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Typical Day

Dr. Sherlock Salk’s day starts on the wrong side of the bed. At 6 a.m., the alarm spits out shrill, staccato bleats, and Sherlock tumbles out of bed and onto a floor littered with takeout containers caked with the remains of chop suey and Mickey D’s.

His M.D., Ph.D. post-doc credentials do not include cooking skills, Sherlock painfully reminds himself as he digs out a squashed remnant of a French fry lodged in his ear. He knows his research is brilliant, but his in-home cooking is stubbornly takeout. Try though he may, Sherlock just can’t wrap his brain around the science involved in frying an egg.

Sherlock is soon on his way from his Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill historic brownstone home to the modern, office park-style, suburban blandness of his employer, the National Institutes of Health. Even though Sherlock isn’t thrilled with NIH architecture, he does love being the big-cheese research scientist at the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (affectionately called “NCATS”). His mission, and he has decided to accept it, is to track down the causes of the world’s deadliest and rarest diseases. Sherlock is lip-smackingly proud that he is the brains and brawn behind the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases program. Fragile X Syndrome. Core binding factor leukemia. Hereditary inclusion body myopathy. This kind of stuff? Bring it on. Sherlock knows he’s up to the challenge. As he strides through the doors of his lab, Sherlock is doing what he’s best at – thinking and multitasking. He squints at the calendar on his smartphone and mentally ticks off what his day has in store for him.

It’s not pretty. He has a morning lecture to high school interns – thanks, public affairs department. And then, he has to endure a talk by a post-doc on genome sequencing in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Sherlock stifles a yawn. Why oh why does he agree to mentor herds of post-docs? His soft heart? Bingo. Finally, he’s due at the grants committee meeting, where he’s “the decider” of who and what will get a crack at NIH bucks.

No science today for Sherlock today, he thinks, as his spirit and heart sink. The NIH bureaucracy has him at its beck and call for most of the day. Drat! Sherlock is bummed. No chance to spend precious lab time on his pet project, fatal familial insomnia. Sherlock is close to getting to the bottom of this totally, insanely rare disease that affects only around 40 families – adding up to around 100 people – worldwide. This inherited ailment robs its victims of the ability to sleep, and finishes them off in 18 months. Insomnia on steroids is what Sherlock calls it when he’s in a particularly wicked mood.

Like he is now. He’s still in a wicked, nasty mood as he sees Ms. Norma Desmond, of the public affairs department, walk toward him with clipboard in hand and a wide grin that gets even wider as she catches his eye.

“Dr. Salk, the students from F.X. High School will be in Room 23405-B at 10 a.m.” Norma says as she checks a box on her clipboard. Sherlock replies with a grunt. He knows he should be more sociable, but all he wants to do is spend quality time in his lab with the controls and the experimentals and gene mapping and gas chromatography of his research on FFI.

But duty is duty, and bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and off he goes to his lecture.

Minutes later, Sherlock is facing a windowless room packed with 15-year-olds. He settles in at the lectern, clears his throat and launches into “The Talk.” He should know it by heart. Public affairs has prodded him into doing scores of these pep talks.

“I’m sure you fine young people are very curious about scientific research.”

Dead silence. The kids aren’t making eye contact because they’re intensely intent on fingering their smartphones.

Sherlock is aware that his speaking skills are on the same level as his cooking skills – bad, bad and worse. Nobody’s perfect, he keeps saying to himself as his “pep” talk puts a whole room full of 15-year-olds to sleep for the next hour. Hmm, maybe he could be the cure for FFI, muses Sherlock as he rushes off to his next ordeal, the post-doc lecture.

Sherlock slinks into Room 25506-ABX for post-doc John Scopes’ talk on super bacteria with an attitude. Scopes drones on and on for the next two hours, PowerPoint-ing his way through genome sequencing, mitochondrial mashups and the microscopic architecture of antibiotics. Sherlock is at his wit’s end halfway through, pulls out his smartphone and starts playing a hot session of “Angry Birds.”

The next meeting is a marathon of NIH funders. Sherlock and five colleagues spend the next four hours deciding whether to fund projects such as a safe infant sleep outreach program and a biomedical training program. All worthy, Sherlock thinks, but all he wants to do is get back to his FFI research.

The meeting ends at 4. Sherlock remembers what the powers-that-be told him when he was applying for the NIH job. Regular hours. Steady pay. Working with brilliant people. And there’s more, they assured him. Yeah, Sherlock says to himself. Lots of after-hours fun doing research you were hired to do in regular hours. Sherlock unlocks the door to his lab, and his spirits soar. He’s home. Welcome to his world, where the low hum and buzz of the high-tech equipment signal: “Science is made here.” Dr. Sacco Vanzetti, Sherlock’s post-doc assistant, hears Sherlock’s steps and leaps out of his chair, waving a computer printout of lines and squiggles.

“Dr. Salk, Dr. Salk!” Vanzetti is so excited his voice hits a high-pitched squeak. “The sequencing of the FFI prion clearly shows the link to a mutation of the protein PrPC. It’s never been proved before, and WE’VE DONE IT!!” Vanzetti grabs Sherlock, who stands stock-still, transfixed with joy. Vanzetti and Sherlock whirl around the lab, occasionally colliding with lab tables piled with microscopes and all kinds of lab glassware, some of which tumbles to the floor with a loud smash. They soon collapse into chairs - exhausted. Sherlock looks at his watch. It’s 6 p.m. He smiles. Eureka! Victory! In spite of its inauspicious beginnings, it’s another day well spent at the NIH.

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