Field of Science

The value of long-term vision

Friend and fellow blogger David Kroll has a great profile of Bob Lefkowitz, last year's chemistry Nobel Laureate from Duke. The most striking thing for me was to read about how Duke bent over backwards and went to unbelievable lengths to get Lefkowitz on their faculty in the 70s. Says something about the value of long-term vision and investment in basic research, something that sadly seems to be exceedingly lacking these days.

"Lefkowitz almost didn't make it to Duke. He had already committed to practicing medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard University after his service commitment. After six months there, "I really missed the lab," Lefkowitz recalls, adding he was "like a junkie who needed a fix."
Meanwhile, 600 miles south in Durham, the medical school at Duke University was flourishing. Dr. Andy Wallace, chief of cardiology, had seen the young Lefkowitz present his receptor studies at an American Heart Association meeting. He and Dr. Jim Wyngaarden, chairman of medicine, they tried to lure Lefkowitz to Duke. However, Harvard had already promised Lefkowitz a faculty position after his cardiology fellowship.
Lefkowitz admits he had no intention of coming to Duke and politely rejected Duke's offer. But Wallace and Wyngaarden rejected Lefkowitz's rejection. Their counteroffer included a $32,000 annual salary—the equivalent of $165,000 today (the initial offer was $24,000)—and an open-ended request for his other needs.
Still thinking Duke wasn't in his future, he responded with "outrageous demands" Lefkowitz says. One of those was that he start as an associate professor with academic tenure, a position that requires rigorous review at seven to 11 years of faculty service. He was just 30, straight out of his fellowship.
"That was the most outrageous demand and that was the one put in there to scotch the whole deal because I didn't want to come," Lefkowitz says. "The whole purpose of my request was to give me a graceful way out because I knew in my head that what I was asking was impossible."
Wyngaarden and Wallace met every demand.
Lefkowitz was dumbfounded. "Duke was a young institution [in 1973]. But it was a decent institution, and the offer was just so non-comparable with what Harvard was offering that I said, 'This is it. I gotta go for it.'"
"But a lot of people said, 'How can you go to Duke?' Even my in-laws at the time." He reproduces the Yiddish accent: "'Whaddaya, crazy? You're at Hawvaad.' But something said, 'Go for this.'"

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