not online and we
had to take a class to learn how to use the Beilstein, the German
database of organic chemistry. Knowing only a few words in
German, searching for literature those days was a real nightmare,
not to talk about the endless evenings spent in the Chemistry
library, going up and down the iron stairs, searching for articles
and making photocopies. Today, we rarely visit our libraries, and
most of my students dont even know that we still have one in the
Department (do we still have one?). Today, with a couple of mouse
clicks, we can find and print any paper. Nice, isnt it? But here it
comes the strange thing: have you ever realized that, although it
takes only a few seconds to find all the published literature on a

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subject, there is an increasing higher number of papers that report


the exact same discoveries [1]? Or, even worst, there is an number
of reports of irreproducible data [2,3] and retracted papers (http://
retractionwatch.wordpress.com). How is that possible? The paper
was judged at least by three experts in the field, it took them several
months to accept it, they must have had enough time to check it,
right? Well, probably not. We just dont have enough time for
anything, we all feel this way. Thats why we missed that the same
discovery was already published in the literature, perhaps several times. And we cant blame our Postdoc. Yes, its true that he
agreed to help us when we kindly asked him to secretly give us a
hand, but it is also true that on that same day, we also gave him
four experiments to finish, and we also made sure that he had his
(which means ours) priorities well written down on a piece of
paper.
So, once again, let me ask you: are you still having fun?
Actually, the worst part of the story is that we all know that we
are moving in the wrong direction, and that the scientific world is
quietly producing an enormous quantity of junk data. But nobody
seems to care. Our judgment parameters have been corrupted. We
dont have time to read everything, so we judge things by numbers, we only care about what we consider good research,
because it comes from good Journals. How do we do that? Of
course, we use a rigorous and objective method: the Impact Factor.
Of course you, as a Scientist, are judged in the exact same way. If
your total Impact Factor is high, then you are an outstanding
scientist. Great! Oh no sorry, my mistake, I should have used the hindex to judge you, because it is much better. Actually, I should
also take into account the total number of your paper citations
(excluding self-citations of course). Yes, a Scientist of the 21st
century is the algebraic sum of his grant money + his total Impact
Factor + his h-index + the number of paper citations. Well, not
really the sum, there is a new algorithm to rank us, a newly formed
International Commission of distinguished retired professors has
just declared that we should all use that formula. But dont worry,
you are still safe, the world-ranking-list is not available on Facebook. . .yet!
So thats what seems to drive us: grant money, Impact Factor, hindex, citations. Thats all we seem to care about, not the true
usefulness of what we do. Well, its not completely true, I think
that deep inside we all know that this is wrong, but we feel that this is
the only way to survive. OK, you can argue that the famous sentence
publish or perish isnt that new, as it was written in 1932 by Coolidge
and Lord [4], therefore things have been like this for decades. But is
that really true? Did our mentors really have that as a goal? In any
case, no matter what we think, I feel that things are getting to the
point that, with money for research becoming less and less every day
(at least in Italy), we could probably rewrite the sentence to something like: we are perishing, no matter how much we publish.
So, you can now finally tell me what you really feel: are YOU still
having fun?
If your answer is No, please dont stop reading. You dont
need to quit your job and try to open an Italian restaurant downtown. Actually, there are already many crappy ones in town, we
dont need another one!
Listen: you are a Scientist, you know how many years you spent
working night and day to become who you are now, it isnt time to
give up! And here is why.
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Drug Discovery Today  Volume 18, Numbers 3/4  February 2013

