Few people are recognized by the HHMI as exceptional scientists who deserve a lifetime of nearly unconditional funding– scientists who are entrusted to do good science no matter what, as long as they have the money to do so. It is not surprising that nobel laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz has earned this trust, having spearheaded work on G-protein coupled receptors involved in one-third of all medical drugs today. Despite Dr. Lefkowitz’s impressive list of accolades and contributions to science, his career in scientific research came rather late and unexpectedly. In fact, he could have never imagined a research career in his early days.
Dr. Lefkowitz was always a physician by training, used to dealing with patients daily and seeing quick results–the antithesis of basic science research. So how did he find himself in the role of one of the most well-regarded research scientists? Dr. Lefkowitz’s first immersion in research was not exactly the product of deliberate will. The US military initiated a draft of doctors to aid in the Vietnam War, and Dr. Lefkowitz decided to instead serve as a Clinical and Research Associate at the NIH to avoid participation in the war. Surrounded by a group of talented colleagues, Dr. Lefkowitz quickly caught a passion for basic science research.
This ultimately gave way to a dilemma in choosing between medicine and basic science research, one I could imagine left him especially torn because medicine and research are two vastly different, yet intimately entwined fields that build off of each other. Research is a thrilling journey to reinvent medicine, but medicine is often a deep-rooted calling to make humane interactions. Of most humane interactions were the raw and empowering moments of Dr. Lefkowitz with his father. The medical complications of his father only made it increasingly difficult for Dr. Lefkowitz to justify a full commitment to basic science research. But after his time at NIH, Dr. Lefkowitz realized that what he missed was the day to day activity of experimental results. Dr. Lefkowitz would eventually commit to fully pursue research over clinical hours. What I found most interesting was the nature of this trajectory– unconventional and sudden, yet very much fulfilling. It exemplifies the malleability of our interests sometimes and the limitations of planning.
One underlying principle that Dr. Lefkowitz seemed to emphasize throughout his talk was “serendipity”, attributing many of his life events to this elusive force. Dr. Lefkowtiz’s emphasis on the prevalence of serendipity and the importance of being prepared to take chance opportunities that come is, I think, a valuable piece of advice that comes at a critical moment in our lives. It helps find some solace in a daunting future, in the unplanned, but at the same time encourages us to fearlessly tread into the unknown.