Chutzpah And Collaboration With Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz

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TAC Robert | Chutzpah And Collaboration

 

What are the two of the most influential factors affecting the writing career of Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz? Chutzpah and collaboration. Robert talks with Robin Colucci about how chutzpah means having the intellectual flux to challenge established ideas and concepts. Young people need chutzpah to succeed in life. Another thing you need is collaboration. Throughout his journey, there have been significant figures that motivated him to write a book. Without them, Robert wouldn’t have had written: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm. Join in the conversation to unearth more funny and inspiring stories from Robert. Don’t miss out!

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Chutzpah And Collaboration With Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz

I am very pleased to introduce to you, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz. He is an American physician who’s an internist as well as a cardiologist and biochemist. He is best known for his groundbreaking discoveries that reveal the inner workings of an important family of G protein-coupled-receptors, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012.

Now as many as 30% of all prescription drugs are designed to fit like keys into the similarly structured blocks of the Lefkowitz identified receptors. Everything from anti-histamines to ulcer drugs, beta-blockers that help relieve hypertension, angina, and coronary heart disease. Bob joins us on the show to talk about his journey and process of writing his memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm. Bob’s wit and great storytelling make his book a terrific read. Get ready because he is about to regale us with some amazing stories from his life, as well as key moments in the development of this memoir that is truly a joy to read. I hope that you enjoy this interview.

Bob, welcome to the show.

It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

I’m so delighted to have you. I have checked out your book. It’s entertaining, engaging, and incredibly interesting as well. It’s not very often that we get to talk to someone who has written and published a memoir. Yours is particularly interesting. I wanted to chat with you. We are going to talk a lot about the process of what you went through and what it was like for you to write it. Is it the one book? Tell me more about your background before you wrote this book in terms of writing.

I have written about 900 scientific papers, which is a different genre if I use that term. The only other book I have ever participated in was the co-authorship of a two-volume textbook of Biochemistry many years ago, which I knew to this day as about the only professional thing I have done in my long career that I regret. It was a total waste of my time, I felt. I’m a scientist, so what I enjoy is producing new knowledge. What I learned in writing that book is the idea of re-hashing things that are already known due to the research of other people. It just didn’t the wind my clock. I hated it.

Compared to that and, which would have been an academic textbook that would be read by medical students?

It’s medical and graduate students.

Contrast that to writing a memoir, which is different. You regret writing the other book. Tell me a little bit about when you look at doing the memoir project overall. What are some of the big impressions of that experience?

It’s interesting to hear you frame that question that way because if I think of it in that context, I would have to say this writing a memoir was as close to the opposite extreme as I can imagine. I loved the experience. We will talk more about how we did it because I didn’t do it alone. It was a sheer delight. The whole project in terms of the writing was probably a little over a year. It wasn’t all that long. I loved it. One might say, “You were writing about your favorite subject yourself,” but I would push back a little on that. Maybe not too hard, though.

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You are definitely very involved in the scene. I didn’t get a chance to read every word of it but from what I have read, you are pulling from lots of different aspects of your life, not just your scientific life.

I’m going to mention the name of the book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm. It is in fact, a memoir. Shall I tell you how I’ve got involved in writing it?

Yes.

That in itself is an interesting story. As you will learn in the course of this hour, I’m a bit of rock on tour. I love hearing and telling stories. Everything reminds me of a story. As I approach my birthday, I have accumulated a lot of stories. Anybody who’s worked with me and that includes right around 250 students and mostly post-docs. In addition to that, many dozens of undergrads. Anybody who’s worked with me knows that I love to tell stories and regale them with stories.

I would say for many years, and there has been a drumbeat of people saying, “Bob, you’ve got to write these stories up and share them.” I would never have done it. It didn’t seem all that attractive as a way to spend my time. I still had post-traumatic stress from the biochemistry book. One of my post-Doctoral fellows from the mid-90s, now a full professor of Pharmacology at Emory University named Randy Hall, did an interesting thing.

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And CollaborationOf all my graduates, he’s probably the most devoted Duke basketball fan. We have a terrific team every year. I would say once every couple of three years, and he would come up. I have two season tickets, and we will go to a game together. Several years ago, he was here for such an occasion. We went out to dinner before the game. Over dinner, I was regaling them with stories, no surprise there.

