Scientists' Paths To Eminence: What Are The Turning Points?

A. J. S. Rayl
Jan 19, 1992

Scientists, by nature, possess a sense of curiosity that results in a quest for understanding. According to numerous researchers' accounts, that is what drives them and continues to reinforce their commitment to their profession.

The way scientists choose their fields, and the specific research projects they undertake during their careers, however, are almost always determined and directed by specific events, decisions, promotions, or twists of fate—incidents that the researchers ultimately view as turning points.

For many of the prominent scientists interviewed for this article, the initial turning point—the one that set them on their respective paths—was their exposure to something they hadn't seen or known before.

Two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling reports that his initial career milestone came in the form of an elementary chemistry experiment. "I didn't really learn about chemistry in school; rather, another student my age showed me some chemical experiments," Pauling says. One afternoon when he...

Leon Lederman, a winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics, found his career cue in a book. As a child, Lederman, now a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and director emeritus of Fermilab, had dreamed of being a farmer. Then, one day when he was 12, he read The Meaning of Relativity, a book that Albert Einstein wrote to explain his ground-breaking theory to children. "It made [science] seem like a detective story," Lederman recalls. That fueled his decision to become a scientist.

Sidney Wolff, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) in Tucson, Ariz., and president of the American Astronomical Society, first heard astronomical words during a spelling lesson in the third grade. She looked to the stars, and, career-wise, never looked down again. "I started reading everything I could find about astronomy," she says. "I was simply fascinated."

"My motorcycle is what drove me into science," says Christopher P. McKay, a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. In high school in Florida, during the same semester he got his bike, McKay was taking physics to meet curriculum requirements. "At the time we were studying the dynamics of motion, and here I was riding a motorcycle out on dirt trails, and suddenly things like centrifugal force and all the other stuff we were learning about in the classroom were answering the questions I had about my motorcycle," he says. "It just amazed me that this theoretical schoolwork had real applications, and from that point on I never considered a career outside of science."

There are, however, those people who seem to be born knowing their destiny. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one. "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a physician," says Fauci, whose current research is focused on the HIV virus. "By the time I was in high school, I just knew I would be. I liked people and I wanted to do something that contributed to society, and something that had a scientific edge to it—that, to me, spelled medicine."

Career-Making Incidents

The turning points that occur throughout a researcher's career serve to open the doors to discoveries or new directions, which often provide opportunities for important work that can lead a scientist to prominence. In essence, turning points not only serve to steer careers, but also can, and often do, make careers.

Turning points can occur in countless ways. They may be predictable and obvious, such as receiving a new appointment, being accepted at a particular educational institution, or heeding the advice of a colleague or mentor. They're just as likely, however, to be spontaneous, a matter of following a hunch that seemingly comes from out of the blue, making an accidental discovery, or just being in the right place at the right time. Turning points can also be catalyzed by a world event, such as a war or a new disease.

Pauling, now 90, has experienced numerous turning points. After receiving his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling was accepted by the California Institute of Technology in 1922 for graduate work. That, he says, was the first milestone in his career. "At that time, it was the best place in the world to get a basic education in science," he says.

Pauling says his next milestone came in 1926, when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study quantum mechanics in Europe. Though he applied to two institutes, it was Arnold Sommerfeld, who headed the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, who responded to Pauling's application.

"It was just luck that I didn't hear back from the other institute," says Pauling. Quantum mechanics was just being developed at the time, and as Pauling was on his way to Munich, Erwin Schrodinger's landmark papers on wave mechanics were published. "I was in an admirable position to learn this completely new science, since Sommerfeld was giving lectures and there were seminars being held, and it was clear to me that Sommerfeld's institute was the best possible place for me to have been in 1926 and 1927."

In 1935, Pauling was appointed chairman of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering at Caltech, but it was his own specific interest in hemoglobin that he views as the next major turning point. "I began working on a new kind of experiment. I went on to work on determining the structure, the secondary structure of proteins, the alpha helix, and so on, and to develop immunology in such a way as to explain biological phenomena." Pauling's work led to a fundamental contribution to the then-new science of molecular biology, and eventually to a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954.

In 1945, world events served to produce another turning point for Pauling. "The atomic bombs were dropped, and I began giving popular talks about nuclear fission," he recalls. The following year, Pauling was asked to be a member of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, headed by Albert Einstein. "That led to a sort of career for me, which I still do—working for world peace," he says.

