December 21, 2018 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! When life gives you lemons …

How one middle school experiment with lemons resulted in a zest for scientific discovery.

Rich McCarthy, scientist, AbbVie Bioresearch Center

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.

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

That depends. If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you exactly what I do. That’s because she also works at AbbVie as a scientist in foundational immunology and sits two floors above me. I often talk shop with my mom; she has 30 years of experience in the industry and is a wealth of knowledge. We’ll discuss the status of different projects, how to best design experiments, or how to interpret results at family gatherings (we often lose the rest of the family on these tangents). Over the years my mom has taught me how to hold a fork, how to drive, and how to do intravenous injections … not something many kids can say.

If you were to ask other members of my family what exactly it is that I do, I’m pretty sure they would say I pour brightly colored, bubbling potions from one flask to another all day long.

If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself about your career?

What I would try and impress on the 10-year-old version of myself: working in science is full of opportunity. There is so much to learn, digest and try to grasp; the journey is literally endless. If you work hard enough – and with a little bit of luck – you might be able to turn this great learning opportunity into a medicine that could potentially help patients in need.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

As a part-time nurse, I see firsthand the challenges patients face with difficult-to-treat diseases. I think of Crohn’s disease patients who have had sections of their gastrointestinal tract removed, or arthritis patients who have undergone joint replacement surgeries. “The patients are waiting” runs on a continuous loop in the back of my mind when I’m working in the lab, because it’s rings so true. Working on better treatments for these patients is what keeps me coming to work every day.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

For me, science rocks because it grants us (as scientists) the opportunity to have a huge impact on patients with our work. There aren’t many careers where a successful project can improve the lives of thousands of patients.

Fun Facts About Me:

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