He pitched me on the idea of writing them up again and the way he and many others have been doing for years. I gave him the usual disclaimers and refusals, but then he shifted gears. He asked if I was familiar with a book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! I don’t know if you are familiar with that but it is a perennially best-selling memoir, if you will, by Richard Feynman. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, written in a genre, which might be referred to as told to. Feynman told his stories to a former trainee or acolyte, who was now a full professor of Physics in his own right. This guy wrote them up, and Feynman edited them. They published it decades ago. The book is still a good seller to this day.

It’s a fascinating read. It’s not a memoir because the stories are disconnected. They are just stories. What did Randy say to me was, “How about we try to emulate that process? We will talk over the phone each week. I will record the conversations. You will think about it in advance, chronologically organize your stories, and you will tell them to me. I will interject when I have questions or need further information. In the intervening week, I will write up the stories, send you the draft, and edit it. We will go back and forth until we are both happy with it. We will try to develop a narrative structure for it. It won’t be disembodied stories.”

That sounded intriguing but I was not immediately hooked. I said, “Give me a little while to think about this.” Certainly, within a week, he said, “This sounds like it could be fun.” We embarked on the process and talked anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours every week for a year, typically in one session. He recorded, and we followed exactly that process. Little by little, it came to life. The next thing we knew, we had a manuscript. In terms of the process, we looked online, talked to people, and tried to find out who might be a good agent to shop the book around. We were not going with an outline or a proposal for a book. We had the entire manuscript at that.

We found a guy. I think his name is Jim Levine. He’s very well respected. We contacted 3 or 4 guys. One of the things I liked about Levine is that I don’t know his exact age but he’s definitely in his 70s. He might even be my age. I liked the idea that an old geezer was still in the game. Of the four people we wrote to, one never responded, two responded almost immediately, and one responded a couple of weeks later. The one who responded the quickest, literally within twelve hours, was Jim Levine. This was pre-pandemic. He said, “I’m traveling abroad. Give me a few days to read it. I will certainly put in time on the plane on my way back and be in touch.”

He liked it. He said, “Let’s shop around.” Over the next few months, I think he probably contacted about 30 places. There were good news and bad news. The good news was that almost everybody loved it. The bad news is nobody wanted to publish it. They said, “Memoir is much less scientific. Memoirs don’t sell.” That was disappointing but he said, “No, you only need one acceptance. Let’s go again.” He wrote to some smaller houses, the first 30 were all the big names. He came up with the one who ultimately took it, which is Pegasus in New York. It’s a small publisher, a husband and wife.

They said they wanted to take it on Pegasus books. He liked it because he had never worked with them before. He wrote to them because he had heard good things but he had never done a book with them. We signed a contract with them for a very modest advance or whatever it’s called. Neither of us did this for the money. I’m not a wealthy man. What I’m going to make from the book is nothing, although it’s going.

It should be like going out to dinner money.

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I want to get my stories.

Very often, it’s going out to dinner money, depending on how big the advances are. It might be bigger dinners or fancier places.

It’s done quite well. We still don’t know it was published and we haven’t even gotten our first figures yet. Initially, they printed a few thousand.

I was looking at it on Amazon, and it’s ranked overall in the top 85,000, which doesn’t sound very high until you consider there are over seven million books on. It’s in the top 50-ish under cardiovascular health or disease.

All new authors and maybe all authors do. Randy and I checked those Amazon ratings from time to time. In the first months after it was published, it was as high as 3,000 or 4,000. A few months around 20,000 or 30,000 and now it swings for the most part between 60,000 and 120,000. Every time I do a podcast or a lecture where I mention the book, we get a little burst of sales. They originally published 3,000 copies, and they sold out very quickly, so they had to print some more.

It’s a great read, well written, entertaining and engaging.

We’ve gotten so many nice comments about it. The book is written so that it’s accessible. You don’t have to be a scientist to read this. We deliberately put most of the science in what we call chapter notes. The intended audience is anybody and everybody but one particular fraction of that population has turned out to be aspiring physicians, scientists, and physician-scientists, which is what I am.