Being a Scientist in the 21st Century gives us a clear advantage


on other jobs: we can be extremely useful to the World. When?
NOW! Believe it or not, the world needs more Science, and
Medicine needs us now more than ever [5]. You dont believe
me? Let me give you some examples starting from my own
research world: stem cell research. In the past decade we have seen
biologists falling in love with embryonic stem (ES) cells, moving an
enormous cash-flow and getting the public attention toward a
possible cure for all diseases, from heart failure to Parkinsons disease,
but in 2006, it didnt take them more than six months to ditch ES
cells, to fall in love again, this time for the so called Induced
Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs), the new panacea for all diseases
[6]. For many this discovery, which is that somatic cells can be
reprogrammed to pluripotent stem cells, almost identical to
embryonic cells, will revolutionize the medical world in the next
decade. I know, we heard that before, but we may want to believe it
this time. There is, however, a huge safety issue that only Medicinal and Organic Chemists may be able to solve: the genetic
approach to cell reprogramming is intrinsically dangerous, as
the cell genetic code needs to be modified. On the other hand,
a chemical approach to cell reprogramming seems a much safer
way, and this is where medicinal and synthetic organic chemists
need to step in and make the difference. Can we do it? Yes, we
should, and we should do it quickly, because the world needs our
help. Another example: antibodies. We all use them, probably
over-use them, although we all know they are often so unspecific
that we are building papers or even careers on false identifications
[79]. We, as Scientists, must be able to identify proteins without
the extensive use of antibodies, as unfortunately we do now. We
need to solve this issue once and for all. Finally, lets talk about a
key issue: drug discovery. It is true that combinatorial chemistry, the
rising star at the beginning of my PhD years, has promised but
failed to revolutionize the industry. But again, there are many
possible alternatives that we should pursue, and who can be better
than you, with your amazing chemical background, to move this
field forward?
So, if you were patient enough to get all the way to this point,
what is the take home message? How can we be better Scientists in
the 21st Century and, most importantly, what should we teach to
our students?
First of all we should all realize and accept that the Western
World, as we know it, will soon lose its leadership in the
Worlds research. Dont worry, thats OK, as long as we dont
totally surrender. People like us, who were lucky enough to
learn from the extraordinary Scientists of the past century,
should continue the legacy, teaching our students that Science
is fun, but needs hard work and bright ideas. This heritage
should be worshipped, not neglected. We should stop following
the crowd; none of our mentors did that. What is fashionable
today is already something of the past, it is old and we should
stay away from it. Instead, we should pursue our own ideas, we
must do that and remind our students of it. We should forget
about those useless activities that have nothing to do with true
research, we should fight back the bureaucrats invasion in
Science, they are killing our freedom, our imagination and
our happiness!
Science is fun! reminds us of ACS President-Elect Marinda Li
Wu, and we all know how true that is!

Drug Discovery Today  Volume 18, Numbers 3/4  February 2013

References
1 Shamoo, A.E. and Resnik, D.B. (2009) Responsible Conduct of Research. Oxford
University Press
2 Begley, C.G. and Ellis, L.M. (2012) Drug development: raise standards for preclinical
cancer research. Nature 483 (7391), 531533
3 Mullard, A. (2011) Reliability of new drug target claims called into question. Nat.
Rev. Drug Discov. 10 (9), 643644
4 Coolidge, H.J. and Lord, R.H. (1932) Archibald Cary Coolidge: Life and Letters. Books for
Libraries Press

5 Johnstone, C. (2012) Medicinal chemistry matters a call for discipline in our


discipline. Drug Discov. Today 17 (11-12), 538543
6 Takahashi, K. and Yamanaka, S. (2006) Induction of pluripotent stem cells from
mouse embryonic and adult fibroblast cultures by defined factors. Cell 126 (4), 663
676
7 Bernstone, L. et al. (2012) Several commercially available anti-CCR5 monoclonal
antibodies lack specificity and should be used with caution. Hybridoma (Larchmt) 31
(1), 719
8 Bussolati, G. and Leonardo, E. (2008) Technical pitfalls potentially affecting
diagnoses in immunohistochemistry. J. Clin. Pathol. 61 (11), 11841192
9 Ramkisoensing, A.A. et al. (2012) Misinterpretation of Coculture Differentiation
Experiments by Unintended Labeling of Cardiomyocytes through Secondary
Transduction: Delusions and Solutions. Stem Cells, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/
stem.1236 [Epub ahead of print]

Luigi Anastasia1,2
Department of Biomedical Sciences for Health,
Universita` degli Studi di Milano, via F.lli Cervi 93, 20090 Segrate (Milan), Italy
2
IRCCS Policlinico San Donato, San Donato Milanese, Italy
luigi.anastasia@unimi.it

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Editorial

Finally, as my mentor Prof. Ei-ichi Negishi, 2010 Chemistry


Nobel Prize winner, used to say: the secret of success and happiness is very simple: work hard, play hard. You must be very focused
on your work, avoiding any possible distraction, but you cant do
only that, you must also take time for a hobby that you should
pursue with the same commitment and enthusiasm that you have
in your work. This is his recipe for being happy and successful. And
we can all be sure that he has been, and still is, both!

EDITORIAL