Alexander Fleming was a botanist, pharmacologist, and biologist who was known for having a messy laboratory. When he found mold growing in his bacterial culture, he named the problem “mold juice,” an impurity which ruined his experiment. Instead of dismissing the problem however, he turned it into a discovery and found a new drug called penicillin.
STEMedia’s survey finds that one of the hardest hurdles faced in a successful STEM career is the connection between innovation and practical application. What was it about Alexander Fleming that allowed him to see past his experiment and innovate? As Malcom Gladwell says in his nonfiction bestseller , Outliers, much of the success we see in science and business can be attributed to pure luck. In other words, no one has gotten anywhere in life by simply being exceedingly clever. Jeff Bezos jokingly blames the success of Amazon on “half luck, half timing, and little bit of brains.” It seems at first like pure luck that Fleming found the first antibiotic, but perhaps there is more we can learn from his example.
We can’t all be natively lucky, but we can control our ability to be in the opportune place at the opportune time. Part of Fleming’s success is his multidisciplinary point of view: working between botany, pharmacology, and biology. Because he had multiple perspectives on his work, he may have had a scientific advantage. Similarly, scientists have the opportunity to theorize from multitudinous backgrounds in order to arrive at the most creative representation of their results.
The unique experience of a scientist, a technologist, an engineer, or a mathematician necessarily colors their research aims. However, the degree of diversity matters not only within the individual but between collaborators. One example of this effect is the discovery of adult neogenesis , or the proliferation of new brain cells in an adult brain. It had been long established in the field of neuroscience that adult brains did not generate new cells. The dogma dictated that the adult brain simply rearranged connections between existing cells to make new memories—cells that finished developing shortly after birth. However, it is now widely accepted that some new brain cells are born in adulthood, thanks to a handful of scientists around the globe.
Joseph Altman found the first evidence of new adult neurons back in 1963, but his views were largely dismissed until 1999, when Elizabeth Gould and Pasko Rakic independently proved the result in primates.“By spending endless hours in the laboratory and doing very little public relations work inevitably led to our isolation. Having failed to spend the necessary time and effort in the market place, we failed to recruit a cadre of confederates and supporters,” Altman says regretfully in his memoir . Although he had the evidence of work, he failed because of his isolated point of view. In order to prevent making the same mistake and delaying scientific progress by more than 35 years, every innovator should consider the community in which he or she surrounds himself or herself.
Altman’s counterexample shows how important it is to have multiple perspectives on scientific work. It is a little known detail in Dr. Fleming’s story that Merlin Pryce, a research assistant at the time, brought the samples of penicillin to the attention of Fleming. It should also not be forgotten that it was sirs Florey and Chain who developed the drug and made it available to hospital wards in time for WWII. Without their support, Altman’s discovery may have been lost along with many more lives. There are many ways to become involved in the invention of modern technology, and some of these opportunities are listed under jobs and scholarships on the STEMedia resource page . Although talent, perseverance, and the luck factor should certainly not be dismissed, the stories of Altman and Fleming show how diverse personality and camaraderie are easy solutions to improve chances of success.
Many new businesses are direct applications of research by STEM majors. Founder’s Collective, a venture capital fund, aims to invest in companies that are ‘weird and wonderful.’ “Often, we’re as surprised as anyone about which of their companies take off,” says the investment firm. They suggest that young entrepreneurs follow their interests with a group of friends to enjoy the journey. This is emboldening news from a company that makes their business out of predicting the success of startups.
Pursuing academic research and then finding a place for it in the market seems like a daunting challenge, but countless companies have shown it to be possible. It seems that no matter where STEM careers end up, it remains valuable to develop individual quirks and curiosities into full fledged expertise and personality. Advancements in scientific progress will require STEM majors who seek unique and valuable experiences, and a world that accepts our differences.