Our life is but a vector; time is our scalar. Dr. Lefkowitz was a member of “the Class of 1968”, a cohort that was defined by its times while also being a defining force in itself.
Dr. Lefkowitz never felt a “calling” towards research. He was certain that his love of medicine would result in him becoming a practitioner, and even when he went to medical school, he avoided research electives in favor of clinical classes. He was steadily making his way towards his residency, but again – we are never immune to the mechanisms of the times we exist in. During his residency, he became a part of the “Doctor Draft”, where he left medicine to join the NIH to fulfill his obligated conscription in the Public Health Service during the Vietnam War.
There, he met the fellow members of his cohort. He spoke of Dr. Harold Varmus, a friend and colleague who conducted research on oncogenes and ultimately spurred the creation of targeted therapeutic drugs; Dr. Varmus would later become the director of the NIH. He spoke of Dr. Michael Brown, who studied the regulation of cholesterol at the receptor level, leading to the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Dr. Lefkowitz’s own research centered on receptor biology, most notably the role of G-protein coupled receptors. The studies conducted on these receptors have led to improved drug development, with almost half of all modern prescription pharmaceuticals being based on Dr. Lefkowitz’s first findings. He mentioned the similarity of hormone receptors to rhodopsin receptors, connecting two points in the research timeline – old and new.
“The Class of 1986”, therefore, was not describing his undergraduate years or medical school cohort. “The Class of 1986” was the group he entered the NIH with, a group that ultimately won nine Nobel Prizes, a group with mentoring lineages only two or three generations away from Schrodinger, Bohr, and Linus Pauling. He told us, budding practitioners and researchers, to choose wisely. Choose wisely, not regarding the name or prestige of the graduate school or medical school, but choose the mentors whose values and approaches you can learn from. “Serendipity seems to favor one scientist over the other,” he stated, alluding to the fact that research may occasionally be fruitless, that science may not care how many hours you put into it. Yet if you find the right mentors, mentors who have experienced serendipity in some way, you may just have a greater chance of finding it too.
Life doesn’t wait for you to decide, life doesn’t ask you for your preferences before it chooses a different path for you. When Dr. Lefkowitz was asked if he still felt any longing towards medicine, the calling he ultimately had to leave behind, he straightforwardly answered yes. Yet he acknowledged his love of data, his experiences of overcoming failures in research, and how one day he looked into the mirror and realized: “you’ve become a scientist”. As I continue to journey to adulthood, Dr. Lefkowitz’s story of his path to today was a gentle reminder that we are never immune to what life gives us. While I don’t know what my life will end up becoming, I’ll just try to find serendipity first.