As a veteran scientist and Nobel laureate, Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz had much to share to our group of budding researchers when he came in for a faculty talk a few weeks ago. Heading into our sophomore year, we are intimidated by the looming expectations of choosing our majors, of deciding on a career path that we hope to love. We are burdened by worries, by questions that weigh on our minds that ask if we’ll be happy doing the same work years down the line, if the decision we make will be the right one. These concerns are experienced by everyone at a certain stage in their life, but as valid as they are, Dr. Lefkowitz assures us that there is little they will do to help when the world, or fate, or in his words, “serendipity,”–however you’d like to call it–steps in to take charge.
Growing up, Dr. Lefkowitz idolized his family physician and was sure he wanted to be a doctor. He went through high school and his undergraduate years doing no research, dead set on heading straight towards medical school and afterwards, residency. But in order to avoid being drafted into the war, he applied and was accepted for a position with the NIH in the U.S. Public Health Service. He wasn’t particularly interested in research at the time, and the initial failure he experienced at the institute worsened his dismay. But as time passed and his project began to come together and succeed, his perspective changed and he was drawn further into the thrill of discovery. He would gradually spend less and less time in the clinic, dedicating more of his efforts in the lab. Eventually, he would transition almost fully towards just research.
“There is serendipity in science,” Lefkowitz states slowly, contemplative. He says this in reference to his discoveries in the lab, as well as that of his past colleagues at the NIH, who collectively have earned nine Nobel prizes.
But there’s more meaning behind that, I think. So sure that he was meant to become a physician, so much that he never touched research until it was absolutely necessary, it was a series of life events he had little control over that led him to the NIH and to stay there. Dr. Lefkowitz’s time in research and the moments in his life that led him to learn to love the field, all contributed to his discovering his ultimate passion. I’m a firm believer–as I think Dr. Lefkowitz may be as well–in the idea that, no matter how much you might agonize over your future now, life will eventually lead you to where you’re supposed to be.