What it takes to make world-changing scientific discoveries

While advancements occur on a daily basis in science, real breakthroughs are uncommon. What does it take to make game-changing scientific discoveries? Some are the consequence of a fortunate accident paired with curiosity: scientists driving down one road discover a reason to deviate onto another, one they had not intended to travel – a route that may possibly lead nowhere.

Other significant discoveries have occurred as a result of scientists pursuing a very specific dream. They have an idea that they can't stop thinking about one day, usually early in their career. They think it's insane, but is it truly impossible? They consult with respected peers, who frequently remind them of all the reasons their proposal can fail and the potential consequences for their career. It's a sobering lesson, but the concept will endure. As a result, they search for financial assistance and colleagues prepared to take the risk of driving down that road with them — a route that may or may not lead somewhere. However, occasionally, the path leads to big advances such as penicillin and mRNA vaccines.

Breakthroughs resulting from fortunate coincidences and inquisitiveness

In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming was growing bacteria in a laboratory dish at St. Mary's Hospital in London. Fleming was not following a scientific dream. He was a microbiologist who was only carrying out his duties.

Then he discovered something strange: a different type of microbe, a fungus, had traveled through the air and landed on the laboratory dish, where it began to develop and spread. Fleming quickly saw that the fungus was destroying the bacterium. He surmised that it was producing a chemical that was capable of killing the germs. Due to the fungus's scientific name, Penicillium Rubens, he coined the term "penicillin" for the chemical the fungus produced.

When Fleming released a paper describing his discovery, little interest was generated. It would be another decade before other scientists attempted to mass-produce penicillin in order to determine whether it might be used to cure bacterial illnesses and save lives. We are all aware of how that transpired.

Unlike many other scientific discoveries, Fleming's scientific breakthrough was not the result of a eureka moment. A more likely scenario is that he noticed something and said, "That's weird," which prompted him to begin investigating further.

Breakthroughs in the pursuit of a desire as a result of tenacity and resilience

The story of mRNA vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna for COVID-19, is quite different from that of penicillin. For more than three decades, a tiny group of scientists felt that the mRNA vaccine would offer significant advantages over conventional vaccinations – if only a few hurdles could be overcome. While many of these scientists gave up when confronted with such challenges, a few persisted and eventually succeeded. (In a recent blog post, I discussed what mRNA vaccines are, how they operate, and how challenges were overcome.)

Dr. Katalin Karikó, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the faculty in the early 1990s with the goal of developing an mRNA vaccine. She applied for funds to support her study but was repeatedly denied: evaluators argued that it was so improbable that she or anyone else could overcome the difficulties that funding her research would be a waste of money. Her institution agreed to continue funding her work on the condition that she accept a demotion and a wage decrease. She embraced both and followed her desire tenaciously.

One significant impediment to mRNA vaccines captivated her: the immune system's violent response when it encounters mRNA from a virus. Ten years of tenacious labor enabled Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman to identify a minor modification in mRNA that avoided that powerful immune response — a critical step toward the development of all mRNA vaccines. Without this, there would be no mRNA COVID vaccinations available today.

Pfizer/COVID BioNTech's vaccination was developed by Turkish immigrants to Germany who met, fell in love with, and married each other, Uğur Şahin and Őzlem Turëci. They met while working on the mRNA vaccine. According to The Wall Street Journal, they took a lunch break in 2002, married, and then returned to their laboratory in the afternoon to complete an experiment — just one of many conducted over 30 years. Each experiment advanced them closer to their ultimate goal until, in 2020, they achieved it: their mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 was shown to be extremely safe and efficacious.

They persevere in the pursuit of their dreams.

Whichever road scientists take to make life-changing discoveries, they frequently face disinterest, as Fleming did, or repeated skepticism, mockery, and rejection, like Karikó, Weissman, Şahin, and Turëci did. Only by their persistence were these scientists able to bring their visions to life. They have been rewarded with fame and fortune, but also with something far more valuable: the knowledge that hundreds of millions of people around the world have never been sick and millions have never died before their time as a result of their work.

Of course, for many scientists, an obsessive pursuit of an unlikely dream does not pay off. While their theories are fairly brilliant, they are ultimately proven incorrect: nature does not behave in the way they predicted. Finally, their lovely hypothesis is assassinated by a vicious band of facts.

Other scientific dreamers eventually demonstrate that they were on the correct track all along and would have accomplished their goal – if only they had conducted the experiment differently, if only they had persisted longer, or if only their funding had not gone out. As a result, neither they nor the rest of us benefited from what might have been — until years later, when their work was rediscovered by other scientists.

At the end of the day, scientific breakthroughs are only feasible if a society is ready to invest in dreamers while acknowledging that not all investments will result in significant breakthroughs. However, investments that result in breakthroughs generate a significantly bigger economic return than the investment — in addition to reducing pain and death and altering the world.

Do you know that you can also be a part of the Covid-19 research? which can assist the researchers to keep track of the symptoms and hot spots all across the United States. All you need to do is download the COVID Symptom Study app. For more information, please go here.

Join Covid-19 researchers


No content on this site, regardless of date, should be used to replace direct medical advice from your doctor or another trained practitioner.