T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T SEPTEMBER   -   OCTOBER   1 9 9 7 

by Janet Yee

Walk the corridors and labs of NIH and you're bound to make multiple sightings of the cartoons of Alex Dent. Devotees of The NIH Catalyst's cartoon strip - especially postdoctoral fellows - are even sending copies to friends and colleagues outside NIH, spreading the adventures of "Joe Postdoc," the strip's protagonist, to research labs throughout the world. Last month, Dent was awarded a "Quality of Work Life Award" for his cartoon contributions to NIH. Janet Yee, a postdoc in NICHD recently on detail for The Catalyst, set out to find out more about the man behind the strip.

Alex Dent is originally from California, where he received his BS in biochemistry at UCLA and his PhD in biology at UCSD. He has been a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Louis Staudt at NCI since 1992 and is currently looking for an academic research position. He and his wife, who is also a biomedical scientist, have an eight-month-old son. Alex has published 21 cartoons (counting the one in this issue on page 2) in The Catalyst since 1994. (He missed two issues - the last one of 1996 and the first one of this year. His excuse was something about having a baby.)

One of the first things that strikes you when you meet Alex Dent is his resemblance to Joe Postdoc, and Dent admits that he used himself as a model for the cartoon character. But unlike Joe, Dent is not glued to his safety glasses and lab coat. In fact, he searched the nooks and crannies of several labs to find a relatively clean and intact garment to pose in for a photo (see page 9).

Alex credits his sense of humor with helping him cope with the stresses and demands of research at NIH, not the least of which are the dark and cramped labs here that stand in stark contrast to his doctoral digs at UCSD, which was partly the model for the ideal lab environment depicted in his cartoon "National Institutes of H.E. Double Hockey Sticks" (July-August 1996).

But he admits that the availability of resources, expertise, and funds to perform basic biomedical research were factors that attracted him to NIH and that he continues to appreciate (as do most at NIH, fondly referred to as "Nerds in Heaven" by outsiders).

Our starting point in the intervew was the Dent cartoon that sparked the greatest controversy among readers - one in which Joe shows his parents his unkempt desk - just like Alex's - in an overcrowded lab ("The National Institutes of the Dungeon Gnomes," September-October 1995). One reader wrote to say that Joe's mother's comment about the lab's resemblance to "a messy kitchen" was sexist, and a couple of readers objected to Joe's invidious suggestion that MDs get more spacious quarters at NIH than do PhDs. The second most controversial Dent cartoon was about Joe's suspension by a radiation safety officer in the "National Institutes of Radiation Safety Blues" (January-February 1996), which prompted complaints from NIH radiation safety officers. As it turns out, the published version of the cartoon was toned down from the original, which showed Joe choking the radiation officer in the last frame. This pre-publication alteration prompted the first question.

Q: Besides the cartoon about radiation safety, how many of your cartoons have been edited?

Dent: I had three other cartoons censored. One cartoon was entitled "The National Institutes of Not Exactly the Opposite of Not Unhealth" (January 1994; Dent's debut), which showed Joe

continued on page 7


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