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Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World. Christopher Columbus
With Mestrelab celebrating its 10th birthday, now seems an excellent time to reflect on how it all began. It’s a fascinating insight, described by the man with the initial vision: Prof. Javier Sardina of the University of Santiago de Compostela. I am sure that you will enjoy his retrospective as much as I did. Thanks Javier! Here’s to another exciting 10 years! Mike
Anger, family ties, and a very small and crowded organic synthesis lab: what do they have in common? Combined in the right proportions at a fortuitous point in time and space, and the result was the planting of the seed that much later grew into MESTRELAB RESEARCH.
It was the year 1995, the spatial coordinates were those of the department of Organic Chemistry, at the University of Santiago de Compostela (at the time you would have had to use a physical map to find it. GPS and Google maps were still far off in the future), the anger was mine, and I shall tell you about family ties in a minute.
I was a relatively young associate professor then, ready and willing to give you my opinion about anything under the Sun, even if you didn’t ask for it. Yes, I was opinionated, and very passionately so. All Spaniards are, in case that you haven’t noticed. (Of course you have noticed, this is a trait very hard to miss if you have met even just one of our breed.) The only difference was that I was always right, just like the rest of my countrymen and women! So I had an opinion on off-line NMR processing software as well. And now we get to the part where I tell you about why I became very angry.
WARNING: you are now entering into politically correct territory because I have to talk about the then top of the line off-line NMR data processing software, brought to us by a well known NMR instrument manufacturer.
WARNING: we are now back to our normal, politically incorrect space-time continuum. I hope that you have enjoyed your time away from the real World. I thought that program was t***h (read as painfully complicated to use), overp****d and overprot****d (remember the goddam dongle?) – and this made me very angry.
I shall not go into details, but you get the picture, and if you have been in this business long enough, you know exactly about what I am talking about. I was angry and frustrated because I could not get my hands on a piece of friendly software to process my NMR FIDs in my computer, so what? This is usually the stuff that makes physicians treating gastric ulcers make their livelihoods. But not this time, due to three so completely unrelated circumstances that it is hard to believe that Destiny did not take a hand.
First, I learnt about Giuseppe Balacco’s SwaNMR program for the Mac. Remember that this was happening at a time before Google was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, so this was a major strike of luck. Giuseppe was working at Menarini at the time, and the company let him work on his NMR data processing program and also give it away. (I have always wondered what he actually did at Menarini to justify getting his paychecks!) But they didn’t let him set up a website to distribute it, so getting SwaNMR was a nightmare. You had to write him a letter that he could show to his bosses. An e-mail message would not do. Then he would mail a floppy disk with the program to you. Just imagine what it would take to get frequent program updates! I was only the 11th person to go through that ordeal, but it was well worth it. SwaNMR was fantastic – much better than its commercial competitor (which shall not be named).
I felt obliged by Giuseppe’s generosity towards the NMR community, and I offered him to host his program at one of our University’s servers so people could easily download it without the hassles associated with snail-mail (how many of you remember this term? That just shows your age) delivery of floppy disks. He accepted and we quickly became e-mail friends and collaborators. But he wouldn’t hear of my suggestion of porting SwaNMR to Windows. He thought that Windows 3.1 was a derailed attempt to replicate the very elegant Mac OS to those unreliable Intel-hearted machines, and that he would stick to his beloved Mac with its blindingly fast math co-processor. Can you blame him?
Second, a very young graduate student, fresh from a stay at Leicester University, came to my office to ask for help in transforming (pun intended) the experimental research he did there into an M. Sc. thesis at our University. The fellow was Carlos Cobas, whom you know very well by now. You would have had no problem recognizing him back then. He was the same somewhat shy, wide-eyed, easy-going, fun-loving, very optimistic fellow that he still is. So I became Carlos’ tutor and helped him write his masters thesis and get his degree. And that was the end of my involvement in his career, I thought.
Silly me: little did I know that friendships developed before I was born were going to prevent that from happening. In case you were wondering, this is the part where I tell you about family ties. One evening at home, my late elder brother asked me, in a rather roundabout way – the trademark of Galicians, the peculiar Spanish tribe to which I belong – if I knew a certain guy named Cobas. My early warning system (the one that I use to detect if I am about to be asked for a favour or to do a chore) was evidently off that day, because I answered with a candid “yes, I do”. Then he proceeded to lecture me about how our late father and Carlos’ father had been friends for a long time.
By that time I had realized that all hope of bailing out of whatever my brother was going to ask of me was lost. So he duly proceeded to inform me that Carlos wanted to get a Ph. D. and that he had decided that I should be his advisor. In Galicia, once the families get involved, you had better comply with their “suggestions” or else – usually a very cold and painful “else”. So I did the only thing that I could to avoid shame to my family and unending coldness and pain for me: I said “of course, no problem”.
Third. This is the part where I tell you that my very small lab was overpopulated at that time. How is this relevant to this tale? Very much so, because I did not have lab space to house a single additional Ph. D. student. And yet I absolutely needed to give Carlos a research project for his Ph. D. And he would expect to be provided with the resources to carry it out. So what was I to do? At this point I have to come clean with you and confess that, fully at that time and partly still today, I was your typical, run of the mill, garden variety synthetic organic chemist. So available lab space was a sine-qua-non requirement to undertake any research project in my group, and I didn’t have any.
Well, this is that fortuitous point in time and space that I told you about at the beginning of this blog. Family ties and a very small and crowded lab had already joined forces and played their parts to put me in a tight spot. By now most of you, intelligent readers, will have guessed that anger (together with my admired Giuseppe Balacco) was going to provide the key to finding a way out of that conundrum.
What do you do when you don’t have lab space available but you still want to do research (in Chemistry, that is)? You turn computational, of course. Or, in our case, to writing scientific software.
Computers are cheap, they can be housed in a very small space, and they consume almost no resources, except creativity. And Carlos had that in spades. I was naive enough to believe that we could easily write something on a par with SwaNMR but for PCs, and that we would be dammed if we could not do a better job than our commercial competitors, those that shall not be named. Thus, out of anger, family ties and lack of lab space the research topic for Carlos’ Ph. D. thesis came to be chosen. So much for strategic planning.
I still remember the first day I plugged the FFT code from Numerical Recipes into the very first DOS version of MestReC and saw the first FT spectrum. After that, it was updated to Win3.1 (16 bits), and a few days later to Win95 where it became the first NMR software for Win32. Carlos Cobas, President, Mestrelab Research
Guess what? Despite the fact that our previous experience writing software was as close to absolute zero as you can get (you probably didn’t know that), we actually did a decent job of it. But that is another story. Actually, it is the beginning of the MestRe-C story. But what I intended today was to tell you only about how the seed of what eventually grew into MESTRELAB RESEARCH was planted. I hope that I delivered on that intention.
F. Javier Sardina
Co-founder of MESTRELAB RESEARCH