In the fall of 1986, Will Talbot was just another college senior nervously applying to graduate school. He knew his credentials were good. As an ambitious high school junior in Gainesville, Fla. he had talked his way into an immunology research laboratory to begin hands-on training at the lab bench. And as a student at the University of Florida, he had compiled an outstanding academic record. But he figured that the competition for top programs in molecular biology would be stiff. “I applied to seven or eight schools,” he recalls, “hoping that I would get an offer from one, or maybe two.”

Surprise. Just a week or two after he mailed his applications, the phone began to ring. Stanford was interested. So were Harvard, MIT, Caltech, and the University of California programs at Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Diego. Suddenly, Talbot found himself flying from city to city and campus...

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