Guest Blogger

A Scientist in the House

It's generally very nice to have a scientist in the house! They're handy to have around when you need something explained or translated, for example. They tend to keep their heads in pressure situations, being super logical and rational about most things and all. They tend to think and work very methodically and with a more even-keeled, wait-and-see approach, which keeps them from making rash decisions. Mine has the added benefit of being a human calculator, which is also incredibly convenient. (I will say that it's not all rainbows and lollipops, though. Because that wall of logic? Yeah. That can be very frustrating to knock up against. Just sayin.)

Anyway. Having a pharmaceutical scientist in the house during a pandemic has been . . . priceless. 

So I'm going to share mine with you today. 

(Tom with his "Beerzilla." For science you can drink!)

With all the vaccine development news this year, Tom has been getting a lot of questions from friends and family members . . . about drug development and approval processes, about science, about trusting the vaccine. He's prepared a written response to address those questions, and I thought you might like to read it. Please know: this is an opinion piece. He's not giving medical advice here! (Not that kind of doctor.) I just thought it might be interesting for you to read what a pharmaceutical scientist has to say about the vaccine.

So. Here you go. 
What my scientist has to say!

Take it away, Tom. . .


Some in my family asked to provide my view of vaccines for COVID 19. Full disclosure: I’ve never worked with “biologics” - monoclonal antibodies, peptides, or vaccines. So, vaccines are not my area of expertise. Nevertheless, I did work 29 years in big pharma in what is known as “small molecules” and that has given me some perspective on the industry as a whole. Some thoughts:

  • I trust science and I recommend that others do too. Science is self-correcting; it proposes ideas, tests them using experiments and measurable data, then challenges these ideas again. Data is key and it largely factors out the influence of individuals and subjectivity. The community of scientists examines data and judges the results based on merit. This challenge and check is repeated and the results are constantly refined. It’s about as trustworthy a system as you can get when people are involved. Trust it.
  • Scientists generally are concerned with finding the elusive truth. For the most part that is viewed as a sacred duty - more important than prestige and money and even recognition. Integrity and reputation are everything. It’s OK to be wrong, but not to cheat. There are good scientists and poor scientists, but not many dishonest scientists. They get outed and ousted. Or move to management.
  • Consequently, science does not readily lend itself to supporting a conspiracy. You may be able to buy off one scientist, but not an entire community. Eventually, the truth comes out. 
  • Science, especially biological science branches, have advanced amazingly in recent years. The fact that multiple COVID 19 vaccines are nearly approved is an amazing feat of science. The virus didn’t even exist until a year ago. The viral genome, the key first step in developing an effective vaccine, was known in January, 2020 – amazingly fast. This technology only became available in the late ‘90s and used to take years to complete. Now it’s done in weeks or days.
  • Developing a vaccine also used to take years, but new technologies have greatly accelerated the process. This technology also allows for a diversity of approaches to a vaccine – different targets and different ways to get it into our systems – more shots (no pun intended) on goal, which improves the chances of getting one or more effective treatments.
  • Clinical studies to demonstrate safety (no really bad effects) and efficacy (that it works) still take a long time and tons of money. Fortunately, the big companies with deep pockets invested heavily from the start as did smaller companies with the help of big federal money. I think Operation Warp Speed was a brilliant and totally appropriate move that is paying off.
  • There have been a lot of politics surrounding the pandemic and the development of treatments including vaccines. Anti-vax sentiment; concerns about corners being cut in development, testing, or review to accelerate availability (companies, the administration, and/or FDA); impact of timing on the election; potential conflicts of interest based on political pressure or funding. Complicated and worrisome. Yet through it all, I have confidence that the vaccines have been developed, tested, and checked appropriately. Why?
    • The companies vowed publicly not to cut corners and let the science guide them - they seem to have acted accordingly. They recognized that anything less would eventually become known and could undermine confidence in the company, the system, and/or the vaccines. In at least one case, Pfizer refused the warp speed funding for development (though they did make a big deal for sales if successful) reportedly to help ensure independent evaluation without undue influence from the administration.
    • Despite political pressure to lower standards or otherwise accelerate the approval process, FDA has held steady on the vaccines e.g. insisting on at least 70% efficacy, independent expert advisory review panels, and following accepted protocols. 
    • The leading companies ran really large clinical studies and seemingly ran them right. The high infection rates actually helped accelerate the studies. Preliminary results are incredibly promising.
    • Overall, everything I’ve seen on the development of COVID vaccines gives me confidence in the science, the industry, and the review system. 
  • If I were high-risk, say a front line medical worker, I would absolutely take the vaccine right away. No question. Sign me up. I am fully pro-vax and am willing to bet on the vaccine helping me avoid being infected. It’s a risk-reward question, and I’m willing to take the extremely low risks of the vaccine over the far greater risk of the virus. 
  • That said, I’m in a lower risk category (under 65, not a healthcare or other “essential” worker, keeping a low exposure profile) and won’t be in the early rounds of vaccine recipients. That’s fine with me because, despite large clinical studies (tens of thousands of people) and appropriate development and review, there is always a small risk that unforeseen problems may emerge when millions receive the treatment. Low incidence side effects, differences between actual and projected efficacy, actual duration of immunity, etc. These are early days and there’s likely more to learn about the virus and the vaccines. By the time I get the vaccine, there will be far more practical knowledge. Again, risk-reward.

