Balancing Intention with Serendipity in Winning The Nobel PrizeDev Shah reflects on the career talk of Nobel Prize Winner, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz
Unabashed chocolate consumer, number one on the Duke Basketball team, and lab comedian – these are just a few of the ways to describe Duke’s esteemed Nobel Laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz. After an unorthodox start to his medical career during the Vietnam war, Dr. Lefkowitz is now a full-time researcher at Duke University, where he holds the titles of James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry.
At a glance, Dr. Lefkowitz’s trajectory makes it seem as if he intended to be a Nobel Prize candidate. He began his academic career at The Bronx High School of Science, which requires a competitive entrance exam and now boasts eight Nobel Laureates, followed by undergraduate and medical degrees from Columbia University, and postdoctoral training at the NIH alongside eight other future Nobel Laureates. In reality, though, Dr. Lefkowitz had intended on becoming a practicing physician after medical school (and pursuing exclusively that), a plan he had decided on and worked towards since the ripe old age of seven. However, as a result of the Vietnam War, Dr. Lefkowitz took a hiatus from his clinical training as a cardiologist and was commissioned through the US Public Health Service (also known as “the doctor draft”) and assigned for two years to primarily laboratory duties at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In receiving this assignment, Dr. Lefkowitz began what would become a wildly successful research career as a result of pure serendipity.
At the NIH, he saw a form of research to which every Huang Fellow can relate: complete and utter failure. After “failing in such a protracted way,” Dr. Lefkowitz reported becoming depressed and decided to “hang in there” until he could return to his clinical aspirations. Eventually, he began to see success and his mentors encouraged him to further pursue this work. Instead, Dr. Lefkowitz moved to Boston to complete his residency and fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite finally scratching the long-awaited itch of being a full-time physician, Dr. Lefkowitz simply could not ignore that something was missing: laboratory work. Soon enough, Dr. Lefkowitz sought out a physician-scientist mentor and proceeded to work in a laboratory while completing his residency.
In 1973, Dr. Lefkowitz made the move from Boston to Durham, NC, and he has remained here ever since. During the first few decades of his career, Dr. Lefkowitz thoughtfully balanced his time: 50% in the hospital treating patients and 50% establishing his laboratory. Over time, he became more and more devoted to his lab work, leading him to hang up his stethoscope for good roughly fifteen years ago. During this extensive career, Dr. Lefkowitz has mentored over 200 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars and developed a sense of scientific wisdom like no other. Thanks to his “soft spot for students,” Dr. Lefkowitz set aside time to speak to us Huang Fellows, and he imparted some very applicable wisdom to our group of aspiring physicians and scientists.
First of all, he outlined his “Keys to Success in Science.” The first few pieces of advice he provided were science-based:
- There are four keys to success in research: the first is focus, the second focus, third focus, and the fourth you have to figure out for yourself.
- Build your career around scientific problems that interest you, not around techniques or groups of techniques.
- Do lots of experiments. Among the trainees who he had that were the most successful, a fairly general characteristic has been they did more experiments than the average trainee.
- Don’t talk yourself out of experiments too easily. Even if you have numerous reasons why an experiment won’t work, consider doing it anyway. Often you will be surprised at the result.
His other keys to scientific success, unexpectedly, were pieces of advice I believe should be applied to all aspects of life. From being bold and taking risks to seeing humor in everyday situations to dogged persistence, Dr. Lefkowitz has clearly learned how to enjoyably lead his life and is thankfully teaching young people how to do the same.
Personally, I related most to Dr. Lekowitz’s guiding plea for more physicians to also be scientists, bridging the gap between the stethoscope and microscope. Like Dr. Lefkowitz, I had also envisioned a career solely in the hospital and outside of the laboratory. I had always considered directly treating patients to be the most effective way to have a tangible, positive impact on a person’s well-being. After learning about the Lefkowitz Lab’s impact, which identified protein receptors that are absolutely crucial to 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 of the drugs currently on the market, I realized I had to broaden my perspective. Now, with Dr. Lefkowitz’s physician-scientist career in mind, I aspire to obtain an MD-PhD to help patients from both clinical and basic science approaches, even if that means having a fraction of the impact Dr. Lefkowitz has had.
Dev Shah, Huang Fellow ’25
Dev is a first-year Trinity student originally from Wheeling, WV (and more recently from Durham, NC) intending to major in Neuroscience and minor in Psychology and Chemistry.