Robert Lefkowitz ’59

Inspiring Reactions Both Inside the Lab and Out


Johan Wichterle

Dr. Lefkowitz enjoys a quick lunch with students such as James Snyder ’18, discussing his career and experiences.

After graduating fifty-eight years ago, Robert Lefkowitz ’59 became involved with groundbreaking research on the unique receptors on cells within living organisms. Now a Nobel Laureate and a James B. Duke Professor of Medicine at Duke University, teaching biochemistry and chemistry, Dr. Lefkowitz returned to Bronx Science to share memories of not only his outstanding career, but of his time as a student.

Dr. Lefkowitz greatly benefitted from the resources available to him during his time at Bronx Science. While in that time, students were capped at taking only two AP Courses total, Dr. Lefkowitz chose his wisely. His high score in AP Chemistry earned him “an exemption from a number of elementary courses at Columbia, as well as actual academic credit. That academic credit allowed me to accelerate my progress at Columbia, graduating in three years,” Dr. Lefkowitz said.

But that was not the only AP course that helped him to excel in the future. Dr. Lefkowitz believes that his AP English course was the one that he most appreciated, as it taught him the irreplaceable skill of effective writing. In fact, while at Bronx Science, he was also an editor of Dynamo, the school’s literary magazine.

“There is no more valuable skill in almost every profession — certainly science — than the ability to write well,” Dr. Lefkowitz said.

It was not until after completing his higher education, however, that Dr. Lefkowitz discovered his interest in developing information on receptors. While working at the National Institutes of Health in 1968, his mentors introduced him to the idea of receptors, or highly specific proteins on cells that drugs, hormones, and neurotransmitters that help initiate the actions of these forces. Dr. Lefkowitz researched this subject for almost fifty years, discovering new information about receptors that led to the extensive application of his work.

“The important thing about the receptors that I studied is that they are the targets for about half of all drugs that are used today,” Dr. Lefkowitz explained. “That only became apparent to me over a period of many years, the importance and the breadth of the implications of the work.”

Although Dr. Lefkowitz’s childhood dream was to become a practicing physician, he gave it up in pursuit of furthering his research. Looking back on his choice of changing objectives, Dr. Lefkowitz reflected that, “I was able to influence and touch the lives of many, many, many, more patients with what I did than if I actually was a physician.”

Dr. Lefkowitz not only found the discoveries and applications of his research to be rewarding; he largely enjoys the opportunities that he has as a professor and researcher to educate and mentor interested students. “In many cases, I sort of infect them with the same contagion of how exciting it is to do research, and how enjoyable and stimulating it is,” Dr. Lefkowitz said. “Many of these students have gone on to exciting and very successful careers around the world, and that’s just enormously gratifying.”

During his visit to Bronx Science, Dr. Lefkowitz offered some of the same advice he would provide to his students. He stressed that there is never one cut-out road to success, yet the keys to finding it involve choosing something you’re passionate about, and inherently good at. He is a firm believer in everybody having their own natural talents. Therefore, success will stem more fruitfully when they are applied.

“Most important of all, learn to accept failure, yet be ambitious,” Dr. Lefkowitz said. “Want to achieve something. The idea is not to be successful just to say you are, but to be successful because you want to do something. You want to really feel when it’s all over that you left behind something that was really worthwhile.”

Johan Wichterle
A group of seniors pose with Dr. Lefkowitz in front of the Hall of Fame.











Johan Wichterle
Dr. Lefkowitz has an interview with Student Ambassador Alexa Asch ’18 in front of a full auditorium.












Johan Wichterle
Lefkowitz awaits his interview with The Science Survey in the Alumni Foundation office.















Johan Wichterle
Lefkowitz poses with his Student Ambassador for the day, Alexa Asch ’18.