Very few times in life do we get a chance to hear from people who are at the very top of their field— intelligent, communicative, innovative, paradigm-shifting individuals who have improved the lives of millions with their work. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, one of Duke’s two active Nobel Laureates, is one of those people. His lab’s discovery of G-protein coupled receptors has led to the creation of nearly ⅓ of all pharmaceuticals in circulation today; nearly all of us know someone who has benefitted from his discovery. This summer, my peers and I had the opportunity to listen to him speak about his life, career, and research.
However, if you had asked Dr. Lefkowitz following his undergraduate degree if he dreamed of becoming a nobel laureate, he would’ve emphatically answered, “No, my goal is to become a practicing physician and care for my patients.” Dr. Lefkowitz always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but when he was completing his training in the late 1960s, the United States Military implemented a “doctor draft”, meaning that he would have to spend multiple years in a branch of the military, presumably with a deployment to the war-torn country. Dr. Lefkowitz heavily weighed his options, and realized that he could apply for a position at the NIH to do scientific research, a position at the time considered a branch of the United States Military, and thus eligible to fulfill his military commitment. Coming from the Columbia School of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Lefkowitz was able to secure one of the treasured spots for medical trainees and avoid deployment to a combat zone.
It was here at the NIH that Dr. Lefkowitz inadvertently discovered his love for academic research. He completed his obligation and returned to medical training, but while practicing medicine, thought to himself, “I really miss data” and realized that he had to get back involved in research of some sort, which led him to further his academic training and eventually make a Nobel Prize-winning, life-saving discovery later in his career.
Dr. Lefkowitz’s research is compelling and highly applicable to everyday medicine, but what I found more interesting from his talk was the unconventional path he took towards becoming a scientist. At the age of 19, as a rising sophomore in college, it’s getting to the time in which I’ll have to declare a major and start preparing for medical school, graduate school, or whichever other path I may take. Dr. Lefkowitz’s life story was a nice reminder that I don’t have to worry too much— if I work hard and follow what I find interesting, it’s never too late to chase a dream, no matter how lofty it may be.