Several words have come up frequently in the things that people write to me about the book. The most common is inspirational, which nothing makes me feel better than being able to inspire young people to reach for what they want to do. I laughed out loud at the points in this book. I found myself laughing out loud. That makes me happy because I think, as they say, “Truth is stranger and funnier than fiction.” The funniest things are things that happen because our imaginations are somewhat limited. You say, “This can’t be happening. It’s ridiculous,” but it’s happening.

I think of something that I did read. This is an interesting theme because I found this to be true so often with scientists who do breakthrough research. A couple of times, you write about one, was a professor, and then another time was your first NIH grant application. When the guy said to you, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t excel in all three.” It’s giving away some of the books. I think it speaks volumes about how you need to think and who you need to be to achieve some of the things that you have.

This is material that I cover in the book. People often ask me, especially young people, what do you need to succeed? I could write a book about that and maybe I should. I see your name is Colucci. You are Italian Jewish. Anyway, it’s the same idea.

I’m an Italian who grew up in a lot of Jewish neighborhoods, so I will probably know the word but go for it.

It’s chutzpah.

That was the word I had in mind.

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And Collaboration
Chutzpah And Collaboration: Pegasus originally published 3000 copies, and they sold out very quickly.

 

You need to have some chutzpah. In my game that doesn’t mean being a wise guy. It means having intellectual chutzpah or being able to challenge established ideas and concepts. Some people culturally are not set up to do that. Especially I find people who come from rather authoritarian countries, where there’s a strict pecking order or deal leader. It’s very hard to question what’s thought to be an authoritative fact, where somebody like me comes from a very questioning point of view, where I don’t fully accept any knowledge written in stone.

To me, everything is provisional. It’s not because it’s wrong. It’s woefully incomplete, and we don’t know how incomplete it is. You need to have a little chutzpah. The story you are referring to was when I was interviewing for a position at the NIH, this was during the Vietnam War, the guy who would ultimately turn out to be my mentor but neither of us knew at the time that would happen. He was interviewing me. He was 1 of 10 people I had interviews with.

He asked me what I aspire to. At the time, I was 23 years old and graduated medical school, obviously somewhat precociously. I was getting ready to start a two-year internship and residency before I would have to go into the public health service because I had been drafted during the Vietnam War and drafted into the public health service. He asked what I wanted to do. I gave him the usual boilerplate about I want to be a clinician, a scientist, an administrator, the whole bit. He was very brash and said, “That’s BS, Lefkowitz. You can’t do all those. You are going to have to make a decision somewhere along the line about what you are going to emphasize.”

Right off the bat, I was being exposed to chutzpah. He was not shy but he was right. Although you can do all those things, you can’t do them all equally. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and you can’t compete with somebody who’s doing 1 of the 3 all the time if you are doing it a third of the time. That’s a good example of how chutzpah is an important thing that you need to be successful.

You were a clinician, and then you did turn to research?

Yes, I did. When I give talks to young people in student groups these days, which I do a lot of. I often title my talk A Tale of Two Callings because I did experience a calling to the practice of medicine. I was a kid and idolized my family physician, Dr. Joseph Fribush, in the Bronx. This was in the 40s and 50s when I was growing up. He would make house calls. I would be happy. I loved this guy and what he did. He would come with his black bag, almost like a magician. He would open it, pull out all these magical instruments, a stethoscope, an otoscope, a thermoscope, and a prescription pad. He let me play with everything and listened to my heart.

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By the time I was eight years old, I was convinced that there was not any question that’s what I would go. I never questioned that. I have always loved science. Two of my favorite toys as a child where it was a toy microscope but it works and a Chemistry set. Despite that love of science, I never wanted to do any research, not at all. I wanted to learn it so that I could be a better doctor. In college in medical school, I never did any research.

Even though I had ample opportunities, I wanted to be a physician. Fate intervened, and the Vietnam War was going on. There was a doctor draft that meant unlike the main draft for men over eighteen, which was a lottery draft. There was no lottery for physicians. Everybody was drafted, and you’ve got two years deferments after medical school. You went in Army, Navy, Air Force or public health service. Everybody wanted to get into the public health service because that was the one service where you had at least a decent chance of not going to Vietnam.

