The MAD Scientist Hall of Fame

Name: Samuel Conway

Country of Residence: USA

Areas of Science: Chemistry, Science History

Biography: I have always had a fascination with science, as long as I can remember. Glued to the TV screen on Saturday afternoons as a boy, I would watch endless parades of demented geniuses with their mutated insects and dinosaurs and reanimated corpses, which they would send forth from their secret labs to conquer an unsuspecting world.

And I would say to myself, "That's so cool!"

As I grew older, that same fascination with the wonders of science remained, though thankfully the idea of conquering the world did not. I was curious to know how things worked and why things were. Science was the key to answering all those questions, if you just knew how to use it the right way.

Chemistry caught my interest very early on. It had everything:beakers, neat colored solutions, flashy lab coats, reactions that hissed and sputtered, Bunsen burners -- everything about it just screamed "SCIENCE"! I had an excellent teacher in high school who showed me the real thrill behind all the window-dressing: how molecules come together and break apart, how one substance can transform to another before your eyes, how electrons spinning like little planets around nuclei could combine to form the stuff of life. I was hooked.

I attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania as a chemistry major. There I was blessed with a liberal education, which means they weren't going to let me out of there until I'd taken courses in ALL the subjects, even the boring ones. It gave me a very broad knowledge base which I found, years later, gave me a tremendous advantage over others who had simply concentrated on their major subjects and ignored stuff that didn't seem "relevant."

In college, I learned more chemistry than I could shake a stick at. I thought I knew everything, of course, but when I graduated I realized that I had only begun to scratch the surface. So it was on to graduate school at Dartmouth, in the wilds of New Hampshire. Despite being a student's dream come true (they actually pay you to be a graduate student in the sciences!), graduate school was a lot of work. The hours were long and the classes were intensive, but as difficult as it was at first, it taught me the most crucial skill a researcher needs: thinking! Not just how to think, but how to think critically. How to attack a problem from the right angle, and work it through all on my own.

I graduated from Dartmouth with a brand-new Ph.D., and like so many fledgeling scientists, discovered that getting a job isn't quite as easy as one might think. One still has to work hard, and there are some often difficult choices to make. I had to take what work I could find at first, mostly to gain the experience that employers treasure so much.

First I moved to Chicago for a one year postdoctoral appointment. That's just like being a graduate student, only you get paid a little more. After that, I moved to Arkansas, where I worked as a contractor (or, as I prefer, a rent-a-chemist) for the Food and Drug Administration. I was down there for two years before landed a job as a medicinal chemist at Avid Therapeutics, a little pharmaceutical research company in Pennsylvania. After moving hundreds of miles north, then east, and then south, I wound up getting a job in my old neighborhood!

Like many small biotechnology companies, Avid did not last, and thus I find myself at yet another small biotechnology company. My current work involves the synthesis of small molecules that bind to certain regions of RNA and which hopefully inhibit the interaction of that RNA with certain target proteins. When we find one that is active, I sit down with the biologists and look carefully at the molecule to try to see what it is about its structure which makes it active. Those structural features are incorporated into a new target to be synthesized, which gets tested, then the results are used to design new targets, and so on until we have a selective RNA binder and then we patent it and all get rich and buy Porsches.

Or, at least, that's the plan.

The work is a lot of fun, and takes up a good solid eight- to nine-hour day. Scientists do not live their lives in the laboratory, though; quite frankly, if we did, we'd burn out rather quickly. Having hobbies and outside interests is as important for a professional scientist as having a degree. Among my colleagues at work, I've one who is a talented bonsai artist, one who raises orchids, and one who is a minister. All of them have loving families, with dogs and cats and children and things.

As for myself, I like to keep busy. When not in the lab, I am: -- on the board of directors of a local nature center; -- a volunteer for the American Red Cross Disaster Service; -- a devoted science fiction fan; and -- a dedicated Internet user. My main passion is still chemistry, though. The old thrill of watching one thing transform magically into another in my hands has never gone away. If anything, it's gotten deeper, since not only can I make that change happen myself, but I can answer those questions that always sprang out of my mind as a youngster: how it works, and why!

Lastly, I shall include a small picture, so that the world may know that scientists are not all wild-haired Albert Einstein clones. For one thing, Einstein never had such a nice shirt...