So, in a nutshell:

  • Although these vaccines are using relatively new technology, and have been developed extremely quickly, I trust the science and the process.
  • From everything I’ve read, the leading companies and the FDA have done a good job in not bowing to various pressures and are doing things the right way. 
  • My view of the risk-reward equation: the virus is much more dangerous than the vaccine. Not even close. 
  • I will certainly get the vaccine when I can (provided there are no bad surprises once it gets into wide distribution).


I hope you found Tom's words helpful! It really is nice . . . to have a scientist in the house!


Gold Rush


Tom is contributing to NaBloPoMo this year by writing the following "guest blog."  Enjoy!

IMG_0423 2

Jenny, top dog in the pack, the sheriff, not inclined to suffer fools or foolishness. Attitude. But, beneath it all she is a lab mix, always on the make for food, insatiable.

Just before Thanksgiving, Kym has placed chocolate kisses, a mix of plain and almond in a dish on the low-slung coffee table. Amid regular visits to the dish, I find it empty and so transfer the partial bags to refill the dish, pleased with the abundance of almond in the mix.

Next day, a full dish, but all plain, no almond. Strange.

Later, an empty dish. I confer with Kym and we conclude that the dogs have been into the kisses. Interrogation begins. Jo Jo looks vaguely guilty but clueless (as usual); Jenny however looks Very guilty. That was a lot of chocolate, and what’s more, there are no wrappers around meaning that the foil was part of the feast.

I know that dogs are sensitive to chocolate. Caffeine and related compounds like theophylline. But milk chocolate is better than dark, less dangerous. But what of the wrappers? I am also concerned about blockage. We wait.

Over the next couple days Jenny coughs up a few soggy foil wrappers, but not enough to account for what was eaten ("missing mass" in technical terms). Then, Jenny appears to have a bowel movement out back one night. When she’s done, I take a flashlight to investigate. I find it and…EUREKA! A silver-encrusted nugget fit for a miner’s dream. Striated veins of glittering ore run through the turd; Together with the relieved dawning that this too shall pass.

A Tale of Two Bags

(Today's post is brought to you by guest-blogger, Tom.  Just a bit of background for you before reading on.  Tom believes in using things until they wear out.  And sometimes longer.  He drives his cars for at least 10 years.  He still wears shorts I remember buying when my kids were kids.  He rarely buys new stuff -- because he can still use the old stuff.  So, with that bit of background . . . Hit it, Tom!)


It was the best of bags; it was the worst of bags.  My poor, beloved gym bag was worn to shreds and with no obvious replacement.  (Kym:  Ahem.  This was only because he refused to look for a replacement.)  Gaping holdes, shredded duct tape from earlier repairs.

FullSizeRender 89 (1)

The end was near.  

(Kym: Maybe several exits past "near.")

But, a solution appeared based on the history of the bag.

Dial back to summer 1988.*

Scan 7

A group of young scientists looking for an interesting technical meeting that was also in a cool location.  What could be better than ISCH 6 (6th international symposium on homogeneous catalysis, in case you're wondering) in Vancouver, British Columbia?  Pre-kids, Kym and I piggybacked on a week-long driving tour of western Canada -- beginning in Calgary, stopping in Vancouver and ending in Seattle -- and then I went to meet my colleagues back in Vancouver for the meeting.

While the venue was excellent, the meeting turned out to be a dud, at least in terms of the type of things we were interested in.  In truth, my colleagues and I spent an embarrassingly large amount of time in the student union playing bubble hockey and quaffing Rickard's Red Ale instead of attending dull lectures.  (Kym:  Ah.  The exciting life of a Scientist.)