For all the other services, you could pretty much take it to the bank. You were going to spend 1 of your 2 conscripted years in Vietnam. In public health service, you had a real shot at staying in the United States because they had to stay at prisons or research institutions, including NIH and CDC. I was fortunate to get commissioned in the public health service. I was assigned to the NIH for two years. I was miserable there. Nothing worked. For the first time in my life, I experienced protracted failure.

I had never failed at anything to that point in my young life. I hated it. All it did was convince me that research would have nothing to do with my career, which is what I always thought anyway. At the end of my first year there, I made arrangements to go to the Mass General Hospital in Boston after completing my second year to finish my residency, and then do a cardiology fellowship.

During my final six months at the NIH, my project began to work. I published my first couple of papers, liked it, began to think about it a little more seriously but not so seriously that I didn’t turn down the repeated demonstrations of my mentors to stay on at the NIH for additional years because they said, “Your project is so hot.”

I went off to the Mass General and threw myself back into clinical work, which was always my first love, as I told you. I was good at it but after six months of full-time clinical work, I realized that something was missing from my days. I was not as fulfilled as I had been previously. I eventually tumbled that what was missing was being in the lab, doing ornaments, and wrestling with scientific problems.

Over the next two and a half years in Boston, I split my time. I found another mentor and went into his lab. I split my time between doing research and finishing my clinical training. By the time I finished that, I was beginning to have another epiphany and experience another crawling towards research. I went to Duke in ’73 at the age of 30. For the first year or two, I split my time between clinical teaching on the wards. I would say maybe 40% of the time, 60% getting my lab program going.

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And Collaboration
Chutzpah And Collaboration: Everybody wanted to get into the public health service because that was the one service where you had a decent chance of not going to Vietnam.

 

Within the first few years, my lab program took off. Within 3, 4 years, I was probably spending 80%, 90% of my time in the lab, and that was not a conscious decision to do that. It took me over, and that was the second calling. For the next 35 years, I continued to make rounds. Several years ago, I hung out at my stethoscope for good.

Now I’m completely in the lab and teaching but there were two callings, first to medicine and then to research. When I tell this story to the kids, I try to impress them. You’ve got to stay open. What comes along because you think you want to do something. When you are very young, it doesn’t mean you are going to wind up doing that your whole life.

It was the lab work that led you to your Nobel Prize, as I understand it.

It’s interesting. When I was going to medical school and even before, to me, medicine seemed, still does, the most glorious career. Where in life can you find a career where you can do more good for people than to alleviate physical suffering, sometimes mental, cure diseases, and on rare occasions, save a human life. That’s an amazing experience and privilege. When I look back on my career, as it turned out, the number of people and patients that I have reached through my research, so dwarf the number that I could have reached practicing medicine.

The work that we did, not that I knew at the time that it would be the result of it, in discovering this huge family of receptors for drugs and hormones is the basis for about a third of all FDA-approved drugs now. That 700 drugs are based on the discoveries we made. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I have been able to reach tens of millions of patients rather than perhaps a few thousand. That’s a good feeling. I can’t say that was the impetus to my going into research in the end. The impetus was simply curiosity. That’s what I had to do and I have to do it. It’s like an artist has to paint. Why? As the kids in my lab would say, “Because that’s how he rolls.” I need to solve scientific problems. That’s who I am.

Doesn’t that always produce the best work? What’s motivating you isn’t the award or the accolades that you might get. You have this burning desire to explore something.

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Whether it’s sports, entertainment, the military or whatever walk of life, you wind up in, your best shot at realizing your potential or perhaps even exceeding it, whatever that means, is if you love it and feel as you did a calling. My remarkable blessing was to feel that calling on at least 2 separate occasions to 2 interrelated but very distinct activities.

Back to the memoir and the process a little bit, I’m going to ask you two questions at once that you can answer in whatever order but what would you say would be the most fun part of writing the memoir for you? What did you find to be the most difficult part for you of the process?