Pauling suffered because of his peace efforts—socially, his family was ostracized, and professionally, he found that Caltech was unwilling to support his activities. Nonetheless, in 1961 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "That," he says, "made up for it. It was recognition that it was respectable to work for world peace, and of the two [Nobels], I value it the higher." Even so, the reaction of the president and trustees of Caltech "was such that I decided I would leave" in 1963, he recalls. Pauling went on to become a staff member of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a think tank formerly associated with the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1967, he became a research professor at the University of California, San Diego, and in 1969 he joined the faculty of Stanford University.

Pauling's interest in vitamin C, another turning point, developed as something of an accident. In 1967, during an acceptance speech for an award in New York City, he mentioned that he wanted to live 25 years longer to see what interesting discoveries scientists would make. Days later, he received a letter from Irwin Stone, a biochemist from Long Island, NY. Stone had published some papers on vitamin C. "He said in the letter that if I took enough vitamin C I would be able to live not only 25 but 50 years longer, and that stimulated me to check up on the vitamins," Pauling says. Pauling's Vitamin C and the Common Cold was published in 1970 by W.H. Freeman & Co. of New York, and he became a household name. "It all sort of bores me from the scientific point of view, but it's so important from the practical sense that I continue working away," says Pauling, who is now investigating the potential of vitamin C in prevention of heart disease from the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

Leon Lederman had firmly decided when he was 12 that he would become a scientist. Once having decided to study science, he first turned to chemistry. In high school—James Monroe High School in New York—"the teachers were lively and the kids were fun to be around," he remembers. He graduated from City College of New York with a B.S. in chemistry in 1943, and served in the Army during World War II. One day during the war, when he was standing in line for food and thinking about his career, Lederman experienced his first major turning point. It wasn't exactly an earth-shaking incident. Rather, he says, "I just decided I would change direction and study physics." Following the war, he enrolled at Columbia University for graduate studies in physics, earning his doctorate in 1951. He was associated with Columbia for more than 30 years as a student and faculty member.

Another turning point occurred in 1962, when Lederman became director of Nevis Laboratories, Columbia's center for experimental research in high-energy physics in Irvington, N.Y. "Up to then, I sort of thought I was fooling everybody," he says, "but I gradually realized then that I was pretty good at this stuff." It was during this time that Lederman collaborated on an experiment that produced the first laboratory-made beam of neutrinos, particles that carry no charge and have no deductible mass. That and ensuing research led to the Nobel Prize.

Lederman is awaiting the next turning point. "What's the rush?" he asks with a laugh. It just may come as a result of his current work at Fermilab, involving properties of quarks.

Sidney Wolff's first career milestone came after earning her degree in astronomy from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., when she had to choose where to go for graduate school. "The choice came down to the University of Wisconsin, which, having grown up in the Midwest, was a familiar, comfortable, easy place—or Berkeley, which seemed very far away and exotic," she recalls. Wolff was leaning toward Wisconsin, in particular because several Carleton graduates had had difficulties at Berkeley. Her physics professor at Carleton, Professor Kolenkow (she doesn't remember his first name), helped her make her decision. "He told me that when you have a choice, you should always go for the harder one, because otherwise you'll never know what you could accomplish," she remembers. Wolff enrolled at Berkeley in 1962, and received her Ph.D. in 1966.

The next big move for Wolff came after graduate school. It was an obvious turning point, she says. "I was married then, and my husband, who had a PhD in physics, and I could have [taken] postdocs at one of the major universities, but we decided to become faculty members at the University of Hawaii." At the time, there were only a handful of astronomers at Hawaii. Wolff and her husband made the decision to "go where individuals could make a difference." At Hawaii, she participated in the "great adventure" of building the Mauna Kea observatory, now recognized as one of the finest in the world.

In 1984, Wolff moved to Tucson to become director of the Kitt Peak observatory. In accepting the post, she became the first woman to head a major observatory. "It is a turning point, but to me it still doesn't seem to be as big a step as the other two," she says. When the opportunity came along, she once again followed Professor Kolenkow's advice and took the harder choice, moving instead of staying in Hawaii. In 1987, Wolff advanced again, with her appointment as director of NOAO.

