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Serendipity Can Be Crucial to Professional Success, Chemist Luis Echegoyen Tells SACNAS

Luis Echegoyen has held influential positions at major universities and the National Science Foundation, published extensively, and won national and international recognition for his work. But in a career that spans nearly 40 years, there has been one surprisingly consistent theme: serendipity.

When Echegoyen spoke to a small group of 30 scientists and engineers recently at AAAS, it was plain that he did not see serendipity as something light and whimsical. And he clearly wasn’t talking about blind luck. Instead, he was talking about how scientists can structure their careers—and their lives—so that good but unplanned opportunities are more likely to emerge.

“Serendipity is not strange,” he said. “It’s the norm. It’s like mutations—it’s happening all the time…Of course you can’t go through life thinking, ‘Maybe something good will happen tomorrow.’ You should have some kind of a plan.

“[But] be aware of the limits of planning—I can’t stress that enough. The more you connect, the more people you know, and the more diverse their backgrounds are, the better chance you have of something you did not anticipate happening.”

Echegoyen spoke at the 3rd annual Summer Leadership Institute of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), co-organized by AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology and held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The institute offers unparalleled training for underrepresented minority scientists interested in advancing their leadership skills. It involves an intensive five-day course in which participants engage in a comprehensive leadership curriculum featuring small group exercises, keynote speakers, focused mentor interactions, networking opportunities, extensive community-building, and the creation of an individual leadership development plan.

Luis Echegoyen | Photograph by Michael J. Colella,© AAAS

Echegoyen holds the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry at the University of Texas, El Paso. He served from 2006 to 2010 as director of the Division of Chemistry at the National Science Foundation, and before that was chairman of the chemistry department at Clemson University from 2002 to 2006. He was a professor at the University of Miami from 1983 to 2002, and earlier served on the faculty at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Río Piedras.

Physicist Yvonne W. Rodríguez, director of programs for SACNAS, called Echegoyen “somebody who has done it all.” Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, urged the young scientists to learn from his story and the stories of other speakers at the leadership institute.

“I hope you will take this time to learn about people’s odysseys and hear their life stories, and understand that however you have come to this particular space, everything that happens to you is an asset that you can now use going forward,” Malcom said in introducing his talk. “Sometimes those aren’t necessarily good things, but even the bad things have a lot to teach us. They can teach us patience. They can teach us humility. They can teach us resilience.”

Serendipity is, of course, a prominent force in science history. It played a famous role in Newton’s sudden insights on gravity—remember the falling apple?—and in the discoveries of penicillin and, more recently, the hollow carbon molecules known as fullerenes. But in Echegoyen’s view, it should play a role in career development, too.

As he told it on 27 July, his own life since childhood has been carried along on the tides of serendipity. He was born in Cuba, where his father was a famous comedian; at the age of 9, his family bought round-trip tickets to Puerto Rico, but they never returned home.

“I was 9 years old—I had no control over what was going on,” he recalled. “This was completely serendipitous…This is what life deals to you. This is what you have to live. But then you make it the best you can.”

As he grew up, he wanted to be a chemist—that was the plan. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Puerto Rico, and took a postdoctoral position. He hadn’t decided whether to pursue a career in research and scholarship or in industry. “But it happened that Union Carbide was interviewing on campus,” he said. “They knocked on my door and said, ‘Are you interested in a job at Union Carbide?’ When they told me the salary, I said, ‘Sounds interesting.’”

Within a couple of years, he had an invitation to join the faculty at UPR. That set a pattern that would assert itself repeatedly as the years went by: Opportunities that he had not sought and did not expect emerged, often arriving through people he had met or worked with along the way. He followed them to Miami, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Texas, with sabbaticals in France and Switzerland.

“Why am I getting all of these phone calls?” he asked. “Because obviously I’m relating to the right people. And that’s what really shaped my future. It wasn’t just because they knew me through a paper or something. This is a combination of a little bit of planning, a lot of serendipity, some more planning, and more serendipity. I really think that’s how you should play your life.”

Serendipity can be an esoteric thing, hard to pin down. And yet, Echegoyen is convinced that a conducive environment—he calls it “strategic serendipity”—can be cultivated in one’s life. Some personal attributes are important: an appetite for new ideas, and sufficient confidence to operate effectively in an uncertain and ever-changing environment.

Relating to the right people—in Echegoyen’s view, that’s crucial. Again, though, that’s not necessarily what it seems. It doesn’t mean knowing and cultivating powerful people, or people on the career ladder above you. (His introduction to the University of Miami came from a neighbor.) But it does mean building and maintaining healthy networks.

“Use every possible social connectivity method that you can find,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m nearly overwhelmed every time LinkedIn or Facebook tell me I have someone trying to be my friend…But especially for the younger folks, the more you’re willing to do this, the greater the chance of something happening later on via connectivities that are impossible to predict right now. You just need to do it, and these things will happen.”

Diversity within those networks is another critical factor. “Diversity of thought and diversity of people are very important,” he told the young scientists at the institute. If you can “generate a very rich environment…you can generate things that are going to happen. You know accidents will happen, you just don’t know what accident.”

But serendipity does not replace hard work. In fact, Echegoyen emphasized that creating strategic serendipity requires exceptional commitment. It takes energy and dedication to build the expertise that will recognize an insight or an opportunity. Consider Isaac Newton: If he hadn’t done deep work in science and mathematics, would he have recognized the significance of the falling apple?

Today, at the University of Texas, Echegoyen is focused again on the lab. At an age where others might begin to coast, he is pursuing high-impact research that, if successful, could define his career. At the same time, he remains flexible and open to new experiences.

It is a road followed not just by great scientists, he said, but also by the greatest jazz musicians. “Read about jazz players,” he urged the young researchers. “They are masters of improvisation, and they make serendipity happen. Make maximum use of what you have, of every note you play.”


Learn more about the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and its Summer Leadership Institute