For me, the fun part was getting to tell all my stories again in a framework where I wasn’t time-limited because I’ve got a lot of material. At the end of the process, we had created a document titled Left on The Cutting Room Floor. There were all the stories that I had told Randy but which did not fit into the narrative structure we had developed. We didn’t use them. It was 75 stories left on the cutting room floor. The most fun thing was getting to tell my stories. Generally, my stories represented digression. Whoever I’m telling a story to, they didn’t come to me at that moment to have me tell them stories.

It’s either a graduate student who’s come for advice or one of my trainees to pull all the data. Something reminds me of a story, and off I go but I am cognizant of the fact that’s not why they are here or where they get the story and move on to what we are supposed to be doing. In telling the stories to Randy, I had no time constraint. That’s what we were here for. I could go on and on.

Initially, I told you we talked for an hour and a half to two hours. We were going to talk for an hour a week. That seems like a long time to talk an hour. It was taking 1 hour and 15 minutes, and then we take 1 hour and 30 minutes. I will be honest with you. By the end, it was two hours every time. I think our longest was 2 hours and 20 minutes. He was probably hanging by a thread at that point but I was warming up to third gear.

That was the most fun part being able to tell the stories, and it was fun going back over my life and checking with sources. When you wanted it to be as accurate whenever possible, which was not always, to fact check, we would do that.  Especially with some of the stories where you could find hard documentation of them.

What was most difficult? I can’t say that was most difficult, but I will change the question a little bit to what was my biggest concern both before and during the process? That’s easy for me to identify. It was the issue of voice. I have a characteristic voice as everyone does but if I’m not doing the primary writing myself, my concern was the accuracy with which Randy could capture my voice. It’s interesting. Since you do a show, you have heard your voice on tape many times. Anybody who hears their voice recorded, we all know one thing, that’s not me.

The same thing is true on the printed page. When we first started doing this, I was convinced he was not capturing my voice. He said, “Trust me, Bob. This is you.” I said, “That’s not me.” That concern persisted through the entire exercise. When it was all done, and I was still making myself miserable over that, we gave the manuscript to quite a number of people who had trained with me or knew me very well.

The question we put to them without one way or the other is, “To what extent do you think this captures Bob’s voice?” In fact, sometimes, we didn’t even ask them that question. We would have them read it. The common thing that came back was, “This is amazing. It sounds exactly like you, Bob. When I read this, I can hear you telling the story.” That’s when I finally relaxed. I said, “It doesn’t sound like it to me but if everybody else says it,” and everybody did, “I know that he did a terrific job.”

I’m so glad you brought that up because that does come up sometimes when we are helping someone go straight to the manuscript. I love that you told that story because it is so similar when you hear your voice recorded, it doesn’t sound like you but it is you. It sounds like everyone else. That could very well be why there’s this that dissonance in the author’s mind of, “I don’t think that sounds like me. No, it does.”

Once in a while, I would catch him up on something but we scrubbed those things. There were very few of them where he would use an expression that I don’t use. It was generally generational. There’s a generation after me. One of them that I mentioned because we have to scrub it on so many occasions is the phrase to hang out. He will have me hang out with somebody. “Randy, I don’t hang out. I spend time with people. I visit the people. I talk to people. It’s not what I do.” We’ve got all a hangout. I let a few of them stand.

I find that with every author that everyone has their favorite word or phrase that sometimes there’s a tendency to overuse. Sometimes we have to go in with a find, replace and pull out that word and come up with something else. It still has to be in your voice and something you would say.

Randy and I have a terrific rapport. I would say he’s one of my favorites but most of them are my favorites. I get along very well with my trainees. We have even done a few virtual book events together. Often people comment on what an easy rapport and relationships usually are. He will ask me questions based on the book, not anybody can do this. First of all, Randy writes beautifully.

I was going to say especially for a scientist.

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And Collaboration
Chutzpah And Collaboration: There are only two kinds of people: funny people and those who aren’t funny.

 

He admitted to me that he always wanted to write a book. He reads voraciously outside of scientific literature, unlike me. This was a bit of a fantasy for him. I credit him so much. This was a true collaboration. He did all the primary writing based on hundreds of hours of recording. He’s great.