We received the bags as part of the meeting swag.  And although I didn't use it extensively for some time, I found it to be the perfect size for my trips to the gym.  So it was used off and on for the first 18 years -- and then heavily (maybe 5 times a week) for the next ten years, with obvious and predictable wear and tear.

As I was contemplating getting rid of my beloved bag (perhaps burning it in a private ceremony), I had the thought to contact one of my friends who'd also attend the BC Boondoggle in the off-chance that he (let's call him "Gerg"; not his real name) might still have his bag.

FullSizeRender 90

Indeed, he did -- and was willing to trade it for some of my home-brewed beer.  "Gerg" apparently never used his bag, and it is in Mint Condition.  (Kym:  I cannot believe he still had his unused bag . . . let alone knew where to find it!)

This 28-year-old bag will hopefully get me through another 10 years (or more) of gym use.


Thanks, "Gerg!"


* (Oh. My. God.  1988 hair.)


Leading Off


I knew, as soon as I learned this week's Ten on Tuesday topic, that if Tom got hold of it, I would never get a word in edgewise!

(And I was right.)


Why fight the rising tide?  This week's Ten on Tuesday list is brought to you by the creative mind of Tom.  


(The photography today is Tom's, too.  A parting shot of our lake, taken when he went up to close the cabin for the winter last weekend.)  

This week, Carole takes us back to the very roots of NaMoBloPo -- getting people to write -- by asking us to come up with Ten Sentences That Would Make Great Opening Lines in a Novel.  Tom loves to play with words.  He tends to be very clever and loves to write descriptive paragraphs, altered song lyrics, and limericks.  (He's not the Poet Laureate of the Kalamazoo Curling Club for nothing.)  This is a topic made for Tom -- and he had a lot of fun with it!  His list:

  1. You tell yourself that you are ready and able to swim for your life, until you are actually thrown overboard.
  2. The groups came together like peas and carrots, which is to say they had nothing in common and a great disparity in the crushed vulnerability to be.
  3. And as the last surges of the orgasm ebbed, her mind returned to the crime scene.
  4. He told me that going to the interview would put me on a path I couldn't change, an irreversible decision.
  5. Until that moment, 'batten down the hatches' had been a sailing term to me.
  6. The word constipation didn't begin to cover it.
  7. Join us, he said.  What do you have to lose?
  8. Who knew that dancing could have so many benefits?
  9. Pumpkins, sunflowers, and Uncle Ted: they're all valued more for their seeds.
  10. Hearing the farewell speech was suffocating, and felt like waterboarding, or at least what he imagined that felt like.

(Thanks, Tom.)

How about YOU?  Do you have a great opening line for a novel?


Join the fun!  Sign up for Ten on Tuesday here, or see who else is playing along here.

Startlements from India: About the Beer

Another "startlement" from Tom, as he spends a few more days in Mumbai. . .


On Sunday, I went to the mall to buy a nail clipper (which I didn't bring because I'd assumed they were still not allowed).  I found the item at a small store in the mall, busy with weekend throngs hanging out.  I suddenly heard a voice which didn't fit, asking the shopkeeper, "Where can I find a pub?"

I turned to see someone who looked like John Goodman as he looked in The Big Lebowski:  heavy build, shorts, bandana wrapped around his forehead, dark glasses, sweaty shirt.  He'd clearly been walking around in the hot and had come looking for refreshment.

He told the shopkeeper, "I'm looking for a pub.  A bar.  I just want a beer.  Downstairs they told me to go up.  Up here they tell me to go down. . . "

The shopkeeper looked confused.

I jumped in, "I'm not sure there is a pub in this mall.  It's not like the US.  There is a social stigma associated with drinking here."

He looked stunned.  "With beer?" he asked.

"Yes."  I told him.  "There is a bar in the hotel down the street."  I gave him directions, but warned, "it's not always open.  It opens for just a few hours every day."  

"It's not like the US," I repeated.


He said he was a merchant marine and had come ashore to look around.  He told me he'd just been to Bahrain on his journey, and there was plenty of beer and prostitutes and everything there.  He thought he'd find the same in Mumbai. . . 

I wished him luck and we parted.  Not sure if he ever found a beer, though!

(Note from Kym:  When Tom returns home, he complains most about the mosquitos, the lack of fresh water, and  . . . beer!  There is beer in India.  It's just . . . very "lite."  And not always available.)