On Serendipity in Research

Albatross engraving

Serendipity is like the crack cocaine of research. It gives you a lasting high.

I remember well the first time I came to understand the term. It was 25 years ago. I was in graduate school, studying journalism at the University of Missouri. For a science writing class I had arranged to interview several researchers on campus who were studying different aspects of cystic fibrosis. It’s an insidious disease in which a faulty gene and its protein product cause the body to produce a tick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and impedes proper digestion. A pediatrician was working to improve clinical observations; a pair of biochemists hoped to develop a reliable diagnostic test for the disease; another researcher was studying glandular secretions in a rat model.

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