Huang Fellows Reflections

From failed scientist to Nobel Laureate, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz recounts his journey during the 2017 Huang Fellows summer programming culmination event.

Luck and the Nobel Laureate

For the Huang Fellows, ten weeks of research had gone by in a blink, and this was the end of it all. Some of us would continue during the school year, but still, it felt like our lab experiences wouldn’t be the same again. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that we should conclude the summer with some sort of culminating event, a chance to reflect and consider what the future might hold. Indeed, we would be listening to a talk by Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, a Duke professor who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012.

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz and the Duke Basketball Team

He was wearing a casual blue button-down that complemented the morning cool. Dr. Grunwald then introduced him as a friend, which further extended the relaxed mood throughout the room. We sipped our coffees, sliced our bagels, and settled down to listen. Then, in a voice soft but firm, he began the story of himself – how a young boy with dreams of becoming a physician turned into Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, first Nobel Laureate from Duke University.

From an early age, he told us, he had only one professional goal: to become a practicing doctor. Somehow, he just knew – even before career fairs, shadowing, and pre-med classes. With clarity and determination, he followed this path: first attending a math and science high school, then majoring in chemistry and pre-med at Columbia College, and finally, graduating from medical school in 1966. Yet even the most confident of career paths can be uprooted by war. In the midst of an unpopular Vietnam conflict, there was little most medical students could do to avoid the draft. Lefkowitz secured one way out: a commission in the US Public Health Service, doing endocrinology research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He found out, only later, that this competitive program produced a golden era of Nobel Laureates.

At the National Institutes of Health

“It was this experience that would change the course of my career,” Lefkowitz wrote in his autobiography. Two years at the NIH would form the foundation for a fulfilling research career, one that he very much loved, one that would last a lifetime. It was, however, not exempt from tests of failure and perseverance – the unshakeable companions to any success. As a new researcher, Lefkowitz struggled through his first 18 months at the NIH, lacking any experience that might help with his challenging task. It was enough, Lefkowitz wrote, “to convince me that a career in basic research was not for me… I had never before in my life met with such sustained and unremitting failure.”

Yet he stood right in front of us, a renowned scientist as real as could be – something must have changed. Indeed, in his final months at the NIH, Lefkowitz managed to develop the first-ever radioligand binding assay, which lead to several publications. Yet these publications were more of a relief than an encouragement, and he was ready to resume medical training. However, as he restarted clinical rotations, he began to miss the research that had consumed his time at the NIH. I wondered if he thought the taste of success at the end made so many beginning failures worthwhile, and if he wanted to go through all of it again.

As a medical resident, Lefkowitz started investigating the β-adrenergic receptor, working secretly despite the restriction against residents conducting research. He did not know it at the time, of course, that he would pursue this receptor-related work not only for a two-year residency, but for his entire career.

Dr. Lefkowitz paused, breaking from his narrative to reflect on the events that brought him success. Serendipity was a large factor, he realized. It was serendipity that the Vietnam draft had interrupted his education, leading to training at the NIH; this training program turned out to be one of the best in the world; the receptors he studied would eventually be discovered for diverse roles and monumental importance. In fact, he argued, the very nature of new discoveries requires some sort of good fortune: if a result can be planned or expected, it wouldn’t be a discovery at all.

“I had never before in my life met with such sustained and unremitting failure.”

The 2017 Huang Fellows and Dr. Robert Lefkowitz

Luck in Research

I had always thought of great scientists as individuals who worked and studied hard to achieve brilliance, ultimately posing some innovative theory that built upon the work of giants before them. What Dr. Lefkowitz was now saying seemed to introduce another vital factor: luck. Perhaps he was being too humble – surely, he had many more strengths that guided him to success. But I really loved his story, a story with a happy ending, and since he claimed that serendipity was vital to that story, I found myself accepting it, too. I accepted the power of luck, even though I knew it was unpredictable.

In that perfectly-timed moment, Dr. Emilia Chiscop-Head, the Assistant Manager for Education at Science & Society, stood up to ask: you speak of serendipity as if it is a crucial force, but here you are speaking to eager students hoping to succeed. What would you say to these young people who want to be in control of their lives? What can they do so that serendipity would not avoid them?

Dr. Lefkowitz nodded his head slowly, then flashed a knowing smile. You need to see it, he said. Many people ignore it or miss it completely. It’s hard to go looking for luck, he agreed, but if you can find something you really love to do, something you are good at and don’t see as work, then it will serve you well. I tried to take it to heart, but his answer, full of the hard-earned wisdom of a Nobel Laureate, was still something I had heard many times before, and it did not fill me with immediate confidence.

Later, he expanded on the excitement of his research, of “discovering new facts and overturning old ones,” an excitement which he feels is sometimes lacking in basic science classes. It was then I realized that sitting there and listening, even to such genuine enthusiasm, could only convince me of so much. I wanted to return to lab where I could begin to feel this excitement, where there were scientists who could share their art, and where, according to Dr. Lefkowitz, “almost everything is a teachable moment.”

At the end of the talk, the Huang Fellows posed for a group picture with Dr. Lefkowitz, then dispersed back to labs. Dr. Lefkowitz had told his story and offered valuable perspective, much of which I am grateful for and will continue to draw upon. But his wisdom, for all it’s worth, is only the product of a long process. We were inspired, but not changed, at least not the way he had been after two grueling years at the NIH. I understood that only by living the life of a scientist – by asking questions, solving problems, and asking more – can we start to define what passionate research means for ourselves. This is the hard, but nonetheless exciting, work that forever lies ahead of us: to chase our own experiences and challenges that carry us forward, just as an aspiring physician once did, before he ever dreamt of winning the Nobel Prize.

It’s hard to go looking for luck, he agreed, but if you can find something you really love to do, something you are good at and don’t see as work, then it will serve you well.

Jake Wong, Huang Fellow ’17

Jake WongJake Wong studies global and health and chemistry. Through the Huang Fellows program, he hopes to build his scientific knowledge while discussing its implications with peers and mentors, and to better understand the relationship between scientists and lawmakers.