Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Rich McCarthy, scientist, AbbVie Bioresearch Center.
For a young Rich McCarthy, middle school math was too inflexible and history too boring. Instead, he gravitated toward science, where his imagination was able to soar. Whether crafting a homemade battery out of a piece of fruit, or studying his own blood samples under a microscope, the possibilities always seemed endless. So endless, in fact, that his grown-up self is still knee-deep in scientific research and experimentation.
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.
My earliest memories of actually liking science were from middle school. To be completely honest, it was more like process of elimination. I pretty much disliked every other subject; history was boring, language arts were awful, math was really hard for me. But in science class, we got to learn about real world things, do experiments, and figure out how things worked. That immediately appealed to me.
The first experiment I can remember was in 6th grade; we made a battery out of a lemon. It was a rudimentary experiment common in middle school classrooms where you power a small light bulb with a few lemons and basic wiring. Looking back, although a simple concept, I remember the experiment blowing my mind. My all-time favorite science experiment, however, was known as the ‘blood lab’. We got to draw our own blood and make smears to study under the microscope. By doing so, we were able to see the different components of the blood; if your smear was done well enough, you could even differentiate a few white blood cells. It is one thing to read about these things in textbooks, but to see my own blood in front of my own eyes truly brought this concept to life. In a wonderful twist of fate, it’s twenty years later and my work in immunology still focuses on white blood cells.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I really wanted to drive the T (Boston’s subway system), specifically the green line. Like most little boys, I was fascinated by trains and every time we went into the city and got to take the trolley, I thought it was the coolest thing.
What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?
For those kids interested in the sciences, my advice would be to absolutely go for it! Although drug discovery can be hard at times, the rewards can be endless when working on a project that has the potential to help patients in need.
Also, and most importantly, I would tell them that it is okay to fail. In this industry, although many things fail, you should never stop trying. As an example, one failure I learned from early on happened in my seventh grade technology class when we were given a wood block and had to make a body for a CO2 powered car. My strategy was to have the lightest car in the class, so I basically removed all wood that was not part of the CO2 chamber and left a thin little stick for the body and wheels to attach to. When it came time to race the car and the CO2 canister was loaded and discharged, the lightweight, skinny car couldn’t handle the pressure. Because I removed too much material, weeks of cutting and sanding were reduced to a broken pile of sticks. This “tough” lesson taught me not to get too focused on one specific thing, but to consider multiple solutions when addressing a problem. I think this applies particularly well to ideas in science.