I applied to two PhD programs: the neurobiology department and the biological-chemistry department. What I really wanted to do was understand how synapses work; I wanted to be a neuroscientist. But I was not accepted by the neurobiology department. I was absolutely, flatly rejected. As a result, I could not work on synapses. Instead I worked in the biochemistry department and became a probably pretty decent biochemist, working on membranes.

Now the reason I mention all this is that it illustrates something, which is, I wanted to understand how a synapse worked. Had I been accepted as a neuroscientist, I would have probably worked on it. But I wouldn’t have solved it. The tools weren’t there. The time wasn’t right. Instead, I became a biochemist. I took on a much broader view of the same subject. And I ended up, somewhat by accident, solving the fundamental problem of how synapses work. Had I set out to solve that problem in a more direct way, I might not actually have gotten there first. It’s always good to know what you want to do, but be prepared for what comes. Luck plays a significant role. I went into cell biology wanting to be a neuroscientist, and I ended up a neuroscientist by accident.

James E. Rothman, one of three winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, on luck.

From “A Nobel Prize winner on Why We Need Foundational Research” [New Yorker | Elements]

(via thenoobyorker)

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