I know a lot about good writing and well-written. It was surprising. Let’s face it scientists aren’t always the best writers. You are good at other stuff.

It’s good because we like each other and it’s given us additional time together that we have had, and that continues.

Do you think that there might be another book in you?

I think probably not. We will keep the idea alive. This book got the best of my stories. I have read a number of sequels and books where you can tell this wasn’t the first line material. Especially I have seen that happen when somebody publishes a book, and it does quite well. They come back with another one, which is supposed to be more of the same but it isn’t as good. You can tell that they are scratching.

We are not going to put out book two, which is called The Cutting Room Floor.

If we do, we are not going to call it that. During this conversation, you found yourself laughing a lot, and that’s true of most compensation is that involvement. I have thought a lot about why that might be. I have a little riff on that in the book. It’s in my chapter on mentoring. It’s number nine. Humor is a great prod to creativity. In my experience, the more people are laughing, the more creative they become. It might be due to the fact that humor requires seeing unusual connections between things. Getting a joke is like making a little discovery. You have a flash of insight, and suddenly you see a funny connection that you didn’t previously see. The creativity required for humor can prime the mind for other creativity.

For this reason, I’m constantly joking around in meetings with my trainees but the humorous tone, hopefully, sets the stage for inspiration. We get a little vignette that illustrates what I do. Here’s a story. A few years ago, I had a conference call with a pharmaceutical company about a potential collaboration. I was on the call with four young post-Doctoral fellows from my lab at Duke.

We were talking with 4 or 5 scientists from the company. The leader of the company’s scientific teams started off the call, “Professor Lefkowitz, let me introduce my team. We have here Carlos, who is our Director of Chemistry, and Nina, who’s our Director of Molecular Screening.” When I heard these introductions, I decided on the spot that I was not going to be done.

The four young post-Docs for my lab didn’t have any titles. They were post-Docs. However, the pharmaceutical company folks, on the other hand, the other end of the call, didn’t know that. This was before Zoom. When it was my turn to speak, I adlibbed a series of introductions. “Thank you. Now I will introduce my team. I brought here Aaron, who’s our Director of Protein Purification, and Scott, our Director of Mass Spectrometry.” As I was making the introductions, my trainees began cracking up as I gave them fancy-sounding titles.

Unfortunately, it’s a regular phone call. I’m at a video conference. The people on the other end of the call couldn’t see my post-Docs trying to stifle their laughter. It was a funny moment. It led to a productive conference call with lots of creative ideas being tossed around by the members of my group. Interestingly, several weeks later, we had another call with some of the same people from my group and a different company. I pulled the same trick, and only I changed my guys’ titles.

I do think that humor, the essential elements of humor, are very similar to making scientific discoveries. It’s seeing relationships that maybe somebody else wouldn’t see that way. There’s a caveat that I always want and there are only two kinds of people I’m quite sure of, people who are funny and people who aren’t funny.

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There’s no crime in not being funny but there’s something you have to remember. If you are not funny, don’t try to be funny because you know what I’m talking about, there’s nothing worse than an unfunny person trying to say something funny. It makes your skin crawl because it missed the mark. Even if it’s by a couple of degrees and everybody looks at each other, and they are saying, “He thought that was funny.” If you are not funny, you don’t try to be funny. It’s as simple as that.

I have never heard someone talk about humor as a catalyst for scientific discovery but it makes so much sense. It’s a terrific insight.

I have lab meetings every week. They go on for three hours. I always live in them with a great deal of humor. First of all, it relaxes people but it gets the creative juices flowing. As I’m flinging out these fingers, you’ve got to stay sharp because I’m pulling things from different places, which by the way, is a problem for some of those who were English as a second language, especially Asian trainees. I’m looking around my office. I will have like 15, 18 people in here. As I’m saying these funny things, I’m scanning the group. I can sometimes see, somebody from China or Japan is going right over their head, and that’s too bad. I do feel that when we get people going on that humorous role, the creative ideas seem to flow from all sides.

I imagine it probably emboldens them a little bit, too. It’s more of a state of play than like, “This is totally serious research. We have to get everything right from the beginning.”