"I've always been happy doing what I do, but what I didn't realize when I started astronomy was how many different things you could do besides research," she says. For Wolff, the turning points have served to stretch her focus beyond academic research, to administering major observatories and writing textbooks.

Christopher McKay's first major turning point came when Viking landed on Mars in 1976. "The Viking results are what got me interested in planetary science, and specifically in life on Mars," he says. While the Viking results suggested that conditions on the planet were conducive to supporting life, no life has been found there. And that, says McKay, is what got him hooked: "It was a sort of `lights are on but nobody's home' kind of thing, and that really intrigued me." So McKay, who had earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in 1975, headed to the University of Colorado to study astrogeophysics.

The next turning point came in the summer of 1980, when a friend pointed out a classified ad in a scientific publication. NASA's Ames Research Center was looking for a summer intern for its planetary biology program. McKay applied and was accepted. "Ames is the center of NASA's life sciences, and my internship there convinced me that this is where I wanted to be," McKay says. Upon earning his PhD in 1982, McKay took a position at Ames. "It was the only place I applied for a job," he recalls.

Since his arrival at Ames, McKay has focused his research on the understanding of planetary environments and the possible origin of life in such environments. His study of permanently frozen Antarctic lakes and their organisms has served as another turning point, opening up a new field of research on similar lakes that may have existed on Mars. McKay is currently working with Soviet scientists, studying 3 million-year-old microorganisms in the Siberian permafrost to determine whether similar microorganisms may exist in permafrost on Mars.

"Ten or 15 years ago, the concept of human exploration of Mars and the search for life on Mars put us in the lunatic fringe," says McKay. Now, President Bush has charged NASA to forge ahead with a manned mission to the red planet. That acceptance encouraged McKay to think beyond simply putting people on Mars, and led to his latest turning point—a shifting of focus to the prospect of making Mars inhabitable. "The concept of terraforming Mars is my attempt to reclaim the lunatic fringe," he says with a laugh.

For Anthony Fauci, the first major turning point occurred after he received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College and arrived at the National Institutes of Health as a clinical associate in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation (LCI) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1968. Fauci says his initial experience at NIH was the catalyst that determined the focus of his career. "It was the exposure to the environment and to the electricity of this place, where I still am after so many years, that really guided my decision that biomedical research was what I wanted to do the rest of my life," he says.

During his years at NIAID, Fauci has investigated the pathogenesis and treatment of immune-mediated diseases and the human immune response system. Along the way, he has experienced numerous turning points, resulting not only from his research findings, but also from receiving appointments. In 1974, he became head of the clinical physiology section of LCI, and in 1977 he was appointed deputy clinical director of NIAID. In 1980, Fauci was named chief of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation, a position he still holds, and in 1984 he became director of NIAID.

After the milestones that came about as a result of his promotions, the next major turning point, as Fauci sees it, occurred as a result of the AIDS epidemic. "When the AIDS epidemic began, it steered me in somewhat of a new direction in my research career and generated a whole new energy level," says Fauci, who, in addition to his other positions, has been director of NIH's Office of AIDS Research since 1988. "By nature, I'm an enthusiastic and energetic person, and was working away at a high-intensity pace, but AIDS turned the knob way up."

Fauci continues to devote much of his time to describing the immunopathogenic mechanisms of HIV infection and the body's immune responses to the AIDS retrovirus. He says the next turning point in his career will come with the unraveling of the AIDS mysteries. "My major goal is to see out this major scientific challenge—to delineate the pathogenic mechanisms fully, to develop a vaccine that will be effective and safe, and to develop a series of drugs that will be able to delay the onset of illness for a substantial period of time in HIV-infected individuals," he says. While acknowledging that this is a "lofty" goal, Fauci says, "I think it's going to happen in the next decade, and that will be a turning point that will be exciting for all of us."

But, he notes, in the scientific arena, even a momentous research breakthrough that would eradicate the scourge of AIDS would not constitute a turning point significant enough to justify gloating: "In science, there are always so many unanswered questions that no matter how long you're in a field and no matter how much you're recognized, you are humbled by the unanswered questions before you."

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance writer based in Malibu, Calif.

(The Scientist, Vol:6, #2, January 20, 1992) (Copyright, The Scientist, Inc.)