Playfulness is a huge part of my style. The lab has always been like my sandbox. This is my playground. This is where I play. Playfulness is very important because people are at their most creative in their earliest years. If you look at kids when they are playing, 3, 4 or 5, their imaginations are so amazing. I have young grandchildren. When I play with them, we all have a lot of fun because I go right with them whatever they are imagining. Playfulness, humor, and creativity, to me, are all part of the same creative enterprise.

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And Collaboration
Chutzpah And Collaboration: Watch somebody who’s good at it, and that’s how you get good at it.

 

As you said, seeing those connections that aren’t obvious.

When I used to teach clinical medicine, the major arena in which I did that was, I would have a rotation of 2 months, where for 8 weeks, 6 days a week, I would round in the hospital with a group of students, interns and residents. I was what’s called the attending physician. They would present the new cases. I would go over it with them, go to the bedside, review the findings, sign off or not sign off. We would also make rounds on all the patients who had been previously admitted every day. I felt an important part of that exercise was the role, what it means to be a compassionate physician like in the lab. Mentoring is all about role modeling, and it’s an apprenticeship. You watch somebody good at it, and that’s how you get good at it.

One of the things I would always do is sit on the edge of the bed, touch the patient, do a little physical exam, even if they didn’t need one, because laying on hands is healing in and of itself. I prided myself. There were some exceptions to this but not a lot that no matter how severely ill a patient was, no matter how dire their prognosis, I could always make him smile or laugh. That’s tricky.

When you have somebody nearing the end of life and who has a dire prognosis and knows they do to get them to laugh, that takes some artistry, which I learned over decades. I would try to model that for my trainees to say, “It doesn’t matter how sick they are. You can still lighten that burden if you know what to do if you know how to do it.” Even if it’s not in the laboratory where I’m trying to empower people by using human words, it’s even at the bedside, and one can do that.

Bob, this has been so fantastic, fun and inspiring. Your book would be a great book to have by the bedside if you do find yourself in the hospital, a trusted friend, family member or a physician could read to a person and help to lighten their load for sure.

I appreciate you saying that. One aspect of the book on my life, which we didn’t touch on, is the fact that I, myself, am not a cardiologist but a cardiac patient. I inherited strong genes for coronary artery disease from my parents, both parents, mother and father. My father died very young forethought attack at age 63. I developed Angina at age 50 and had quadruple bypass many years ago. In the book, I tell the story of the various measures that I have taken in terms of reducing risk factors and dealing with the anxieties that will produce. I think that’s another aspect of the book, which people who might have such problems might find inspiring.

The healing power of laughter is undisputed.

It’s what has saved me down through the years. I can tell you that.

Thank you again for being on the show.

It’s my pleasure, indeed, Robin, and to meet you. I hope that your readers find it enjoyable and funny.

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About Dr. Robert Lefkowitz

TAC Robert | Chutzpah And CollaborationDr. Lefkowitz is the James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Duke University. He has been an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1976. Lefkowitz was born on April 15, 1943, in The Bronx, New York. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1959, he attended Columbia College from which he received a bachelor of arts in chemistry in 1962. He graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1966 with an M.D. Degree.

After serving an internship and one year of general medical residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, he served as Clinical and Research Associate at the National Institutes of Health as a Commissioned Officer in the United States Public Health Service from 1968 to 1970. Upon completing his medical residency and cardiology fellowship in 1973 at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston he joined the faculty at Duke.

Lefkowitz studies receptor biology and signal transduction and is most well-known for his detailed characterizations of the sequence, structure and function of the β-adrenergic and related receptors and for the discovery and characterization of the two families of proteins that regulate them, the G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) kinases and β-arrestins.

Today, as many as 30 percent of all prescription drugs are designed to “fit” like keys into the similarly structured locks of Lefkowitz’ receptors-everything from anti-histamines to ulcer drugs to beta blockers that help relieve hypertension, angina and coronary disease.

He has been elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Amongst many awards he has received the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the American Heart Association’s Basic Research Prize and its Research Achievement Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine, the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, the National Medal of Science and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012, a prize he shared with his former trainee Dr. Brian Kobilka.

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